(Not quite) back in the USSR

(Not quite) back in the USSR

Russian-American Jews go to Princeton for Limmud FSU

Olga Segal, shown here with her husband, Eric, and their four children, Akiva, Sima Miriam, Binyamin, and Natan Dov, appreciates the chance to spend time with other Russian-born Jews. Courtesy Olga Segal

Last weekend, some 800 Russian-American Jews from across the country came together in Princeton for a conference of Jewish learning that spoke their language.

“There were many different people giving lectures in Russian and English,” said Oleg Shalumov of Teaneck, who attended the Limmud FSU conference. “I went to the Shabbaton last year and was really looking forward to this. The good thing about it is that there are so many different topics – not just religious or specifically Russian. There’s more variety. You can choose the topic you’re interested in.”

Shalumov, who was joined at the gathering by his wife, Milana, and sons Binyamin and Joshua, said the event was both “interesting and exciting.

“I saw many of the people I met there last year,” he noted, adding that the conference featured not only lectures but round-table discussions and cultural events in Russian, English, and some Hebrew.

“You weren’t forced to go to anything,” he said. “It was very pleasant and special to feel that you’re not the only Russian Jewish person trying to lead an American life and keep tradition, finding your way through the culture. You see you’re not alone, that many others are doing the same thing. We all come together. It’s a good feeling.”

“We davened with the Torah. It was kosher and religious-friendly,” Shalumov continued. “That’s another reason we love this. We keep kosher and try not to do things on Shabbat.”

He said that there aren’t many activities for Russian-speaking Jews in Teaneck, but he has made friends with other local Jews from the former Soviet Union. “We communicate on a daily basis,” he said.

One of those friends is Olga Segal, who reported the conference “was wonderful, very busy, very eventful.”

Segal – there for the second time with her husband and four children, ranging in age from 1 to 7 – said she went to seven lectures. Though she wished she could have gone to more, “they only had camp for ages 3 and up.”

Segal said that she served as a volunteer this year, working with the children’s program and handing out questionnaires.

“I loved it,” she said, noting that she attended classes in both Russian and English.

Segal came to the United States from Russia when she was 15 and went to high school here. She speaks to her children only in Russian, because “Russian culture is very important.” To ensure that they will be bilingual, she takes them to a Russian school in Fair Lawn and returns to that town when she needs “Russian products.”

Among her favorite presentations, she said, was one on “Kosher Hate” by Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, the television personality who ran for Senate and writes a column for this newspaper. She also went to a noteworthy session on sex trafficking. She particularly enjoyed a one-man show presented by theater artist Jon Adam Ross.

“I love the fact that in one weekend we can have so many different educational opportunities and workshops like sculpture and sushi-making,” she said. “It’s also a wonderful social environment with great activities for the kids.

“I couldn’t do this on my own,” she continued. “I would have to leave my family and travel somewhere just for one lecture. Here I have it all. So many choices in one spot!”

Segal said she enjoyed seeing people from different walks of life. Because she has little regular exposure to young Russian Jews, for example, “I don’t know where they stand. This is the one time I get to see them.”

According to Limmud, about 750,000 to 1 million Russian-American Jews live in the United States. Half of them are in New York and New Jersey.

The conference – including dozens of interactive sessions on Israel and global politics, philosophy, art, Jewish traditions, literature, and business – was organized and run entirely by volunteers.

Presenters included journalists, educators, politicians, and communal leaders as well as musicians, artists, and writers. David Brinn, managing editor of the Jerusalem Post; David Fishman, professor of Jewish history at the Jewish Theological Seminary; Irwin Cotler, a member of the Canadian Parliament; and Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, were among the speakers.

The Israeli government also sent representatives. Among them was Ido Aharoni, Consul General of Israel in New York, who spoke about the Arab Spring and President Obama’s then-upcoming trip to Israel.

Shalumov said his favorite session was a lecture by Rabbi Aryeh Katzin, dean of the Sinai Academy, who spoke about Passover. The school, in the Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn, primarily serves the children of immigrants from the former Soviet Union.

The class – “From Slavery to Freedom: Making Your Seder Remarkable” – “was more of a conversation than a lecture, he said. “More one on one.

“He was sitting among us. In between [Chazzan Yakov Barr] would play guitar and sing a song related to what we were talking about. It created a very warm atmosphere. It calmed you down and grabbed your interest.”

Shalumov, who has lived in Teaneck for three years and originally is from the eastern part of Azerbaijan, said that he had some exposure to Jewish life during his childhood. This came primarily from his grandmother, who lived in Kuba, “a small ghetto of Caucasian Jews.

“We didn’t really have much access” to things Jewish, he said. “I would go to Kuba for the summer when I was 7 or 8, and my grandmother would tell me to shower on Friday night and dress nicely, but she never told me why.”

He thinks now that was because if he tried to explain this behavior in his own hometown, “they wouldn’t know how to react. It confused me,” he said, “but now I understand.”

Shalumov, who came to Teaneck from Brooklyn – which has a thriving Russian-Jewish culture – said “we don’t have Russian-speaking rabbis who understand us” in Teaneck, and so the conference filled a need. “Even when we were speaking English it was easier,” he said. “We had the same background and culture.”

Limmud, an international educational movement, began in Britain some 32 years ago. Limmud FSU was founded six years ago by Chaim Chesler, a former head of the Jewish Agency for Israel’s delegation in the FSU, and Sandra Cahn, a New York philanthropist.

At the Princeton conference, participants took part in the worldwide commemoration of the 25th anniversary of the Freedom 25 Sunday Rally in Washington, D.C, paying tribute to the Soviet Jewry movement. Awards were given to Malcolm Hoenlein, Irwin Cotler, Prisoner of Zion Yuli Kosharovsky, and – accepting on behalf of UJA-Federation – the federation’s president, Jerry Levin. Each of them played a major role in the struggle.

In addition, the group sponsored a special commemoration ceremony honoring New York City’s mayor, Ed Koch, who died recently.

“Koch dedicated much of his life to serving the Jewish community and played a significant role in the struggle for Soviet Jewry in the late 1980s, using his political stature to lobby for their freedom and also assisting thousands of Russian immigrants to settle in the New York area,” Limmud FSU’s founder, Chaim Chesler, said.

Matthew Bronfman, chairman of the International Committee of Limmud FSU, who also delivered a session at the conference, said that “Limmud FSU has revolutionized pluralistic Jewish engagement of Russian-speaking Jews and is making a great impact in strengthening Jewish identity through a unique educational experience of Jewish history and culture.” He noted that the initiative “also helps to strengthen Jewish communal life among Russian-American Jews by inspiring our participants to be more active in their communities through volunteering.”

For more information about Limmud FSU, email info@limmudfsuus.org.

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