In Ukraine, Jews connect with ‘kosher-style’ dose of Judaism

Pluralistic learning conference Limmud brings 700 Russian speakers to Lviv for a fortifying dollop of spirituality and culture, but goes easy on Israel and religion

Jessica Steinberg, The Times of Israel's culture and lifestyles editor, covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center

Andrey Makarevich plays some Yiddishe jazz at the closing event of Limmud FSU Lviv, on Saturday night (Courtesy Boris Bukhman)
Andrey Makarevich plays some Yiddishe jazz at the closing event of Limmud FSU Lviv, on Saturday night (Courtesy Boris Bukhman)

LVIV, Ukraine — It can be tough to figure out Russian Jewry. And it turns out that Limmud FSU, the pluralistic Jewish learning conference which gathered last week in Lviv, Ukraine, doesn’t try to clarify things.

It doesn’t need to.

The three-day convention — “we’re not a festival, we’re here to learn,” said Chaim Chesler, the former Jewish Agency treasurer who founded the conference — brought together 700 Russian-speaking Jews in Lviv, Ukraine’s third-largest city, at the end of last week.

It was the second time that Limmud FSU was in Lviv, having taken place in various locations throughout the former Soviet Union as well as Israel, North America and Australia, several times a year. Funded by North American philanthropists like Matthew Bronfman, Ron Lauder and Aaron Frenkel, it’s an offshoot of Limmud UK, the United Kingdom-based, volunteer-run Jewish learning experience that was begun 30 years ago.

“Russians are very proud people,” Chesler said. “They don’t like to be underestimated.”

It’s true that Russian-speaking Jews and other Jews may look at Judaism differently. It’s not just about the tendency to reach for vodka versus single malt whisky, or beef borscht served with a dollop of sour cream on top.

Dr. Yoel Appel and Chaim Chesler leading a havdalah ceremony at Limmud FSU (Courtesy Boris Bukhman)
Dr. Yoel Rappel and Chaim Chesler leading a havdalah ceremony at Limmud FSU (Courtesy Boris Bukhman)

It’s an approach born of all those years living behind the Iron Curtain, when the practice of Judaism was a hidden custom for some or completely ignored, out of necessity, for many others.

“It’s not ‘Let my people go!’ it’s ‘Let my people know!’” joked Chesler.

And while Chesler — who is Israeli and spent several years heading the Jewish Agency delegation in the FSU — may draw from his own cache of Israeli lecturers and his Russian-speaking Israeli staff, he’s careful not to over-emphasize anything Israeli because “Russians can’t stand that,” he said.

“They don’t like everything to be all about Israel,” he said, a leftover from the heavy push for Russian aliyah in the early 1990s. “Or to be heavy-handed on the Judaism.”

It was at the request of Lviv’s Mayor Andrii Sadovyi, the leader of the country’s Self Reliance political party, that Limmud returned to his city for the second year in a row.

“He likes having us here,” said Chesler.

A view of the Lvov Ghetto on the outskirts of the city (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)
A view of the Lvov Ghetto on the outskirts of the city (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

This university town, listed on the UNESCO World Heritage List for its original, cobblestoned streets and 15th century architecture, was home to 200,000 Jews before World War II. By the end of the war, the community had been decimated with only several hundred Jews left, and just two of the 45 synagogues.

The city has changed tremendously since the end of the war, said Dr. Yoel Rappel, an Israeli expert in Eastern European Jewry who taught at Limmud FSU in Lviv. “But the Jewish community hasn’t changed, there just isn’t much of one,” he said, pointing to the two synagogues each of which barely draws a minyan of ten men for Shabbat morning services.

There are now approximately 3,000 Jews in the city, estimated Rappel, and most are uninvolved in the Jewish community.

There are many touches of Jewish life around the ctiy, like several Jewish-themed restaurants that serve traditional albeit nonkosher Jewish food; a local, one-room Jewish museum and LvivKlezFest, an annual festival of Jewish music, song and dance.

Only about 100 locals attended Limmud FSU, guessed Chesler.

But it’s the concept that’s important, he said. It’s vital to remember that Judaism was a living, breathing entity in Lviv at one time.

“Lviv is an important Jewish city,” echoed Rappel. “Limmud offers them a capsule of Judaism that tells why it’s good to be a Jew.”

It’s true. Limmud FSU can feel secular in certain ways, but its sense of Jewishness persists.

In Lviv, where there is no kosher hotel or easily koshered facility large enough for the crowd, the food served at Limmud was not kosher but kosher style, which sometimes meant sausages and chicken legs for breakfast (along with eggs, toast and a salad bar), but no butter, milk or cheese.

(There was a separate kosher table for those who signed up in advance, with strictly kosher food prepared by a local rabbi’s wife.)

At the Reform Friday night service, there were two rabbis, one Conservative and one Reform, both Russian, a Reform rabbinical student playing the guitar and a room full of people singing a medley of Friday night tunes. There was no communal blessing over the wine or the challah breads placed on each table in the dining room.

There's still a mix of ages at Limmud FSU, but the population is older than it used to be (Courtesy Boris Bukhman)
There’s still a mix of ages at Limmud FSU, but the population is older than it used to be (Courtesy Boris Bukhman)

On Shabbat morning, only a handful of attendees went to the two synagogues still operating in Lviv, but at least a hundred were on hand for havdalah in the hotel lobby on Saturday night, closing out the Sabbath with a resounding round of end-of-Sabbath songs, sung in Hebrew, Russian and English.

Shavua tov, harna tyzhden, good week, good week,” they sang, swaying in circles, arms thrown over one another’s shoulders.

Like at any Limmud FSU, there’s always a solid dose of what Chesler calls Russian pride, which means Russian songs, Russian entertainers and Russian lecturers for the 150-session program. He said he finds ways to balance the natural Russian inclination against organized religion as well as the knee-jerk tendency to lean politically right.

This year, Limmud FSU marked the 20th anniversary of Yitzhak Rabin’s death in the hometown of his father, Nehemia Rubitzov, by bringing Eitan Haber, Rabin’s chief of staff and aide during the Oslo Accords. Chesler also invited David Grinberg, son of Israeli poet Uri Zvi Greenberg a noted militant Zionist who grew up in Lviv in a house that still stands in the Old City.

Some of the other Limmud FSU speakers in Lviv included poet Igor Irten’yev, historian Igor Schcupak, Yiddish scholar Velvel Chernin and academic Zeev Khanin, currently the chief scientist of Israel’s Immigration and Absorption Ministry.

Limmud FSU attendees like their lectures, and are serious about attending them (Courtesy Boris Bukhman)
Limmud FSU attendees at a lecture (Courtesy Boris Bukhman)

The final night of Limmud included a performance by Russian rocker Andrei Makarevich, who recently made headlines with his stance against Russian President Vladimir Putin, and received Israeli citizenship. He’s become a Limmud FSU regular with his more recent repertoire of jazzy Yiddish songs, played by his six-member band and sung mostly by three female singers.

Makarevich was popular with the Lviv audience, but in the US, said Chesler, he has to bring more youthful rockers in his attempt to pull the younger Russians into the Limmud FSU circle.

While the Limmud FSU gatherings in American cities often draw a younger crowd of twenty- and thirty-year-olds, Limmud FSU in Russia and Ukraine has gotten older in its nearly ten years of existence, said Chesler.

“It’s gotten older and the discussions have gotten deeper,” he said, concurring that the older crowd has someting to do with the cost as well. This last Limmud cost between 700 grivna ($31) and 2,000 grivna ($87) per hotel room per night, or 500 grivna ($22) without the hotel stay. Kids under the age of three were free, and under the age of 12 cost half the price of the conference fees.

According to the World Bank, Ukraine’s GDP per capita was $3,082.5 in 2014.

It’s a pretty expensive weekend for Ukrainians, remarked several attendees.

“I scrimp and save for this,” said Natasha, a participant from Moscow who teaches music and English. “But it’s my spiritual outlet.”

“Limmud is sayeret matkal,” said Chesler, referring to the Israeli army’s elite special forces unit. “We just do it and we get the numbers. It’s the only way of taking care of Russian-speaking Jewry.”

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