FROM WINDSOR WITH LOVE: RUSSIANS’ UK LIMMUD
“YOU CAN tell the Russian-speakers by their eyes,” I am told when I arrive at the Lim mud Former Soviet Union event in Windsor.
“They may have been living outside Russia for many years, but their eyes are anxious. They are alert for trouble.”
Boris Schnaidman, a Russian, has plenty of opportunity to prove his point. At the Limmud FSU last weekend, 700 Jews with links to Russia and the former Soviet Union were gathered for three days of seminars, discussions and entertainment.
These people represent a community of Jews living below the radar; shy of acknowledging their roots.
“I am astonished,” says Jonathan Arkush, Board of Deputies president. “I learnt this weekend that we have a Russian Jewish community in London of between 10,000 and 20,000 people. We need to do more to draw them out, make them welcome.”
These Jews are hidden because although they integrate with other Russian speakers and the wider British community, they steer clear of synagogues and tend not to live in the most Jewish-populated areas of north-west London.
Sixty years of repression under Communism have left their mark. Very few men at Limmud FSU wore a kippah and some confessed to not knowing what the words “shalom” or “shul” meant.
“Many people here are only beginning to discover their Jewishness,” says Berel Lazar, chief rabbi in Moscow. “It’s an intense experience for them, there’s a lot of energy here. The Russian Jewish community is trying to find its place in the world.”
At the end of one lecture on Saturday, a participant in her 20s stands up and explains she is not involved in Jewish life in her home town of Kiev. “I am a Limmud Jew,” she says.
Another participant, Reuben, who now lives in France and did not want to be identified, says: “Limmud is my synagogue. There are so many people who are similar to me here, we can talk about being Jewish and it feels familiar.”
Here lies the key to Limmud FSU. Many participants do not want to be synagogue members, lack of familiarity makes them uncomfortable with many of the prayers and rituals but there is a Jewish- ness inside them which they feel compelled to acknowledge. “They are Jewish in their souls,” says Chaim Chesler, founder of Limmud FSU. “Limmud gives them a chance to explore what it means to them.” Aaron Frenkel, president of Limmud FSU, puts it more strongly. “If they don’t come to Limmud they will eventually assimilate and their Jewish identity will be lost,” he explains. “Limmud is fulfilling an essential role for these people.” An estimated three million Jews flooded out of the Soviet Union after the collapse of Communism, heading to the United States, Israel and Europe. “The UK is considered a good place for Russians to do business and it’s also regarded as one of the safest democracies,” says Mr Chesler. There are four major groups of Russian-speaking Jews in London: students; young professionals working in IT, business and law; families; and wealthy business people. “Thepeople you see here feel an essence of Jewishness,” says Semyon Dovzhik, who lives in London and masterminded the event. “They are unlikely to be involved in British politics but they are very pro-Israel. They are secular but they want their children to marry within the faith.”
There are, however, Russian-dominated synagogues in London, including Chabad Belgravia, served by Rabbi Mendel Kalmensen, where attendance is on the rise.
Mr Chesler doubts many Jews would go back to Russia: “They can live openly as Jews but free speech is a problem, they are not allowed to speak against Putin.”
Mr Schnaidman adds: “At least in the UK I know if I’m the target of an antisemitic attack the police will protect me — in Russia the police will do nothing.”
Brothers in arms: some of the 700 Limmud FSU participants dance during the weekend retreat in Windsor
American philanthropist Matthew Bronfman