Birobidzhan's main square.
In 1934, Joseph Stalin set up the Jewish Autonomous Region in Russia's Far East as an out-of-sight homeland for the country's Jews. While most of the Jewish population moved out of the region by the 1990s, this month over 250 young Jews will launch a temporary Jewish resurgence there when they gather for four days of learning, discussion and community.
From September 10-13, the first Limmud Far East will be held in the region's capital, Birobidzhan. Organized together with Limmud FSU and the staff and student leaders of nearby Hillel Khabarovsk, Limmud Far East is infusing Jewish life in city with a storied Jewish past but a diminished Jewish present.
Hillel Khabarovsk Director and Limmud Far East Chairperson Ilya Baru sees this event as a unique opportunity to bring sophisticated, high-quality informal Jewish learning to an area that rarely sees such opportunities.
"About half of the 30 presenters are coming in from outside the region, the first time many have been to the Russian Far East," Baru says. "This experience is creating a level of Jewish education in the Far East far beyond anything we've seen before, and Hillel feels fortunate to help make it possible."
Hillel Khabarovsk was opened in Russia's Far East in 1999 as part of Hillel's operation in the former Soviet Union. Far East Limmud is part of Limmud FSU, which brings together and empowers Jewish young adults who are reviving and revitalizing the Jewish community and culture in the countries of the former Soviet Union and other Russian-speaking communities. Chaim Chesler is its founder and Sandra Cahn, member of Hillel's Board of Directors, is a co-founder.
Conference presenters include artists, professors, rabbis, scholars, Hillel student leaders, local government officials, and philanthropists, all of whom are volunteering their time to lead over 70 planned sessions over the four days.
Baru believes that Hillel's partnership with Limmud has created a rich learning opportunity for its student activists: "Sixteen Hillel students are on Limmud Far East's organizing committee, which has given them first-hand experience in what it means to be a leader in the Jewish community. They have dedicated hundreds of hours building something great that they believe in. It's what Hillel and Limmud are about, and it's what we're here to celebrate."
The editor of the online publication eJewishPhilanthropy is blogging from the conference. In a recent post he wrote: "As my friend and colleague, Haviv Rettig Gur, at the Jerusalem Post told me: 'This is the Sharansky era, my friend. Jews who don't visit Siberia aren't real Jews!'
Update: JTA: Unique Challenges for Limmud Siberia