March 8, 2007
Love among many splendored things at Baltics Limmud
Inna Lapidus and Boris Kinber have been etched in the lore of Baltic Jewry.
Activists are pointing to them not only as prime examples of Jewish revival, but of efforts to unify the small ex-Soviet communities of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia.
It was two years ago that Lapidus, from the Estonian capital of Tallinn, attended her first Limmud conference in Lithuania, to immerse herself in all things Jewish and mingle with fellow Jews. Then a friend introduced her to Kinber, from the Latvian capital of Riga.
A long-distance Limmud love story unfolded, as Kinber and Lapidus, then studying French at The Sorbonne, met each month for dates in Paris, Tallinn or Riga. Their wedding last October drew guests from across the Baltics and beyond.
"When you're surrounded by people in your community you've known for years and don't find your partner, you go searching," said Lapidus, who graduated from the lone Jewish high school in Tallinn, where most of Estonia's approximately 4,000 Jews live.
The newlyweds returned to the fourth-annual Lithuanian Limmud in early February, this time joined by Lapidus' parents, Natalja and Ilja, who journeyed 10 hours to the Lithuanian capital city with other Estonian Jews on three double-decker buses.
Sentimentality for Limmud aside, Lapidus' mother said she was there to learn.
"Being from such a small Jewish community, there aren't so many people you can learn from, and we don't have much free time," said Natalja, 57, a pathologist. "Limmud offers us a wide range of possibilities."
The Lapidus-Kinber union may embody the essence of Limmud: creating space for Jewish learning and schmoozing with peers in a comfortable Jewish environment.
If matchmaking occurs between communities, so much the better. Limmud also is the latest step in a campaign -- funded in part by the contributions of the Los Angeles Jewish community -- to create a cohesive Baltic region: from summer camps for children, to weekend gatherings for teens and 20-somethings, to Limmud, which is dominated by the so-called "missing generation" -- reared entirely during communism -- and younger families, with countless kids romping about.
Even a segment of the ultra-Orthodox attended the event. Yet the opportunities at Limmud don't fully explain the remarkable turnout at this four-star resort in the wooded, snow-covered outskirts of Vilnius, which drew more than 1,000 local Jews from a Baltic Jewish population estimated at no more than 25,000.
The crowd was so large, guests were divided into three hotels and shuttled around by van. During dinner they nearly filled an adjoining ballroom.
"Proportionally I think it's the biggest event in the Jewish world," said Andres Spokoiny, who handles the region for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), which co-sponsors the yearly event and other community-building efforts.
"It shows the thirst and desire to reconnect with Judaism, and that this reconnection takes place in an open, pluralistic environment with all the richness and diversity of Judaism present," Spokoiny said. "And when they look around that ballroom and see 1,000 people, they feel they're taking revenge on history."
Vilnius, a city known to Jews as Vilna, was the historic heart of Yiddishkeit until the Holocaust decimated the community. All four Baltic Limmuds have been held here.
The Limmud "studyfest" manifests the vision first laid out a quarter-century ago by its British founders.
"The principle is that all Jews should learn and all Jews can teach, so we need to provide opportunities for people to learn and for people to teach," said Clive Lawton, a Limmud co-founder who was on hand in Vilnius. "What you need is three to five people who say, 'We need to do this' -- and then they need to find some friends."
Recent Limmuds have been organized in Turkey, Australia, Germany, Holland and New York. In Vilnius, Jews from Bulgaria, Belarus and Argentina were investigating whether the Limmud formula could be adapted locally.
For Vilnius Jews, five decades of aggressively anti-religious, assimilationist Soviet policies after the Holocaust further separated them from their roots.
But the city's symbolism and potential attracted The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, which co-sponsors the Vilnius Limmud with the JDC.
"It just made sense for us to partner with a community that used to be a center of learning, and can be once again," said Diane Fiedotin, a Los Angeles Federation member at the event. "The community here is alive, not a remnant waiting for the last Jew to die."
The Los Angeles Jewish Federation has donated about $200,000 annually to the region through a Los Angeles-Baltic Partnership begun in 2002. Beneficiaries include a hospital, schools, summer and winter camps, sports programs, leadership training and a research center.
"Limmud Baltics couldn't have been possible without the generous support of The L.A. Jewish Federation and its leaders within the framework of the LA-Baltic Partnership," wrote Spokoiny in an e-mail.
"Certainly, Limmud is the crowning jewel and the culmination of the many projects within that partnership that help develop the basic structure of Jewish life in the region. Together -- L.A., JDC and, most important, the local leaders -- we are transforming lives and making history. We are providing a vibrant Jewish future for thousands of people, and for entire communities, that we considered lost forever."
Indeed, the weekend seemed like the social event of the season. Far from the image of ex-Soviet denizens dependent on the Diaspora, subsisting on food packages from the JDC and others, this Limmud attracted a confident, newly rich and burgeoning middle class willing to shell out $70 per family member -- double the fee three years ago -- plus more for a posh hotel room.
With its combination of dozens of lectures -- ranging from Jewish history, culture and traditions to humor, ethics and sex -- and evening entertainment -- Yiddish-themed song and dance, Israeli folk dance and pop music, and a Russian comedienne -- participants say they circle the Limmud weekend many months in advance.
"It's a family seminar, and we try to do everything together as a family," said Daniel Tsomik, 25, of Kaunas, Lithuania, who attended with his entourage of six -- his wife, Margarita; his parents; his sister and her boyfriend.
Adds Margarita, 22: "In our daily lives we live among Lithuanians, so it's good to have opportunities to remind yourself that you're Jewish and share the Jewish spirit."