The Time Has Come to Build Limmud USA

[This essay is from The Peoplehood Papers, volume 11 – Jewish Peoplehood in Practice – published by the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education.]

by Dan Brown

A strong, national Limmud is the perfect vehicle to connect,
and engage, American Jewish young adults in Jewish Peoplehood

The American Jewish community is facing a paradigm shift from the how and why Jews connected to community institutions in the past to how Jews of today – especially young adults – are relating, and connecting, to the Jewish “establishment” of the 21st Century. These changes, often referred to as generational, are so much more than simply looking at the different characteristics of, say, the Greatest Generation to Baby Boomers to Generation X or Y. For while today’s young adults are fully immersed in the pace and technology of our times, they are also invested in timeless values. “They want to give and to serve. They want involvements that engage their minds as well as their hands.” [1]

And what better way to engage their minds Jewishly than through Limmud, the second largest informal Jewish education initiative globally.

Established in 1980 as a small conference by, and for, Jewish educators, Limmud has become, in the words of Sir Jonathan Sacks, “British Jewry’s greatest export.”

But what is Limmud? From the Hebrew, to learn, Limmud is a platform for engagement in informal Jewish education, tailored to fit the needs of each individual community. It could be anything from a one-day event in Boston, to an extended Shabbaton program in Atlanta, to small-group text-learning programs taking place over Skype. All coming together to learn – about our history and culture – and to engage with one another.

Limmud provides a thirst for knowledge that is difficult to quench. A desire to know and to become acquainted is always in the air. Most impressively, despite the varied backgrounds, everyone listens – and learns – from one another.

The lifeblood of Limmud is the grass roots efforts of volunteers creating their own, unique, events. Everything Limmud does is designed and executed by talented and committed individuals in their own local communities – from the smallest of tasks to long-term strategy. These volunteers are empowered to not only direct, but to “own” the events they create.

But Limmud is something in addition – most evidenced, so far, in Europe and the countries of the former Soviet Union. For in both regions, Limmud has become much more than an event or two – Limmud has become a networked community. Literally thousands of people have bought-in to the concept, the approach, and the core values of what Limmud can, and does, bring to the table. As a result, Limmud has become a training ground for the next generation of Jewish communal leadership. A place to engage all corners of the Jewish world in new, exciting and collaborative efforts.

In the U.S., unfortunately, no such training ground exists. More importantly, on the national level, not one single initiative exists for Jewish engagement that encompasses all segments of our community. Further, not one of the long established alphabet soup organizations have demonstrated they have the understanding, or the resources, to move forward in this critical regard.

Enter Limmud USA

Consider: While many organizations pay lip-service to younger generations, occasionally listening but rarely delegating meaningful responsibility, Limmud allows the individual to ‘run with the ball,’ regardless of their age.

Consider: Limmud brings people together to directly engage and to connect – with each other and with the broader community.

Consider: Instead of endless conversation on what we all know needs to be done, Limmud is actually out there, doing.

Consider: Instead of top-down, Limmud is very much bottom-up.

Consider: Limmud is a place to practice the “How” of Jewish Peoplehood in the 21st Century.

Will the task be challenging? Without a doubt. Limmud already has a strong foundation in multiple American Jewish communities. This foundation needs to be built upon – both locally and nationally. Local Limmud programs need to be strengthened so they can become feeders to a national initiative. In the U.K., Limmud has demonstrated that strong local programs can exist in tandem with the major annual Conference held every December.

Philanthropically, this will also be a significant undertaking that needs to bring together as one the organizational strengths and financial capabilities of multiple resources. No easy task. Importantly, the funders need to be ones that are willing to trust young people to do for themselves. Part of what makes Limmud what it is is that control is not in the hands of funders. The funding community needs to be bold, recognize the upside and be willing to “turn over the keys.”

Can this happen? Yes.

Just look at the potential impact: as a community we gain the ability to engage the minds as well as the hands of today’s young adults. Through this engagement we will nurture both commitment and Peoplehood. We help instill a sense of Identity and connectedness that will propel the community to even greater heights in the years ahead.

As we have learned from the recently released “Connected to Give” report, “the more connected American Jews are to Jewish social networks and Jewish communities, the more likely they are to give, not only to Jewish organizations but to non-Jewish organizations as well.”[2]

If this happens we score a major win – for the individual and the community.


Dan Brown is the founder of

JPeoplehood logoThis essay is from The Peoplehood Papers, volume 11 – Jewish Peoplehood in Practice – published by the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education.

[1] 2012 Millennial Impact Report, Achieve and Johnson Grossnickle Associates

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  1. bob hyfler says

    Dan, I could not agree with you more on the need to broaden, deepen and institutionalize an adult Jewish conversation in America. To be successful, it must have a year long calendar and structure; build bridges between intellectual and campus elites and the grass roots; be gender, age, lifestyle and ideologically inclusive and go way beyond kitchiness and popular culture to the seriousness befitting a world class Jewish civilization. From your pen to the people’s ears.

  2. says

    While I agree with you on the need for more and more Limmud presence in North America, I cannot agree that we don’t have this yet. LimmudBoston, for example, now in our fourth year, has the support of 80 organizations and congregations and communities. In fact, as founder, I had the privilege of receiving the K’lal Yisrael Award from Synagogue Council of Massachusetts because of, well, k’lal Yisrael participating in LimmudBoston. We are one of many one-day North American Limmud programs.

    Limmud NY, Colorado, LA and Atlanta each have vibrant overnite annual Limmuds, each held during major holiday weekends. All of us are in touch with the “mother ship,” Limmud UK. We want to be there for Christmas week. And we want our members to be there, too, in order to experience the international appeal of Limmud.

    All of these programs rely on the beauty of Limmud International Values and Principles, such as pluralism, arguments for the sake of heaven and, most importantly, the fact that we are a community of learners. We check in with one another on procedural issues and we help one another the best we can. As for training educators in the Limmud way, don’t forget newCAJE, which is the conference which inspired those Brits in the first place. And National Havurah Committee which inspired CAJE.

    Limmud is alive and well in the US. It could be even more alive and more well. More cities are creating Limmud communities all the time. Join us on December 8th at LimmudBoston to see how our vibrant community, including unaffiliateds and actively affiliateds and Federation-supported educators and lots and lots of “just learners,” truly celebrate lifelong Jewish learning. Register now, as our literature says. Volunticipate!

  3. Dan Brown says

    What we are missing Steffi, in my opinion, is a national Limmud. Yes, Boston may have great local support, and that is certainly true in many other communities, but it does not take the place of a national program. And as I clearly wrote, local programs need to be strengthened. Nowhere do I suggest replacing any local initiatives with a national one. And nowhere do I suggest Limmud is not alive and well in the US!

    With all due respect to the phenomenal “mothership” – which I have attended and presented at – if you discount staff and top-level volunteers, Americans simply do not attend. And even in our shrinking global world, this is unlikely to change.

    As for training educators, yes, perhaps newCAJE is the answer. But I was speaking significantly wider. Both the “mothership” and Limmud FSU have become training grounds for the next generation of Jewish COMMUNAL leadership. This is missing in Jewish America. No organization is doing this on a national scale and every single organization will eventually pay the price. A national Limmud could help rectify this deficiency.

  4. Jon A. Levisohn says

    With all due respect, Dan, both for you and for Limmud, I’m not so sure about this proposal.

    First, notice the irony of calling for a national organization for Limmud, when so much of the energy comes (as you note) from its grassroots flavor. Especially in the US, with its strong culture of distributed rather than centralized leadership in all educational matters, and especially now, when local initiatives and institutions tend to question just what it is that they get from the national organizations, this seems questionable.

    Beyond this point, it is also the case that there are a number of impressive organizations that support adult learning in the US. Claiming that Limmud is the only model is short-sighted. This is not a criticism of Limmud at all, where I have taught in the past and would happily teach again. Limmud accomplishes some wonderful things. But the landscape also includes others.

    I am thinking of organizations like the Shalom Hartman Institute, which has dramatically ramped up its North American presence under Yehuda Kurtzer’s leadership. Or Kevah, a distributed empowerment model that is growing in leaps and bounds under Sara Heitler Bamberger’s leadership. Or the excellent work over many years of the Wexner Heritage program, now led by Jay Moses, educating and cultivating a new generation of knowledgeable and committed (and, no less, networked) lay leadership.

    (I would cite Me’ah as well, although you have already made it clear that you’re not thinking about particular cities like Boston. The above examples are interesting because they all have a national purview.)


  5. Dan Ab says

    Here’s my summary: There are many large national Jewish organizations in the United States. Since few, if any, of them seem capable of allowing new generations of Jews to seriously contribute to their leadership, we need to found yet another organization that will allow younger generations to lead.

    This is not to criticize the great things that Limmud does, but it seems like a focus on what a nationalized Limmud may or may not be able to accomplish takes attention away from the massive US Jewish organizational infrastructure that needs to actively move towards multigenerational leadership.

  6. Dan Brown says

    It’s not just multi-generational leadership that is needed. They need to move away from solely top-down in order to thrive today. While the former could happen, I have strong doubts about organizations embracing the latter.

  7. Caroline says

    I am a big fan of the Limmud movement and have been actively involved with our local Limmud. But we have yet to come close to maximizing our potential locally or of growing beyond a small pool of both participants and volunteers–which in the case of Limmud is essentially the same thing!
    Why not start with a national organization made up of people from all the Limmuds around the country who can serve as a clearinghouse and share resources–why not do West Coast days and other multistage ones first.

    Do you think the same people who go to Limmud conferences in their own state are the ones who will attend a national one or will you draw new people. If you think it is new, then go for it. If not, then better to strengthen the local ones first and then do a blowout national one every couple of years.

  8. Dan Brown says

    Without a doubt local Limmud programs need to be strengthened. Regional and also biennial events should be part of any discussion.

    There already exists (internationally) a Limmud clearinghouse list-serv for resource sharing, ideas, questions etc. If you are not familiar with it, email us for details (ejewishphilanthropy at gmail).

  9. Dan Ab says

    Dan Brown, Most national Jewish organizations have a very top down leadership structure. In addition to diversifying who is at the top, the leaders need to support and nurture more grassroots leadership. We, sadly, both seem to agree that this is unlikely to happen.

    The issue is what to do about it? Do we start new organizations on a clean slate? Do we assume that the billions of dollars of infrastructure and funds in existing organizations will be stuck there until they collapse and pass it on to completely new organizations? This doesn’t make sense to me.

    We create new organizations when there is a specific reason for a new organization. Perhaps we can build a case that Limmud would be more effective in the US with a national umbrella vs it’s current hyperlocalism. Instead of building that case here, you seem to be saying we need something useful national so why not nationalize a great organization like Limmud.

    While skeptical, I don’t think we can simply abandon legacy organizations the resources they have. We need to highlight the ones that succeed with grassroots leadership and prod the ones that don’t. This won’t always succeed, but it will never succeed if no one tries.

    There are some successes. For example, Hillel is a clearly national organization that gives a lot of power to the professional leadership on campuses and the good campus leaders give a lot of power to the students. The strongest campus Hillels combination national resources with grassroots leadership. Weak Hillels try for too many professionally organized programs and don’t sufficiently build student engagement and leadership.

    Another overlooked example is synagogues. A strong synagogue is a hyperlocal community with grassroots leadership supported by a professionally trained staff. Just like Hillels, the ones that don’t engage and nurture lay leadership aren’t doing well. The irony of the synagogue example is that most modern ones formed under national denominational organization, but those national organizations are declining in strength while many synagogues remain healthy. More than Limmud, this is an example where a strong and healthy national organization can support year-round Jewish practice. It’s yet to be seen whether the existing synagogue unions can adapt or new unions will form with different (or no) denominational boundaries.