Sandy Cahn, co-founder of Limmud FSU, will be the first-ever non-Russian honoree at this year’s annual reception of the Council of Jewish Émigré Community Organizations (COJECO), to be held May 10 at the Museum of Jewish Heritage. COJECO, under the auspices of UFA-Federation of New York, is made up of more than 40 member organizations serving the local Russian-speaking Jewish community.
The other honoree is Yuri Kurahshvili, a COJECO board member who helped launch a program to train experienced émigré doctors for certification here and help them find jobs in the medical field.
We spoke with Cahn, who is executive director of the Bachmann-Strauss Dystonia and Parkinson Foundation, about her extensive volunteer work on behalf of Russian-speaking Jews.
Q. How did you become involved in working with Russian Jews?
A. I first went to the Soviet Union in the 1980s when I was chair of the national UJA’s women’s campaign, and visited several countries. I was very moved to see so many people learning Hebrew and preparing to leave their familiar surroundings. But I began to think about what would happen Jewishly for all of those who would not be leaving for Israel or the West.
Limmud, the grass-roots program of Jewish learning retreats began in England 30 years ago. When did Limmud FSU begin?
In 2005, I was approached by Chaim Chesler, former treasurer of the Jewish Agency for Israel, who felt the Limmud model would work in the former Soviet Union, where he had headed up the Jewish Agency’s aliyah efforts. We began to work together, with Chaim as chair. With the help of Matthew Bronfman, who chairs our steering committee, and other organizations, foundations and individuals, we now have very popular Limmud programs for Russian-speaking Jews in Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Israel and America, where we’ll have our second annual program in the West Hamptons in August.
What has been the biggest challenge?
Convincing the young Russian Jews in Moscow, who are smart and fiercely independent, that Limmud, with its informal Jewish learning on topics of interest, would be good for them. Our emphasis is on grass-roots planning and recruiting, pluralism, volunteerism, unpaid lecturers and charging participants — those are all alien concepts to that community. But when they saw that they could really take ownership of the program in terms of topics and speakers, it became a great success.
How is the programming at Limmud FSU different than other Limmud programs around the world?
A heavy emphasis on discussion of culture, more intellectual topics and less interest in religion per se. The idea is to connect Russian-speaking Jews to pluralistic, informal learning. These are people who are mainstreamed into society but want to preserve and celebrate their Russian Jewish identity.
What was your reaction to being honored by COJECO?
My first thought was that I didn’t need any more honors. But when I thought about it, I felt this would be recognition of the success of Limmud FSU and our friendship with the Russian Jewish community, so it is very meaningful for me. Since COJECO is part of UJA-Federation, where my volunteer work began, this honor completes the circle for me and validates the work I’ve been involved with the last five years, and it will continue long after I’m gone.
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