For anniversary, Limmud FSU finds a host on the West Coast


Limmud FSU — a nonprofit that sets up Jewish learning conferences across the former Soviet Union — is coming to the West Coast later this month for the first time to offer a blend of study sessions, live music and worship for the area’s large Russian-speaking community. 

Sasha Zlobina, 29, assistant director of the Russian-Jewish community at The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and one of dozens of young volunteers who are helping organize the event, described it as “a convening, a happening, an experience for Russian-speaking Jews that will bring them all together and make them feel and understand the word ‘community’ and understand the Russian-Jewish cultural experience.”

The conference (westcoast.limmudfsuus.org) is taking place at the Westin Pasadena from Jan. 29-31, has already sold out and will draw 550 people, Zlobina said. However, there is a waiting list.

This marks the 10th anniversary of Limmud FSU, which kicked off near Moscow in 2006 and has since spread across the globe with events in Russia, Israel, Canada and the United States.

“We do Limmuds wherever there are Russian-speaking Jews,” Limmud FSU co-founder Sandra Cahn, a New York-based philanthropist, said in an interview. 

Limmud means “learning” in Hebrew, and there will be more than 60 sessions at the local event, including a Q-and-A led by Jerusalem Post Editor-in-Chief Steve Linde featuring Natan Sharansky, the refusenik who now chairs the Jewish Agency for Israel, and former L.A. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, who was a leader in the Soviet Jewry movement in the 1990s. Pro-Israel actor Jon Voight is scheduled to be there, as are Israeli boxer Yuri Foreman, a recently ordained rabbi, and Russian rock musician Andrey Makarevich.

There will be a discussion on “Relationships and Religion” with Sinai Temple Rabbi David Wolpe and a dialogue on “Can Jews Be Good Lovers? Forging a Contemporary Jewish Sex Ethic” with Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller, director emeritus of Hillel at UCLA, and his wife, sex therapist Doreen Seidler-Feller.

Many of the volunteers who are organizing the conference in Pasadena — Limmud uses a grass-roots model — have familial backgrounds in the former Soviet Union or were born there themselves. That often comes with complex relationships with Judaism, with many identifying as Jewish but unreligious, while also being pro-Israel, according to volunteer organizer Polyna Berlin. 

“For me, [Limmud FSU] was a first brush with a tradition … [of] Shabbat celebration, Havdalah,” Berlin said. “I think for the people who may not be as religiously observant, I think even if it’s not a first introduction to these traditions, it is a welcome reminder for what Jewish life looks like.”

Berlin, like many of the other Limmud FSU West Coast organizing committee members, is a member of RuJuLA, a network of Russian-speaking young professionals in Los Angeles that receives support from The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, which provided $20,000 to support the conference, according to Zlobina. 

Overall, the event will cost approximately $200,000 to put on, half of which, according to Limmud FSU co-founder Chaim Chesler, will be covered by admission fees. General admission — which includes programming, kosher meals, entertainment and two nights at the hotel — is $300. The Jewish Agency for Israel is among the organizational sponsors.

The young adults driving the event are working in conjunction with Cahn; the Israel-based Chesler, who once led the Jewish Agency for Israel’s delegation in the former Soviet Union; and philanthropist Matthew Bronfman, chairman of the international steering committee of Limmud FSU, whose late father, Edgar Bronfman, played a role in liberating the Soviet Jewry population. 

Originating in the United Kingdom in 1980, Limmud conferences are held throughout the world. Limmud FSU is an independent nonprofit organization not connected with LimmudLA, which last held an event in Los Angeles in June 2014. Facing reduced financial support, it hasn’t held its signature conference, which draws hundreds of people, since 2012.

Zlobina said she expects the Pasadena conference — whose theme is Avant Garde — to be an opportunity for “meeting new friends, learning new things, networking, meeting speakers that are super interesting from the former Soviet Union.”

While organizers of the upcoming event expect nearly all of the attendees to be Russian-speaking, 70 percent of the programming will be in English, according to Berlin. The conference is designed for people ages 20 to 40 but all ages are welcome, she said.

Will a Limmud FSU on the West Coast be a success? There is certainly an audience for it, with the Jewish Agency for Israel estimating there are 80,000 Russian Jews in Los Angeles. 

Berlin said it was an experience at a Limmud FSU event in New York that convinced her it would be great to organize something similar for the West Coast.

“It started off as a small group of friends. We had come back from New York. We were on cloud nine. I organized a Shabbat at my house the next week. We said, ‘Let’s talk about it, let’s decompress.’ It was the Limmud FSU decompression Shabbat,” she said. “We decided we are going to do this — do Limmud, do Limmud FSU in Los Angeles. Why not?”

Her fiancé, Alex Grager, founder of RuJuLA and a co-chair of the Limmud FSU West Coast organizing committee, said he expects the conference to have something for both secular and religious attendees.

“You can be on the more religious side and go through Kabbalat Shabbat and be on the less religious side and hang out with friends and guitar and still be celebrating Shabbat,” he said, “which is really cool.”