Meeting of the minds at Limmud FSU event
As a large crowd celebrated Havdalah by dancing around a fire pit in the courtyard of the Westin Pasadena hotel, Hollywood animator and director Saul Blinkoff said he was inspired by the diversity of attendees at the Jan. 29-31 Limmud FSU West Coast, a learning conference organized by Limmud FSU, a nonprofit that sets up Jewish conferences across the former Soviet Union and elsewhere. This was the first of its kind on the West Coast.
“I love anything that unifies Jews,” Blinkoff said, as his 3-year-old daughter, Naomi, sat on his shoulders so she could see the sea of folks rejoicing at the conclusion of Shabbat. “Anytime you can meet a colorful tapestry of Jewish people, it attracts me.”
Blinkoff, who is not Russian, had a busy weekend at the gathering for the area’s large Russian-speaking community, leading two of the more than 100 sessions that made up the three-day event. On Jan. 29, he offered an oral memoir about professional adversity, and on Jan. 31, he led a drawing class for children.
The sold-out weekend drew 700 attendees, including 100 from the San Francisco area, according to the estimate by Jenny Gitkis Vainstein, a former Jewish Agency for Israel Los Angeles emissary to the Russian community and a presenter at the conference.
Among the highlights was a lecture by Jewish Agency for Israel Chairman and former Soviet refusenik Natan Sharansky regarding Israel and the Arab Spring. There was a panel, “Combating the BDS [Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions] Movement,” featuring Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles President Jay Sanderson, Hillel CEO and President Eric Fingerhut, Israel security expert Uzi Dayan and Knesset members Nachman Shai and Sharren Haskel. Even hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons made an appearance.
On Saturday morning, Sharansky discussed the misguided passion of anti-Israel activists. “The minute you bring in any logical arguments, they have nothing to say,” he said, addressing a crowd of more than 130 people in conversation with JTA Managing Editor Gabrielle Birkner. “The real aim of them is the destruction of the State of Israel.”
Natan Sharansky, chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, spoke at the conference.
The Israel-based leader appeared again later in the day during “Combating the BDS Movement,” during which Fingerhut said JStreet, a pro-Israel organization operating on the political left, has helped fight BDS, with its members speaking out against it on college campuses.
“JStreet has been an essential part of the coalition in defeating BDS” on college campuses, Fingerhut said.
Sanderson said American Jewry does not want Israel’s help on the issue of BDS.
“I don’t know if the government of Israel understands the nuances of this,” Sanderson said, speaking to Haskel, a 31-year-old, Converse-wearing Canadian native who is a member of the Likud party.
The lecture with Simmons and Rabbi Marc Schneier, his colleague at the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, took on a somewhat different tone, with Simmons discussing things such as American politics (he supports Bernie Sanders) and the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences (it may be a “boys’ club” but not racist).
Hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons and Rabbi Marc Schneier appeared together to discuss Muslim-Jewish relations.
As for Donald Trump, the Republican presidential candidate who crosses over from entertainment to politics, well …
“His reality show [“The Apprentice”] was good, but this is better,” Simmons said.
Illustrative of how Jews and Blacks need to continue to dialogue with one another about their respective cultures, Simmons retold a comedic exchange between Schneier and himself about rapper Ludacris.
“I wanted to bring a rapper to Israel, and I said, ‘Ludacris.’ And he said, ‘Why is it ludicrous? Why can’t we bring a rapper to Israel?’ ”
Schneier then chimed in a joke about another rapper, over the laughter of the audience: “Kanye West, Kanye East.”
The learning continued Sunday morning with Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple talking about “Relationships and Religion,” and David Suissa, president of TRIBE Media Corp., the parent of the Jewish Journal, discussing “The Incredible Love Affair Between Jews and America.” Closing ceremonies featured an unannounced appearance by actor Ed Asner, 86, who said he was raised in a religious family but today identifies as a cultural Jew.
Limmud FSU is an all-volunteer event, funded by philanthropists and organizations such as The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. Originating in the United Kingdom in 1980, Limmud conferences are held throughout the world. (Limmud is the Hebrew word for “learning.”) The event marked 10 years since Limmud FSU kicked off in Russia, and it was attended by Limmud FSU co-founders Chaim Chesler and Sandra Cahn.
Michael Kravchenko, an aerospace materials engineer from Los Angeles, spoke to the Journal after the “Combating the BDS Movement” session. “There were a lot of executive people, a lot of strong people there. I wanted to hear it. I enjoyed it,” he said.
Kravchenko said he had to stay overnight at the Hilton Pasadena hotel because all the rooms at the Westin Pasadena had been booked by the time he registered for the event.
Rada Konvisser, who attended with her daughter Julia Trakhtenberg and who occasionally attends Chabad of Mt. Olympus, said she was excited about the wide variety of content at the conference. She was particularly enthusiastic about hearing Sharansky.
“I came to listen to Sharansky. I never got a chance to personally see him or hear him speak [before],” she said.
Participants came from across California and out of state. Bay Area community members traveled to the conference on two chartered buses. Alla Dadiomov, a software engineer from Northern California, attended with her two teenage children, Rachel and David, and said that everything about the event was top-notch.
“Of all the Limmuds we’ve been to, this was by far the most organized and [had] the high[est] level of representatives we have seen,” Dadiomov said on Saturday night, after a gala honoring the likes of philanthropist and Limmud FSU supporter Matthew Bronfman and featuring a concert by Andrey Makarevich.
Networking was a big part of the conference. Fingerhut said Limmud FSU is an opportunity to meet with parents, college students, board members and others. The Hillel leader advised anyone trying to navigate the scene to remain calm and enjoy it.
“I would do what I do — I would dabble in everything,” he said. “Go listen and learn.”