I received the invitation to attend the sixth conference of the Limmud FSU organization for Russian-speaking Jews in the western Ukrainian city of Uzhgorod with mixed emotions.
First of all, I don't speak Ukrainian and most Ukrainians don't speak English. In addition, I was deterred by other cultural differences: In the morning, for example, the locals have a habit of eating buckwheat and sausages (!) And if that wasn't enough, about a week before the conference, Prof. Leon Friefeld of the University of Lviv was murdered in an anti-Semitic incident.
A friend from the Israeli Embassy in Kiev eased my fears and mentioned three things that she believed would protect me during the visit: God, wearing a hat over my skullcap, and the fact that even at my advanced age – when I am chased by Cossacks I can run pretty fast.
Chaim Chesler, a former Jewish Agency treasurer, founded Limmud FSU in 2005 in a bid to strengthen the Jewish awareness of Jews and offspring of Jews in former USSR countries.
Different Jewish organizations have worked to distribute Judaism in the Soviet Union in the past, but Chesler was wise enough to import a unique patent from England: An organization in which participants determine where the conference will be held and which lectures and training will be included.
"Each person should reach Judaism in the way that right for them," says Chesler. "What sets Limmud aside is that we allow every person to express his identification with religion, with the State of Israel and with the Jewish people in a way he or she feels most comfortable.
"Limmud is successful because it grows from the bottom. In other words, the conference does not depend on any religious or established stream and is not funded by an interested party.
"In addition, there is no mediating factor here," he explains. "There are no organizations sending their members, and registration is exclusively online. Each participant has a dividend inside this huge enterprise, and there is not a single person who does not pay, including the lecturers and volunteers."
Limmud's Chief Operating Officer Roman Kogan says the organization allows young people, especially those aged 20-40, to "design the framework for their Jewish life, and do it out of passion, because everyone does it voluntarily and in accordance with their needs and areas of interest.
"The conference is very pluralistic and that suits everyone," Kogan clarifies. "From 8 am to the small hours of the night, at every given moment there are seven or eight lectures, workshops, tours or other activities – the vast majority of which focus on a Jewish or Israeli issue. If you enjoy the lecture you stay, and if you don't – you leave and move to a different lecture, without upsetting the lecturer.
"The activities don't just include lectures on Judaism and culture, but also drawing, dancing, yoga and other leisure activities, and if someone prefers to sit in the lobby, talk or sing with friends – that is perfectly fine too as far as we are concerned," he says.
A conversation with the conference participants reveals a fascinating mosaic of men and women, mostly young but also older people who have discovered the conference in recent years. A small number of the participants are religious, and there are many others who only have Jewish roots – a Jewish father or grandfather, but are interested in connecting with the Jewish people.
Yitzhak (Oleg) Kershenbaum, 35, arrived at the conference with his wife from Dnepropetrovsk in eastern Ukraine. He is a teacher at the Chabad yeshiva in his hometown, and this is the first time he attends a Limmud conference.
"My wife, who is a lawyer, became religious after we got married, and we were thrilled to come here and combine a trip with lectures. For example, I really enjoyed the lecture about Jewish community notebooks in Europe, the lecture about Ukrainian nationalists who saved Jews during the Holocaust, and the conversation about God during the Holocaust which was led by former Knesset Member Rabbi Menachem Cohen," he tells me.
As opposed to the haredi Kershenbaum, who speaks Hebrew fluently with a heavy accent, Larissa Popovskaya speaks to me in English. She is 24, single, is studying for a master's degree in communications at the Kyiv School of Economics, and this is the sixth time she volunteers at the Limmud conference.
Popovskaya participated in conferences of other Jewish organizations, but she especially likes Limmud, mostly because of the event's relaxed atmosphere.
"My father is Jewish, but my mother is Russian," says Popovskaya. "As a girl, I knew nothing about Judaism expect for the fact that on Rosh Hashana you eat fish and on Passover you eat matzot. They decided to teach me almost nothing about Judaism, in order to give me the option of choosing my own way in life.
"At the age of 15 I wanted to get to know Judaism better, and my parents let me study at the ORT school in Kiev. When I was 19 I still felt I was missing out on something and wanted to learn more. Since then I have visited Israel
twice, including three months I spent at the Ariel College as part of the MASA program."
When I ask her if she ever considered immigrating to Israel, she says: "I find it important to marry a Jew, but my parents don't want me to immigrate to Israel because they think it's a country of wars. Every year my desire to live in Ukraine grows weaker, but I'm not sure I want to be a cashier at Mega Ba'Ir (Israeli supermarket chain)."
One of the people who arrived at the conference in Uzhgorod for the first time is Leon Feigelman, 25, of Kiryat Bialik, whose family made aliyah years ago from the Soviet Union. His mother owns a pharmacy, and he came back here to study pharmaceutics.
With a wide smile on his face, Feigelman admits that with all due respect to the fascinating lectures, he has been spending a significant part of the conference in the hotel lobby and has even managed to meet a pretty young girl.
Indeed, the Limmud conference may also include introductory meetings to examine a proper match. Last month, for example, a young man and woman who volunteered in Limmud in Moscow were married in Jerusalem. They discovered not only the beauty of Judaism, but each other as well.
Amazingly, just one day before flying to Uzhgorod, I discovered that my parental grandmother was born in this city 92 years ago. Most of her relatives were murdered in the Holocaust, due to the cooperation between the Nazis and their Ukrainian aides.
And so, despite Ukraine's amazing beauty, it was difficult to shake away the memories, and the question if it weren’t for the Holocaust – would I have also been born in Uzhgorod, in neighboring Munkacs, or in Lviv.
After the conference concluded, we stopped at one of the remote cities. As we walked out of the lavatory, the nervous owner demanded in Ukrainian that we pay for the service. Chesler smiled and told me, in Hebrew, that the fact that we had bought useless items in the adjacent store should exempt us from paying.
I'm not sure the owner understood the explanation, but as far as I was concerned it was definitely the start of an original Jewish revenge.