Two of the most successful efforts to strengthen Jewish identity in recent years were created, and have been sustained, in opposite ways.
Much has been written, here and elsewhere, about Birthright Israel, which has provided a 10-day Israel experience to more than 250,000 young people in its first decade. A top-down creation, Birthright was conceived and funded by a small group of mega-philanthropists, offering these memorable trips as a gift, free of charge to participants ages 18 to 26.
This column, though, is about Limmud, an effort to foster Jewish learning, culture and community, and which is, by contrast, a bottom-up, uniquely grass-roots, multi-generational organization where everyone “pays” — the participants at its conferences are volunteers, and the volunteers are participants.
Limmud, now active in 55 communities and in several dozen countries, has helped tens of thousands of people develop and strengthen their sense of personal and communal Jewish identity.
Next weekend more than 700 Jews of all backgrounds will be attending the seventh annual LimmudNY conference in the Hudson Valley for four days of text study, lectures, musical performances and workshops. (See sidebar and www.limmudny.org for details.)
Founded by a handful of volunteers in 2003, LimmudNY was inspired by and fashioned after LimmudUK, the oldest and largest of them all, in England.
That’s where I was last week, making the trip to a rural university campus two hours north of London to witness firsthand and take part in a true community of learning on a grand scale.
The mix of commitment, diversity, respect and enthusiasm among the more than 2,000 participants was deeply inspiring; virtually every segment of British Jewry participated, with one notable exception — more about that later.
Limmud began in England during Christmas week of 1980 as an alternative for Jews who had little to do at a time when much of the country shuts down. Why not do Jewish together?
On the 30th anniversary of what has become an international movement, people gathered from England, Europe, Australia, South Africa, Scandinavia, Israel and America, making their way to the University of Warwick campus in Coventry to learn, discuss, debate, schmooze and engage in the unique camaraderie that is LimmudUK.
A Volunteer Effort
I was fortunate to be invited as a presenter this year. In this case that translates into having one’s travel provided in return for offering at least four talks (on four different subjects) over the course of the five-day conference (seven days for the hundreds who came for Shabbat).
What is particularly impressive is that the whole complex operation, which includes programs for adults and teens, day care for children and evening entertainment each night for the adults (films, theater pieces, comedy and concerts), is the work of more than 700 volunteers — and only three full-time paid professionals. Despite last week’s weather hazards — snow and icy temperatures followed by drizzle and thick fog — the conference was run with a high degree of politeness and efficiency
People were enthused to be part of the experience. I heard few complaints about long lines in the dining areas, the less-than-four-star cuisine or the typically spare dormitory accommodations. Instead, wherever I went I saw people poring over the Limmud Conference Handbook, more than 370 pages of descriptions of the 1,200 sessions (sometimes 30 or more concurrently), with bios of the 400 presenters.
“Which session are you going to next?” I heard, as people quizzed each other about their favorite experiences.
A small sampling:
– One bold experiment was a five-part series, entitled “A History of the Jewish World in 30 Objects,” with 30 presenters from around the world introducing an object of Jewish importance they brought to speak about.
– David Aaronovitch, a regular columnist for The Times of London and commentator and broadcaster on culture, international affairs, politics and the media, spoke to an overflow crowd for his talk on “Voodoo Histories” — conspiracy theories, from “faked” moon landings to blaming Israeli nuclear testing for the 2004 tsunami.
– “Laizy” Shapiro, the creator and director of the Israeli hit comedy/drama “Srugim” drew large crowds at several sessions where he screened and then discussed the show, which depicts the romantic lives of a group of Modern Orthodox singles in Jerusalem — a kind of mix of “Friends” and “Thirty Something” meets Religious Zionism. He talked about the major impact the program, about to launch its third season, has had on society, praised and damned for its realistic slice of Israeli life.
– Alex Dweck, the chair of the Union of Jewish Students in England, described the benefits and challenges of Jewish life on campus. The UJS is active at a number of universities, where there are about 8,000 Jews all told. He and fellow student leaders maintained that the situation is not as dire as Americans and others may believe, and argued that responding to occasional incidents of anti-Israel behavior can galvanize Jewish students on campus.
A positive spin, indeed.
From 8 a.m. to well after midnight, there was always too much to choose from, and the range and quality of sessions was most impressive. One could do serious Talmud study with a chavruta (study partner) at Limmud Bet Midrash; learn the connections between “Billy Elliot” and the Torah or Bob Dylan and his Jewish roots; play bingo or take lessons on writing a prayer, dancing the salsa or leading a Friday night service.
The attendees, mostly from England, represented amcha, the core of the community, from college students and lots of singles in their 20s to a large percentage of retirees, and just about everyone in between. They shared a thirst for learning and a sense of adventure, with even Londoners — an estimated half of the attendees — traveling two hours north to rural Coventry to spend their holiday week attending sessions.
Where Was The Chief Rabbi?
But not every element of British Jewry was represented at the open-tent conference. The absence of the haredi segment of the Orthodox community was noticeable. And it is a longstanding sore point that Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, does not attend. The haredi Beit Din discourages Orthodox rabbis from attending, though Rabbi Yitzchak Schochet, chair of the United Synagogue Rabbinical Council, did come this year, which may pave the way for others in the future.
It seems counterintuitive that Lord Sacks, best described as Modern Orthodox, stays away from Limmud. He is highly respected not only for his scholarship and first-rate speaking skills but also for his emphasis on Jewish education and interest in all segments of Jewry.
In fact, the chief rabbi’s son-in-law has been a leader of the LimmudUK conference.
But religious politics are not often about logic. Rabbi Sacks apparently does not want to antagonize those on his right, in the haredi world, by endorsing or taking part in Limmud, which includes the full participation of women and welcomes attendees and speakers from all sides of Jewish life.
This seems a curious position for him to take because those on his religious right are among his biggest critics anyway.
Limmud is decidedly not about fostering controversy. Quite the opposite in that it goes out of its way to focus on providing experiences that strengthen and develop Jewish identity. Its handbook states that as a matter of principle, the group “has no part to say in the debates between/across denominations” and seeks “to avoid religious or political conflict.”
Kashrut is observed at the conference, and that doesn’t seem to be an issue. As for prayer services, the handbook states that should participants wish to hold them, “they may do so providing they supply all resources and are responsible for the session or prayer group in its entirety.”
But the fact is, Limmud is an annual celebration of Jewish learning, with dozens and dozens of sessions on Jewish text, and an ongoing Beit Midrash program each day that lasts until well after midnight.
It’s a shame, for the chief rabbi and for LimmudUK, that the country’s Jewish spiritual leader is not involved. And it’s regrettable that few Americans have the opportunity to experience LimmudUK because of the distance and travel expense.
Luckily, though, LimmudNY is right in our own backyard and that spirit of personal and collective energy, goodwill and responsibility will be on hand for all to celebrate next weekend.
How LimmudNY Is Different
Karen Radkowsky, an ad agency executive in New York, went to LimmudUK in 2000, and was so impressed with “the diversity of programming and interesting people,” she has gone back each year ever since.
Seeking to create that kind of community here, in 2003 she helped found LimmudNY, with its emphasis on “volunteerism, diversity, multi-generational participants, and freedom of choice.”
An astute observer of the Limmud scene, Radkowsky, who served as founding president of the local Limmud until last June, said each group — there are eight in the U.S. alone — tends to reflect its surrounding culture.
LimmudAtlanta, for example, is known for its Southern warmth; the conference in Los Angeles stresses arts and culture; the British program has a strong connection to Israel; and LimmudNY has “more religious streams reflected than any other,” she said, adding: “We are very sensitive to the different ways people express their Judaism.”
She noted the “growing number” of LimmudNY participants who describe their affiliation as Just Jewish, as well as a small number of non-Jews who are interested in conversion and/or married to Jews.
Among the presenters at next weekend’s conference, Radkowsky noted, is DovBer Pinson, a chasidic rabbi from Brooklyn, as well as several Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist rabbis and educators.
Sivya Twersky, a genetics counselor by profession, is president of LimmudNY. She said her team of volunteers worked hard to ensure “denominational and gender equality” among presenters.
In an effort to make the conference feel cozier, there will be Mishpachot (family) groups that meet and go to sessions together, meet-up groups of people with common interests getting together Friday night to discuss those interests, and a communal Kiddush allowing everyone to come together after the various services and sessions on Shabbat morning.