FSU Seminar

Vilnius, Lithuania and
Minsk, Belarus

The Hornstein-BGI FSU Seminar is an immersive, transformative learning opportunity for students in their second year of study.

It is carried out in partnership with the Brandeis Genesis Institute for Russian Jewry and made possible in part with support from the Genesis Philanthropy Group. 

Hornstein students with Minsk Jewish leaders, FSU Seminar 2016

Finding Common Ground
 Around the Dinner Table

By Naomi Rosenfeld

On the night of Thursday, February 18, our first night in Belarus, Hornstein students sat down for dinner with five inspiring leaders of the Minsk Jewish community. These dinner guests included Galina Levina, Architect and Cultural Advisor to the Union of Belarusian Jewish Public Associations and Communities; Maxim Yidin, Co-Chair of Limmud FSU-Belarus and former Hillel Director; Rav Grisha Abramovich, Chief Reform Rabbi and active Limmud FSU-Belarus volunteer; Irina Abramovich, Head of the Program Committee for Limmud FSU-Belarus and active member of the Reform Congregation; and Anna Keinan, Head of Nativ (a Limmud FSU-Belarus Partner).

Except, we didn’t sit down with these guests for dinner all at once. To complement the cohort-wide discussions we had been having throughout our trip, our class decided that instead of setting up one large dinner table, we would have three smaller tables with our guests dispersed among them. Initially, the students sat randomly among these three tables. Then, after finishing each course, the students rotated tables, allowing each student the chance to have an intimate conversation with each of our esteemed guests.

These small group discussions widely varied in topic and theme. While one group could be heard contrasting Hillel in Belarus to Hillel in America, another could be heard discussing how Jewish life in Minsk had evolved since Soviet times. While at one table of mine we discussed trends in Belarussian aliyah over the past 20 years, at another table we discussed one of our guest’s experiences growing up in Birobidzhan, the Jewish autonomous region of Eastern Russian. But, no matter what the topic, Hornstein students were able dig deeper into their own personal areas of interest and experience meaningful interactions with our guests.

While many of the conversations that night were fascinating, my personal favorite conversations were those centered on LimmudFSU-Belarus. Limmud is an international Jewish learning movement, initiated in the UK, which brings together diverse groups of Jewish people to engage in Jewish teaching and learning. LimmudFSU, a branch of the international Limmud movement, uses the Limmud framework to unite and revitalize Jews in the countries of the Former Soviet Union (including Belarus), as well as in countries with Russian-speaking Jewish people.

Almost all of our guests were somehow involved in organizing LimmudFSU-Belarus, and the passion and pride with which they spoke about the event was undeniable. Despite the inherent challenges of developing such a conference, our guests were driven to orchestrate this event that brings in crowds of hundreds to Belarus, including some very prominent speakers and guests.

It just so happens that two weeks exactly from the time we landed back in Boston, I participated and presented at a Limmud conference myself, this one in Toronto, Canada. In Toronto, I saw the same dedication and enthusiasm on the faces of the organizers that I had seen in Minsk. Therefore, for me, some of the most important lessons I am taking away from our trip are not the obvious differences I noticed between FSU and North American Jewry, but the subtle similarities instead. 

Pictured top: 

Dinner in Minsk with Galina Levina (back row, second from the right); Maxim Yidin (front row, second from the left); Rav Grisha Abramovich (right-hand side); Irina Abramovich (directly beside Grisha); and Anna Keinan (back row, right-hand side).