On the weekend of March 24-26, the Blue Mountain Village Conference Centre was a hub of activity, with groups of people bustling around, making their way to lectures and workshops while happily embracing new and familiar faces.
Russian, Hebrew, and English conversations filled the air with the sharing of stories and news. There was no shortage of political talk, friendly bickering and coffee. An undeniable energy had taken over the space, one that comes from the conference for Russian-speaking Jews known as Limmud FSU.
What started as a small convention in the United Kingdom 35 years ago has now grown internationally to 13 events in 10 different countries each year.
The founder of Limmud FSU, Chaim Chesler, said his vision for the conference mimics the personality of many Russian Jews.
“The model is very typical for Russian-origin Jews, because they are opinionated, they are stubborn, clever and sophisticated, and they want to be independent from the establishment,” he said.
Chesler describes the structure of Limmud FSU as being “from the bottom up” – meaning that everything that goes into the weekend is organized by those attending. This ranges from the development of the program to the volunteers who dedicate their time to make sure the event reaches its highest potential.
A total of 700 people attended the event throughout the weekend, the highest number in the four years since Limmud was launched in Toronto.
The program featured many noteworthy lecturers, including political scientist Ariel Cohen, former Canadian television host Adrienne Gold, and Victor Shenderovich, a well-known Russian journalist and writer. Discussion topics ranged from politics to spirituality to cooking tutorials.
“It gives them the sense of togetherness… It gives them the sense they control their own destiny and it lets them exercise [their] Judaism,” Chesler said of conference participants.
Israel’s consul general in Toronto, Galit Baram, also made an appearance.
“It’s heartwarming to see so many motivated young Russian-speaking Jews getting together in the framework of this major Jewish event in the heart of Canada and to witness the inspiring work being done,” Baram told Limmud participants.
She added that the Israeli government “will do everything in our power to help [the event] continue to grow and flourish.”
This year, Limmud FSU Toronto honoured three prominent Jews who died over the past year: Canadian musician and poet Leonard Cohen, Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel and former Israeli president Shimon Peres. An exhibition featuring the three men was set up in the main lobby.
Limmud FSU had its first Toronto weekend in 2014 and has grown in numbers each year since then.
Russian Jews from all over Canada “come specifically for this event,” said Mila Voihanski, country director for Limmud FSU.
The event has a core group of eight volunteers who are responsible for the Limmud long-term.
“Limmud is not just a conference, it’s a journey. The reason we say it’s a journey is because the whole process involves a lot of people, and people become involved not only in Limmud, but they become involved in various programs in Jewish community and I think that’s the beauty of it,” Voihanski said.
She added that Limmud FSU is pluralistic and recognizes all kinds of Jewish expression, from religious to secular. The event offers kosher food and Shabbat observance while also hosting more secular programs and sessions on a variety of topics related to Jews and Judaism.
Conference sponsors included UJA Federation of Toronto, Genesis Philanthropy Group and Israel Bonds Canada, as well as Harry Rosenbaum, Shoel Silver, Julia Koschitzky, and Warren Kimel.