[To celebrate Limmud’s 35th year, eJewishPhilanthropy is offering a look into Jewish communities around the world through the eyes of Limmud volunteers. Limmud, the global grassroots Jewish learning movement founded in the United Kingdom in 1980, is today in 80 communities and 40 countries on six continents.]
By Ruth Ouazana
France has always been an important country for the Jews – a country of refuge; but also a country of expulsion. Rashi, the premiere biblical commentator, one of the most famous Jews from the Middle Ages, lived in Troyes, in Champagne. During the difficult times when Jews were expelled or killed in France, the French Popes from Avignon often protected ‘their’ Jews, thus allowing a thriving Jewish life in the south of France.
In 1791, France was the first country to grant Jews citizenship, under the terms “everything as individuals, nothing as a nation.” While some were initially concerned about the impact of citizenship on their traditional way of life, most Jews were happy at last to be recognized as ‘equal’ under French law. However, this did not prevent shouts of “Death to the Jews” in Paris when the Dreyfus Affair began in 1894, bringing Herzl to write “The Jewish State” a year later. The same shouts echoed again in the dark years of World War II.
In the 1960s, the French Jewish community experienced a major demographic boost with the arrival of the Sephardic Jews (and Muslims) from North Africa. Where the Ashkenazi Jews were often assimilated and kept a low Jewish profile, the Sephardic Jews were proud to wear their Jewishness on their sleeves.
Despite some migration to Israel, France continues to host Europe’s largest Jewish community, estimated at 500,000. Of them, 80 percent hail from North African Jewish communities. Around 200,000 are affiliated with the Consistoire Central, the central body of synagogues, or are active in a Jewish organization (schools, youth movements, etc.)
That leaves a majority of Jews who are unaffiliated, many of whom reject contact with the official Jewish community. While the more liberal Reform and Conservative movements in France have reached out and made inroads among the unaffiliated, many still have no interest in synagogue affiliation.
What makes Limoud (as Limmud is known in France) so perfect for the French community is its ability to attract both affiliated and unaffiliated Jews alike.
When I first discovered Limmud in the UK, in 2000, I received a very big shock. I was overwhelmed by feelings of wellbeing and happiness, finding a place like I would have never dreamt of in France! By the second day, I knew I had to bring it home, so my friends, family, and the French Jewish community could experience such an extraordinary event. Not only was it inclusive and open-minded, gathering people from all streams of Judaism, but it was also intergenerational, fun, and interactive – a place where everyone could learn from everyone.
But the Limmud I experienced was in English, and the French don’t speak much English (an understatement), so I knew that our Limmud had to be in French and in France!
A few years later, I returned to Limmud in the UK with both my brothers for some inspiration and tips on how to launch our own Limmud. Upon our return, we quickly gathered a team. Some already had experienced Limmud in the UK. Others were Scouts, like us, who were used to organizing events and camps. We also attracted some other enthusiastic people who were seduced by the originality of Limmud, despite knowing almost nothing about it, and who were interested in offering such an organization to the French Jewry.
When we created Limoud in France in 2006, we started with a two-day event in Versailles that attracted 550 people. We focused on all types of affiliated Jews looking for a place they could learn and socialize without an agenda and we were beyond successful.
Yet over the years, through word of mouth, more and more unaffiliated people have come, including people who may not even observe Yom Kippur, but who proudly identify as “Limoud Jews,” because of the freedom and choice they find.
After seven years, the Crif (Conseil Représentatif des Institutions Juives de France) and the Consistoire, the umbrella organizations of French Jewry, both asked to participate in Limoud. They were especially curious as to how we were able to reach the unaffiliated. Our success, we explained, was a function of process and vision.
Today, Limoud draws 600 participants for its annual three-day weekend learning festival in March (the next one is scheduled for March 4-6, 2016). We sell out quickly, as conference capacity is set by the hotel in Le Coudray-Montceaux (a half-hour south of Paris). Participants range in age from a few months to over 90. About one fifth of our participants are also presenters.
Limoud is the one place in France where Jews of all types mingle comfortably. And because of the great spirit, happiness and common interest, it works! “We were so happy to be able to pray the way we are used to, and so excited to continue to mix with all the diversity of Jews for the rest of the day!,” shared one participant after completing his Shabbat prayers in a Liberal service. “Only in Limmud could we find this openness, this joie de vivre, and happiness to be together!”
Limoud is also recognized for its innovation. Take our prayer service for Orthodox women, where many women were called up to the Torah for the first time ever. In addition, we offer French Jewry a glimpse of what exists beyond the local community, broadening their horizons. Each year, we focus on a different country, hosting the ambassador and inviting local Jews to present on their history and culture. Thus we have learned about Jews in China, India, Spain, Italy, Poland, and Greece. We are working on Argentina for next year!
Chair Elie Lobel summed up the success of Limoud in France: “Limoud has become a major event in our community. This is not only because we gather so many people every year so that we are sold out weeks in advance, but mainly because we are a different type of Jewish event compared to all others. Limoud is probably the only place in France where it is possible to gather so many different Jews ‘as a family’ and have them spend a Shabbat and a weekend to discuss, learn, pray, joke, eat and have good and interesting time together.
“I think it is very important and even more necessary in the aftermath of the terrible events that happened in France in 2015.”
Founder of Limoud in France, Ruth Ouazana lived in Paris, as well as the UK, US and Mexico before settling in Tel Aviv. Lawyer, teacher, theater producer, marketing director, and secretary general of the International Forum of Jewish Scouts, she is very curious about the world we live in, and is determined to leave it in better shape than how she found it. Ruth is particularly interested in informal education and bridge building between people and communities.