August 24, 2010
Russian immigrants join "fun" Long Island festival aimed at solidifying Jewish roots
Mingling at conference Photo: Roman Kogan/David Carp
NEW YORK – Some 800 Jewish immigrants attended a Limmud-Former Soviet Union (FSU) conference in New York this week, in an effort to perserve their Russian language skills while getting in touch with their Jewish roots.
One of the participants at the event was Dr. Zvia Valdan, daughter of President Shimon Peres. She told the audience about time spent at her grandmother's home, where Hebrew books were always on display but Russian literature remained dominant.
Participants in the conference said they were attending because they feel Judaism is scarce in their lives, often because they find synagogues threatening and overpriced, and fear religious oppression.
The guest list included Jewish astronaut Garrett Reisman, whose Russian has vastly improved since a mission to the space station, Israeli-born professional boxer Yuri Foreman, and journalist Yaron Dekel.
Subjects varied, with classes on Nobel Prize winner Shmuel Yosef Agnon, passion in the Talmud, clashes between halacha and modern medicine, Iran, and Israel-US relations. Israeli singer Marina Maximilian Blumin performed at the event, as well as jazz artist Leonid Ptashka. However, the subject of immigration to Israel remained taboo.
The conference included expert panels, lectures, classes, and performances related to Judaism and Israel, in English and Russian. The organizers called it "a supermarket of ideas", and insisted it was entirely devoid of religious oppression.
Cyril, 37, who immigrated to Israel at age 18 and moved to the US five years later, came to the conference hoping to study Torah and Jewish history.
"It's important for me to continue speaking Russian, although I have no desire to go back to Russia," he said at the event, held at a synagogue located in one of Long Island's most affluent neghborhoods.
"I know people who regret not doing the same, because now they can no longer read Russian literature," he said.
Enter Chaim Chesler, formerly a Jewish Agency treasurer and the founder of Limmud-FSU, rooted in the international Limmud movement (which receives much of its funding from chairman of BHB Holdings Matthew Bronfman.)
'Rabbi to the stars'
"We see three demographic phenomena in New York," Rabbi Marc Schneier, who helped host the event, told Ynet. "For the first time there are less than a million Jews in the city, the percentage of Orthodox Jews has risen to 22%, and one of every four Jews in the city speaks Russian."
Schneier, something of a guru to the top echelons of East Coast Jewry and "rabbi to the stars"- as he was dubbed by the New York Daily News - is focusing on wooing the Russian community. In order to do that, he makes Judaism appear more appealing, and above all, refrains from preaching.
Indeed, Schneier may be perfect for this job. Although Orthodox, many of the members of his congregation arrive at the synagogue wearing flip-flops, or drive there on Saturdays. A recent Jewish film festival under his supervision showcased 'Ajami', a controversial film on Arabs living in a crime-ridden neighborhood of Jaffa by the same name.
Just a day ahead of the conference, Schneier made headlines when he was caught cheating on his fourth wife, after being photographed kissing a younger woman on a trip to Israel .
'People only see Muslim extremism'
And as if this weren't controversial enough, the rabbi also espouses interfaith cooperation. "People bury their heads in the sand and only see the extremism in Islam," he says.
"They don't understand that (Muslims) also have oral law. People could say that we're bloodthirsty too because of the notion of'eye for an eye,'" he says.
A Limmud conference in Jerusalem a few weeks ago concluded that even in Israel, religious institutions were failing to incorporate eastern European immigrants and their children into religion.
"Where I live there is no community activity," says Lital, a 31-year old New Yorker who heard about the conference through friends on Facebook. She is the founder of a group on the social networking site called simply "Russian Jews."
Lital said she was somewhat disappointed at the festival, but enjoyed the Russian dance that took place at its conclusion.
Indeed, it made Judaism appear "fun," as the organizers hoped. The question remained, however, whether a little Jewish fun would be sufficient for building long-lasting roots.