Beersheva, Israel - Even 20 years after the end of the Cold War and the establishment of diplomatic relations between Israel and Russia, the fourth Limmud FSU Festival held last week in this sprawling desert city was an often mind-bending coming together of worlds that not so long ago seemed quite irreconcilable.
On a stage in a glittering concert hall at the festival's gala opening, basking in waves of applause from an audience of 600 Russian-speaking Israelis, stood Alexei Leonov. Jaunty and still vigorous at 76, the former cosmonaut was forever immortalized when he opened the hatch of his space capsule in 1965 and became the first man to walk in space.
Placing his arms around two other veterans of space flight - Russia's Mikhail Koraiyenko and an American Jew, Garrett Reisman, who worked together and established a friendship over three months aboard the International Space Station in 2010 - and referring to them as "my sons," Leonov told the audience: "I was able to accomplish many 'firsts' in my life, including opening the hatch of a space-ship and looking at our planet from a very different perspective. Today, it seems quite normal that we should work together in space, but let us not forget that it took important political decisions [by leaders of the Soviet Union and the U.S.] to overcome the vast distance that once separated us.
"Together, we are better," Leonov continued. "We can accomplish so much more by working together."
The theme of togetherness, whether in space flight or in bringing the Russian, Jewish and Israeli components of the identity of the more than a million Russian-speaking Israeli Jews together in a seamless alignment, was the defining motif of the Limmud FSU Beersheva Festival. It was the fourth to be held in Israel and, by most accounts, the most successful. Limmud FSU is a recent and fast-growing addition to the international Limmud movement, which was created in Britain 30 years ago and has since spread to the U.S., continental Europe, other diaspora communities and to a lesser extent, Israel. The movement is based on the premise of Jews of all backgrounds joining together in conferences and festivals devoted to informal Jewish learning organized and generated by an enthusiastic cadre of volunteers.
Limmud FSU, which held its first conference in Moscow in 2006, has since held many events in cities and resorts across the FSU; two conferences in 2009 and 2010 in the Hamptons (involving mainly Russian-speaking Jews living in New York), and three previous conferences in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. There is a widespread perception among Limmud FSU activists that the conferences and festivals in the FSU have been far more successful than those here, and that something dramatic needed to kick-start awareness of Limmud among the Russian-speaking Jews of Israel.
For Chaim Chesler of Israel and Sandra Cahn of New York, respectively the founder and co-founder of Limmud FSU, the idea of bringing the three space pioneers to Beersheba proved to be just the ticket. Noting that Reisman, a resident of Parsippany, N.J., who learned to speak Russian in advance of flying two missions to the International Space Station in 2008 and 2010, wowed the participants at the Limmud FSU event at the Hampton Synagogue in Westhampton Beach last summer, Cahn and Chesler jumped at the idea of bringing Reisman and several cosmonauts to Israel. So did the Russian government, which was gearing up to promote 2011 as the 50th anniversary of the flight of Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space.
Yet while ecstatic about the excitement evoked in the Russian-speaking Israeli community by their close up and personal encounter with the legendary Leonov and the other two astronauts, Cahn emphasized in an interview that she and Chesler hit on the idea of bringing Leonov and Reisman to Beersheva as "a means to an end, not the end itself." Cahn added, "The cosmonauts and astronauts helped us get people through the door, but ultimately, the conference was less about space flight than about building Jewish identity. The message of the conference was, 'With human vision and creativity, you can accomplish anything, whether it is going into space or expanding Jewish horizons through a program like Limmud.'"
Leonov was brought to Israel under the joint auspices of Limmud FSU, the Russian Space Agency, the Russian Cultural Center and Russian Embassy in Tel Aviv, as part of the Russian government's "Space Odessey Project," marking the 50th anniversary of Gagarin's flight. The festival itself was launched two days earlier, with a reception at the Russian Cultural Center in Tel Aviv hosted by the Russian Ambassador to Israel Pyotr Stegniy and Limmud FSU Steering Committee chair Matthew Bronfman. The next day the three astronauts met with President Shimon Peres, who reminisced about his role in the development of Israel's space program and his vision of future developments, including flights to Venus and Mars.
Reisman also spent time visiting Rona Ramon, the widow of Ilan Ramon, the first-ever Israeli astronaut who was killed in the destruction of the Space Shuttle Columbia in 2003. Tragically, Mrs. Ramon also lost her 21-year-old son Capt. Asaf Ramon, who was killed in 2009 in a routine training flight while piloting his F-16.
The Limmud Festival, which was largely put together by a network of 150 Russian-Israeli volunteers, included 63 some presentations, the vast majority of which had nothing to do with space flight, but instead focused on Jewish culture, education and knowledge. The sessions had such titles as "The Eichmann Trial: A Turning Point in Understanding the Shoah"; "The 2011 Revolution in the Arab World," "The Challenges of Israeli Hasbarah," "Israel's Wars in the Light of Kabbalah," "The Psychology of Husband and Wife," "Israeli Wines" and a wonderfully named session entitled "Eating Shrimp and Studying Talmud."
In mostly glowing comments about the Limmud FSU Festival, participants stressed that the presence of the cosmonauts had been a powerful draw for them, and that their presence meshed, however improbably, with the overall message of enhancing Jewish identity and fitting Russian speakers into Israeli society.
Natalya Pylayeva, a 42-year-old photographer from Volgograd, Russia, who emigrated to Beersheva in 1999, remarked, "I had never heard of Limmud before, but decided to attend the event to have the chance to see such a legendary cosmonaut as Leonov. But I found myself very impressed by the artistic caliber of the festival, which was on the highest level that I have ever seen in Israel."
Vadim Blumin, 32, who came to Israel at age 11 from Dneiperpetrovsk, Ukraine, and is today a Jewish identity specialist at the Jewish Agency, said that witnessing the appearance of the three astronauts "left one with the very hopeful feeling that if Russians and Americans can get together like this, then maybe peace is possible in Mideast as well."
Blumin was asked whether gathering Russian-speaking Jews at a celebratory event attended by relatively few non-Russian speakers amounted to a form of ghettoization. "Actually," he said, "Limmud accomplishes the exact opposite of ghettoization. It gives us the chance to become more Jewish and Israeli. We Russian Jews share a specific identity that enhances our Israel and Jewish ones. We are one of the branches on the tree of Jewish life and by nourishing that branch, we strengthen the entire tree."
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