By Ekaterina Kuznetsova
I will not exaggerate if I say that the “Sefer” Center (based in Moscow, Russia) is the most influential and important organization for the development of academic studies in Jewish civilization in the entire post-Soviet space. During more than 20 years of its existence it has made a significant contribution to Jewish studies among Russian-speaking scholars. Sefer was established in the early 90s, when nobody in Russia would have reasonably envisaged any future for academic research of the Jewish civilization there.
During the Soviet period there was almost no study of Jewish history and Judaism, and even Hebrew language study was persecuted. Only some active individual enthusiasts who worked in the field of Jewish studies from the 1970s (in almost an underground way) carried the torch for intellectual endeavor in this field. The end of the 1980s and beginning of 1990s saw a blossoming of Jewish cultural life and education during which many initiatives were spawned. Most of them, unfortunately, did not have a long history.
The times changed but the Sefer Center maintains its high standards. The number of events and activities organized by Sefer is considerable: three annual conferences, publishing books, sending lecturers on Jewish Studies to different towns, internships for young teachers in Moscow, etc. But the most important branch is, of course, education.
Sefer became an alma mater for the dozens of scholars who work in different fields of Jewish Studies (history, culture, sociology, ethnography etc.) in Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and Baltic countries. For many of them, the annual schools organized by the Sefer Center were the starting points for their academic careers. These individuals in the early 90s were 17-20 year old students. Today they can be met in the most prestigious universities of Russia, Israel, USA and Europe writing their PhD thesis, lecturing and making a new contribution to studies of Jewish civilization.
Every year the Sefer Center organizes two “stationary” schools (in most cases they take place in Moscow) – at the beginning of February and in mid-summer. Each school is a five to seven day intensive seminar where the students attend mini-courses of lectures given by the leading specialists of Jewish Studies from Russia and abroad (Israel, Poland, USA etc.). Every student can chose a subject of interest and follow that through the program. There are usually nine or more different courses (each course consists of three to five lectures), divided by different themes: Biblical Studies, Yiddish Studies, Israel history, Holocaust studies and others.
Every school is dedicated to one common theme, which is always topical. Last summer’s school was called “Practical Conflictology: Jews, non-Jews, and the World Around Them” and next winter’s school will be dedicated to the issue of migration.
Besides the lectures students participate in other activities: discussions, workshops, concerts. The most important aspect of a Sefer conference is the communication between participants – Sefer’s schools help to bring together students and young scholars from faraway places so they can exchange their knowledge and experience, and generate new ideas and insights.
Sefer cares not only about theory but also about practice. Every year it organizes 2-4 expeditions (also called “field schools”) to different regions of Russia, Belarus, Georgia, Latvia, Lithuania and Moldova. The main goal of these research trips is to preserve Jewish heritage and to record oral history about the Jews who lived in these places. Sometimes this yields amazing results – for example, last summer during the expedition to the Glubokoye town (Belarus) Sefer’s students found the oldest matseva in the region! This discovery was an important step in researching the history of Jews in Eastern Europe in general.
The participants of these expeditions are also young (from 20 to 30 years old) students and researchers, whose work is supervised by several well-experienced tutors. After the field schools they continue to work on the collected material: writing research articles, cataloguing and systemizing the information – that in the end will be turned into a book. Every year Sefer publishes one or two books that sum up the results of the work.
This year a collective volume “Jews on the Map of Lithuania: Birzai – Preserving Jewish Heritage and Historical Memory” was published. It contains a full catalogue and description of the Birzai cemetery (that existed from the end of the 18th century) and articles about the history of Birzai Jewish community (that does not exist anymore). It is the first book that contains such a detailed analysis of the Jewish community within a Lithuanian town.
The educational programs are not limited by these events. In recent years Sefer offers an opportunity for a regular, full-fledged education from September to May online: the webinar program is open to anyone who is interested in Jewish Studies, notwithstanding place of residence, age or previous education.
The webinar program comprises three language courses: Biblical Hebrew, Modern Hebrew and Yiddish; several long (up to 16 lectures) courses and several mini-courses (three to five lectures) on different themes. This academic year, for example, there are courses such as “History of the Jews in the Modern Time”, “History of the State of Israel”, “Introduction into Biblical Archaeology” and many others. Among the listeners there are people who need these courses for professional and research activity (scholars, teachers and lecturers who work in universities, Jewish schools, and community centers, employees of museums, libraries and archives) and people who are just interested in these subjects without any practical reason.
In addition, the Sefer Center has an extensive video-library with recordings of lectures from the previous schools and the most interesting papers from the conferences are available for reading.
The biggest achievement of Sefer is that it provides access to high-level academic education on Jewish Studies to a broad audience and supports beginning researchers in their work, thus motivating a new generation of scholars of Jewish civilization to advance the frontiers of this research.
Moscow-born Ekaterina Kuznetsova is PR-manager at the Sefer Center and an MA student at the Yiddish Studies department in the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.