For all the talk about the decline of synagogue and organizational affiliation and the need to engage more people — particularly the young — in Jewish life, there are some remarkable success stories out there, and we can all learn from what they do well.
Take the example of Limmud, a grass-roots organization offering conferences focused on Jewish learning and culture. It began in England in 1980 when about 80 Jews came to spend part of Christmas week — when much of the country shuts down — studying, discussing and socializing together. Today, Limmud is active in 55 communities around the world, and growing.
From the outset, the organization was committed to expanding Jewish horizons, communal and personal growth, diversity and equality. The key was volunteerism, with everyone pitching in, respectful of each other’s beliefs and participation.
Last week, the original group, now known as LimmudUK, celebrated its 30th anniversary with a five-day conference at a rural English site that attracted more than 2,000 participants for a wide variety of classes, workshops, lectures, movies, concerts and more. (See story, page 1.)
And next weekend, LimmudNY will hold its seventh annual conference in the Hudson Valley, with a four-day program for more than 700 participants of every age, religious stream and political ideology.
What the Limmud brand has in common, from here to South Africa to the FSU, is a difficult-to-define but palpable spirit of shared enthusiasm for Jewish creativity and substance.
At a time when much of the communal Jewish focus is devoted to young men and women in their 20s, Limmud is decidedly multi-generational. And at a time when funders are willing to provide Jewish programs and experiences for free to attract our youth, Limmud demands that everyone “pay,” in terms of giving of their time, energy and resources to ensure successful events. And the more participants invest in the experience, the more they seem to get out of it.
We’ve all learned that there is no silver-bullet experience that appeals to all Jews. And regrettably, there are some segments of the Orthodox community that shun Limmud because of its commitment to gender and denominational equality. The loss is theirs, though, because Limmudniks from around the world come together to engage in both serious learning and serious play, and to find opportunities to develop and strengthen their Jewish identity. Successful programs like that should be studied, replicated and celebrated.