Limmud: A Unique Model of Transformative Jewish Learning

From Russia’s Far East to Los Angeles; from the U.K. to Australia; Limmud has exploded across the global Jewish landscape. Now thirty years old, this hugely successful initiative in informal Jewish education shows no signs of age. This month brings events on multiple continents, including Limmud Fest in the U.K., Limmud in Cape Town, Durban and Johannesburg, Buenos Aires and New Zealand along with LimmudFSU programs in Jerusalem and WestHampton, New York.

Here, to answer the question “What is Limmud?” is Raymond Simonson, executive director of Limmud (U.K.).

by Raymond Simonson

Limmud was initially established in 1980 as a small conference by and for Jewish educators. This first Limmud event, inspired by the four founders’ experience of CAJE in North America, saw approximately eighty British Jewish educators gather from across the denominational, cultural and organisational spectrum to learn with and from each other in a retreat-style setting. The success of this first event led to the call for an annual conference, which began to regularly grow in size, scope, reach and impact on the wider Jewish community.

Three decades on, Limmud is now a world-leader in cross-communal, multi-generational, volunteer-led Jewish learning experiences. It has become regarded as one of the most vibrant, dynamic and successful examples of alternative educational projects in the Jewish world. It is undoubtedly British and European Jewry’s premier adult education initiative, with over 7,000 people involved in at least one Limmud activity each year in the UK. Its flagship event, the week-long Limmud Conference, is now a landmark in the Jewish calendar, annually attended by over 2,500 participants from across the globe. Alongside this, Limmud attracts ever-increasing number to LimmudFest, its summer outdoor learning and culture residential retreat during the month of Elul; fifteen Regional Limmud teams organise Day Limmud conferences in their local communities across the length and breadth of the UK, with over 3,000 people participating in any of six different Day Limmuds each year; over 2,000 people receive a weekly “Taste of Limmud” cross-denominational parsha (weekly Torah portion) commentary each week written by a different Jewish educator – all Limmud presenters – from around the world; and over 750 Limmud volunteers engage in learning, training and development sessions, meetings and seminars around the UK throughout the year.

Perhaps the essence of what makes Limmud such a powerful, successful, transformational endeavour in the field of Jewish education was best captured by the world’s oldest Jewish newspaper, the Jewish Chronicle, when its Judaism Editor and chief writer wrote in 2009: “Limmud has caught the imagination of Jews worldwide because it offers a broader, more open experience of Jewish community, rather than one bound by hierarchy and convention or riven by religious compartmentalisation. A place of “yes, we can” rather than “no, you can’t”…. It’s easy to think that this is the Jewish community as many think it should be: democratic, egalitarian, inclusive, willing to encourage experiment and exposure to different ideas and views.” (Simon Rocker, JC, 08/01/2009).

Most strikingly perhaps, is the rapid and unprecedented growth of Limmud across the world. As the new century began, a handful of grassroots activists from Jewish communities in Northern Israel, the Netherlands and Australia who had all experienced Limmud Conference as participants, began planning the first Limmud events outside of the UK. With the guidance and support of experienced British Limmud volunteers and one part-time professional, nascent teams were formed in these communities and their inaugural events were held with much success. Within a few years as increasing numbers of overseas participants of Limmud’s events in the UK began to enquire about developing the model in their own communities, Limmud responded by forming Limmud International to oversee this unanticipated growth. By 2008 Limmud International, under the chairmanship of Andrew Gilbert – of one of Limmud’s most experienced and respected volunteer leaders (and former Chair of the organisation during a key period of growth in the 1990s) – was supporting over 40 Limmud communities around the world providing mentoring, training, development and guidance to the local volunteer leadership. From Budapest to Buenos Aries, Cape Town to Colorado, Los Angeles to Lithuania, Modi’in to Moscow, Sweden to Serbia and from Turkey to Toronto, more and more diverse Jewish communities have been adopting Limmud’s approach to Jewish learning with passion and vigour. This figure now stands at 54 Limmud communities worldwide, and under the impressive new Co-Chairs Helena Miller and Uri Berkowitz, the Limmud International endeavour continues to go from strength to strength. There is no surprise that Limmud has been described as: “one of the strangest and fastest-growing phenomena of the Jewish world, one that may be transforming how large numbers of Jews gather and study … it may be a new sociological phenomenon” (Haviv Rettig-Gur, Jerusalem Post, 31/12/07).

There are now thousands of Limmud volunteers across the world building their own events of Jewish learning and culture for themselves and their communities. In almost every community around the world where there is an active Limmud group, it is these volunteers – particularly those of the younger generations – who, inspired by their involvement are now amongst the key protagonists driving the rejuvenation of Jewish life, learning and community development, and who are at the forefront of initiatives that are engaging ever-growing numbers of young adults. Take for example the UK, where in the inaugural “40 Under 40” list of the Jews under 40 years old who are having the biggest impact on the British Jewish community, well over half are involved with Limmud – either as their primary Jewish communal involvement, or as one of those that has inspired and impacted on them to do more. No other single Jewish organisation or project has made such an impact on this age group in this list.

to be continued

Raymond Simonson is the Executive Director of Limmud (U.K.)