NEW YORK — Not surprisingly, as the economic downturn drags on, there is much communal discussion about the need for more and more funding to keep our most precious institutions and programs intact, from the federation system to Birthright Israel to day schools.
But then there is the phenomenon of Limmud.
A grassroots effort to offer a positive encounter with Jewish learning in its broadest definition to Jews of all backgrounds, interests and levels of expertise, Limmud (Hebrew for “learning”) is a program that began in England 29 years ago during Christmas week, and is now a movement that has spread to 19 countries, including the United States.
A recent visit to the Hudson Valley Resort in Kerhonkson for the sixth annual Limmud NY conference found 700 people of all ages, religious backgrounds and interests, participating in some of the 300 programs offered, from Bible study to chocolate tasting, and from comedy and concerts to kabbalistic healing and lectures by Talmud scholar Adin Steinsaltz.
An antidote to our thinking that money is the answer to all problems in Jewish life, Limmud NY is a shining example of the power of an idea, underscoring how much can be accomplished through the passionate commitment of even a small group of people.
Limmud NY, the first of six Limmud programs in America, is powered by volunteers. About 100 of them, mostly in their 20s and 30s, spent 11 months planning every aspect of the annual four-day conference. There is only one paid employee. The speakers and presenters provide their services for free, sometimes receiving a subsidy for travel or lodging.
What’s more, Limmud is multi-generational, post-denominational, diverse and inclusive, welcoming and attracting all types of Jews and making them feel comfortable — no easy feat. Just about everyone I spoke with during my visit made mention of how refreshing it was to be with such a wide assortment of Jews under one roof, and lamented that the feeling doesn’t seem to be transferable “back in the real world,” as one woman told me.
I took part in a Sunday morning panel, designed and moderated by Mark Pearlman of JInsider.com, that asked people how they would distribute $100 million in charity to Jewish causes if they had the chance. It led to a spirited discussion that touched on business models of core strategies, gender issues in a still-male-led community, concerns about political and ethical behavior in Israel, the imperative to feed the hungry, and ideas about how to provide a range of experiential programs to attract alienated young people.
Later, I participated in a discussion of about 15 people talking about, in part, what it means to be “a chosen people.” We sat in a circle and a young woman, who had a key volunteer role with the conference, said Limmud has become the center of her social life; a gentleman on my left was a Stoliner chasid from Israel, in a long black caftan and beard (who on learning I was a journalist wanted me to know that “less than 1 percent of the haredim” there are responsible for the stone-throwing on Shabbat).
When it came time for our group to pair off for 40 minutes of chavruta (study partner) style discussion, one on one, I was sure the chasid would want to engage with me — not for my piercing insights but because I was a male and the person on his left was a woman in jeans.
But in the spirit of Limmud, when she hesitantly asked if he would study with her, he smiled and said yes, to her surprise and mine.
And so it went.
The founders and leaders of Limmud “are challenging the community” in a constructive way, observes Steven Bayme, national director of the American Jewish Committee’s contemporary Jewish life department. For all the emphasis on the community’s financial investments, Limmud is pointing out that “the core of Jewish identity is engaging in the enterprise of learning,” he said, and much of the community has ignored that fact.
Lee Meyerhoff Hendler, a Jewish educator and philanthropist in Baltimore, sees Limmud as “an exciting response to the passivity” prevalent in the community where “we’ve handed responsibility for Jewish life to professionals.”
While noting that volunteer efforts cannot sustain synagogues, schools and other brick-and-mortar Jewish institutions, she points out that a Limmud conference “brings us together for a moment in time and can energize us and our leaders.
“I see it as the embodiment of the biblical phrase, ‘it is not in heaven’” (Deuteronomy, 30:12), she said, referring to God’s statement that the Torah is accessible to each of us, and that we are responsible for our own destiny.
At a time when many of us worry about the Jewish future, not just demographically but in terms of quality and commitment, last weekend’s conference was a refreshing reminder that we are still bound together as The People of the Book, and that for many, there remains a thirst for authentic Jewish experiences that deepen our understanding and our sense of community.
Limmud does both. More power to it.
(Gary Rosenblatt, editor and publisher of The New York Jewish Week, can be reached at Gary@jewishweek.org.). This column previously appeared in The Week.)?