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The Limmud model reviving the Jewish world

  • Adina 2014 pic (2)
This weekend we celebrate Shavuot, the holiday commemorating the giving of the Torah. Many people celebrate through Tikkun Leil Shavuot, learning Torah all night long.
by ADINA ROTH | May 17, 2018

While the Jewish world tends to focus on Jewish education for children, we could say that Tikkun Leil Shavuot celebrates adult learning. This makes me think about Limmud, a Jewish organisation which has made its focus not children’s education, but adult Jewish education.

Limmud was awarded the coveted Jerusalem Unity Prize in 2017 for its unifying contribution to the Jewish world. This initiative has created a renaissance in Jewish learning, culture and community through its conferences, held in more than 90 countries and reaching over 40 000 Jews annually – and growing.

With general Jewish engagement and learning on the decline, Limmud represents a beacon of hope in the Jewish world as it draws both young and older people, hailing from diverse Jewish backgrounds – from the unaffiliated to the observant.

So, what is it about Limmud that attracts all segments of the Jewish community in a world of declining Jewish engagement?

I recently returned from Limmud Connect in Israel, where 150 Limmud volunteers assembled to exchange ideas. The conference comprised a jam-packed schedule which included Limmud text-style learning, leadership training and daily working groups in which we were tasked to think about how Limmud can continue to contribute to the Jewish world.

What became clear to us is that part of Limmud’s success lies in the values it espouses. Limmud is grounded on 10 values: learning, expanding Jewish horizons, enabling connections, participation, empowerment, diversity, community and mutual responsibility, respect, arguments for the sake of Heaven, and religious observance.

While these values are all reflected in the Jewish tradition, some of them are interpreted in more counter-cultural ways. Others uphold more traditional Jewish modes of engagement.

This tension between the counter-cultural and the traditional enables post-modern Jews, unaffiliated or not, to come to Limmud, meet observant Jews and spend a weekend learning together.

Unlike the “kiruv” movements around the world which seek to make Jewish people more observant, Limmud’s mission is to take each participant “one step further on your Jewish journey”.

For some, that step might be to learn Israeli dancing. For others, it might be to volunteer for Limmud or get involved in social justice activism. For many, simply coming to Limmud is the step.

This is radical. It means Limmud is a community where all are welcome and where no one style of Jewish engagement is hierarchised over another. A more observant person coming to Limmud knows that no one is going to try to belittle their commitment to, and love for, Jewish observance. This culture is aided by the Limmud value of respect.

Limmud means “learning”. We say: “Everyone should learn and anyone can teach.” In the past, it was the rabbi who disseminated Torah knowledge.

In South Africa, many participants have flexed their presenting muscles at Limmud for the first time and their sessions have spurred them on to become beloved teachers in the wider community. We balance this radical empowerment with the value of choice. We empower people to make choices about their learning.

Before you enter any session room, you will know whether the presenter affiliates with a particular denomination, is inclined to the left or right on Israeli politics, and so on. In this way, the radical empowerment works both ways: anyone can teach, but all participants can choose with whom they learn.

Limmud values diversity and religious observance. As such, we actively seek to ensure that we have participants representing the full gamut of the Jewish community, and we offer a programme that reflects this diversity. But we also create a space that is inclusive of all participants and cognisant of religious observance.

This creates a vibrant space, where three different prayer services take place under one roof at our Limmud Shabbat, and where we ask everyone to respect Shabbat and kashrut in the public space.

The 150 volunteers who gathered from the 90 Limmuds around the world in Israel also represented the full gamut of political points of view on Israel.

In a world where Israel has become one of the most divisive areas for Jewish communities across the globe, it is significant that Limmudniks to the right and to the left are able to come together and hold civil conversations about the Jewish state.

After Shabbat, at our Havdalah ceremony, we danced and sang Israeli folk songs. I felt a huge love for the Jewish people and for Israel.

Because Limmud allows us to bring our full Jewish and full political selves to the Limmud community, there are times when we can suspend our  standpoints and simply be together in an Israeli dance.

Limmud’s non-repressive, non-defensive attitude is the only way forward for Jewish education and community building in our increasingly polarised world.

  • Limmud SA will take place in Johannesburg from August 3-5, in Durban on August 9 and in Cape Town from August 9-12

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