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Iosif Akselrud: “Now I take my words back”

The chairman of Linmud and director of Hillel in Ukraine on where Jews meet and talk to other Jews

From 6 to November, the eight conference “Linmud Ukraine” was held in Lvov. To inform readers about the events, we give a brief history from the event site:

The first Linmud conference was organized in Nottingham (England) by a small group of volunteers in December 1978. 40 people gathered together for several days to share each other’s knowledge and spend time in a circle of fellow-thinkers.

In over 30 years, the Linmud conference has turned from a local happening to a grandiose event in more than 40 countries, gathering thousands of participants.”

A special correspondent of JewishNews visited Lvov and talked to the main person at the conference.

Iosif, you are the chairman of Linmud Ukraine. How did Linmud come to the former CIS region?

— When I first went to Linmud in Britain, I was amazed at what I saw. It was very crowded. But most importantly, the event was organized by volunteers, who included respected English citizens, virtually lords – and they were clearing away the dishes in the cafeteria!

Then I was certain that this would never happen here. It’s not in our culture – volunteer work.

Now I take my words back.

The first Linmud in the CIS took place in 2007, in Moscow. Linmud Ukraine was first held in 2008 in the Crimea. Since then, this project has become a key one in the Jewish community, and in some sense has become its foundation.

The word “Linmud” itself means “training”. Wonderful presenters come here from Ukraine, Russia, Moldova, Israel and other countries, who share ideas and knowledge. And no one pays them anything, they do this all on a voluntary basis.

Additionally, Linmud is a mixture of generations. Gathering people of different ages under the same roof is the most important and valuable thing that the project provides. Here [in the community] there were programs for elderly people, young people and children. But there was nothing family-oriented, that was unifying.

But here Jews have the chance to meet and talk to other Jews, who they wouldn’t meet anywhere else. And although Linmud is held once a year, after each meeting people stay in contact and continue to meet. So after one Linmud ends, preparation for the next Linmud starts… and for weddings (laughs).

How many people did Linmud gather this year in Lvov?

Over 600. It’s hard to count the citizens of Lvov who didn’t stay in hotels, but just came to lectures and lessons.

We always try to invite prominent, interesting people from different countries and industries – political analysts, scientists, literary critics, artists. This year we had Viktor Shenderovich, Igor Irteniev, Klara Novikova and Vladimir Bystryakov. The Israeli ambassador to Ukraine Eli Belotserkovski and the Israeli ambassador to Belarus Iosef Shagal were honored guests of Linmud. The mayor of Lvov Andrei Sadovy was present at the opening ceremony of the conference.

How do you select speakers?

Firstly, our representatives go to Linmuds in different countries. Not only to participate, but to observe. When we find an interesting speaker in Moscow or Jerusalem, Minsk or Kishenyov, we make a note of them. We also have a program committee which recommends suitable speakers in different fields.

For me, Linmud is also important because it’s a continuation of Hillel – my other creation, which I am very fond of. Linmud proved to be very entertaining for young people, and over half the volunteers on its organizing committee are from Hillel. They find it very interesting, they work on a voluntary basis.

In many ways this is why I agreed to head Linmud Ukraine, when we began working in the CIS. And I enjoy doing so to this day, although the event takes a lot of time and nerves. But it’s pleasant and interesting.

Hillel Ukraine is part of the major Jewish youth organization Hillel, which helps to involve young Jewish people in Jewish life. And you have been working with young Jewish people for 18 years now, and you are also the head of the Hillels of all the former republics of the Soviet Union (except Russia).

The history of Hillel is even older than Linmud. It was created in 1924 in Chicago, on the basis of the Jewish organization B’nai Brith, which decided to create a youth branch and name it in honor of the wise man Hillel. Initially Hillel only existed in America, and was organized on the basis of student organizations on campuses, where all events and meetings were held. The head office of Hillel is now based in Washington. In the 1990s, Hillel came to the CIS. Here it is organized on a completely different principle: we have Hillel in every city, not on campus, and it many ways it has become the backbone of the community. There are Hillel centers in all major communities of Ukraine.

All our programs are focused on young people finding out what Jewish tradition, philosophy and community mean, and know how to live within the community, to create and strengthen it. We want them to understand the importance of volunteer work and charity. Additionally, we try to teach them how to live further, how to find their place in life. This place doesn’t necessarily have to be in Jewish organizations. But of course, we would like them to remain in the community and help others.

The board of trustees of Hillel Ukraine is headed by the 35-year-old businessman Alexander Granovsky, who is now also a people’s deputy. Alexander was a boy from an ordinary Jewish family, and at the age of 17 he came to us at Hillel, went through all the training sessions and seminars, and grew as a person. In the end he became a serious businessman, but he did not leave Hillel – he wanted to support us, and became the head of the board. This is the model of mutual assistance that we would like to develop among our young people.

The children of the first “Hillelists” are already coming to us. That’s just great! A boy came to us and said: “My mother says hello.” I said: “Thanks, who is your mother?” He told me her surname and I realized: “You’re that Igor who your mother brought to the Hillel programs when you were four years old?!” Now he’s 18 and he’s an active Hillelist.

Many couples come together here. Not just from the same city, but also people who have met at our inter-regional programs – and started families.

What can you learn at Hillel?

Each center has its own program for the year. It includes educational and creative projects, which are also connected with the city community. There are also numerous regional projects.

Once a year, in Odessa we hold an intellectual festival, which is attended by over 100 students from Ukraine, Russia and Israel. There is also the “Hilleliada” – a competition of Hillelists in different types of sport, and also in games of intellect. For the first time this year, we held #HAP – Hillel Art Project.

We take young people around old Jewish sites, and study with them the life of Jewish villages (shtetls), and are also operators of “Taglit” – a free ten-day program for discovering Israel for young Jewish people aged from 18 to 26.

Every spring, we hold a week of good deeds: we involve city mayors, youth organizations of different ethnic minorities, and organize visits to orphanages, tidying up cemeteries, and all kinds of charitable activity. This year, over 2,000 people took part, although we could not hold a number of events this spring because of the situation in the country, we couldn’t hold major campaigns on city squares.

What place does religion occupy in Hillel, if at all?

Hillel is not a religious organization, but a traditional Jewish one. Every week we hold lessons for the study of Judaism, the study of the Torah, lessons on the Jewish cycle of life, and of course on observing Shabbat.

It’s not of fundamental importance to us what synagogue people go to when they leave Hillel – whether it’s Orthodox, Chabad or any other kind. The main thing is that they know what it is, and can make their choice independently.


Interview by Olga Royenko

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