ASHKELON, Israel — Rabbi Gregory Kotler, the first immigrant from the former Soviet Union to be ordained in Israel as a Reform rabbi, thinks many of his former countrymen are waking up to their Jewish roots
“During the beginning of the great wave of aliyah in the early 1990s, people were busy with surviving and making a living. But now people want to know about their Jewish identity and why we are living in Israel,” he said. “Maybe attending an event like this is the beginning of their way back to their Jewish roots.”
Kotler, who immigrated from Ukraine in 1991, was among those who organized the two-day Limmud gathering in Ashkelon. Similar Limmud gatherings take place all over the world every year, but this was the first major Limmud conference in Israel.
In recent years, Jewish text-study groups and other Jewish-related programs have sprung up for Russian speakers in Israel.
The interest in Judaism among Russian-speaking Israelis mirrors increased Jewish activity in the former Soviet Union by Jews who have remained in their home countries. The Limmud FSU gathering here, for example, followed a similar event held outside of Moscow last fall and is to be followed by another large Limmud gathering in Yalta next month.
Sandy Cahn, co-chair of Limmud-FSU, said the Limmud model is “a diverse, pluralistic environment where everyone can find their way.” It’s “a virtual supermarket for people to connect to their Jewish roots and their Jewish identity.”
Vadim Manov, 29, who came to Israel from Russia in 1994, said he only began to understand what it might mean to be Jewish when he was a 13-year-old attending a camp in Russia run by the Jewish Agency for Israel. Until then, all he knew was that he was Jewish and that an organization would send his family matzah for Passover.
Manov, who today works at the IT department of a major bank, says he feels like he’s still playing catch-up on his Jewish identity. That’s why he found it so beneficial to be able to choose between 150 lecture sessions during the two-day conference, he said. He attended sessions on Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, investing in Israel and strategic threats facing Israel.
He also led a workshop on black humor during the Holocaust, discussing how Israelis use black humor to get through some of the country’s darkest moments.
“I think that in the big picture, the fact that we have this country is not to be taken for granted,” he said. “It was created only with monumental efforts and such efforts are needed to ensure it exists in the future.”