Limmud China: A Generator for Next-Gen Engagement

Photo by Liz Hingley
Photo by Liz Hingley

by Erica Lyons

One week post-Limmud China, most of us are still on a high. Bringing together approximately 160 participants was a large achievement for the Jews of the Far East. The post-conference flurry of Facebook friend requests still continues (and this is fairly remarkable considering Facebook is for most purposes blocked in China) with photos being uploading even before bags are unpacked.

Anyone who has been to a Limmud understands that there that we were all presenters and we were all participants, we were all volunteers and we were all attendees. Many of us were also there as parents. My eldest son and I have now attended all three Limmuds in China together. And while I would love to use this as an opportunity to kvell that my thirteen-year old son was a presenter (How Can I Talk About Percy Jackson and Make it Jewish? A comparison of Themes from Greek Mythology and Jewish Texts), I won’t.

What I can say is that as Limmud China is raising a new generation of not merely Limmudniks but of Jewish learners that understand the benefits of connectivity and engagement in a profound way, though potentially entirely unaware of it. As a child I was shuttled between youth programs that included the obligatory Hebrew school as well as youth activities like BBYO and USY, while my parents were entrenched in Federation and NCJW. And while my portable playpen was often a fixture in the Federation office and in later years when my parents co-chaired Super Sunday, I remember running around with the other organizers’ children at a most decidedly adult activity, I can’t remember a event (shul aside) that was meant to engage all of us together.

While a large part of the attraction of Limmud China for many of us was the chance to connect with others in the region given the relative isolation of our communities from one another, it was a chance to also connect with one another across generational divides. Despite the relative richness of Jewish life I had growing up in suburban New Jersey, this was an opportunity we missed out on.

As Limmud in China grows, so does its programming and its ability to cater to the needs of different groups. The toddler and elementary school set were kept busy while the teens took advantage of the main programming. I would spot the middle school set moving between the two. A gang of newly found friends, including my son, sometimes opted for soccer in lieu of sessions but often they would make their way into the ‘adult’ programming as well. Not surprisingly, they were more attracted to activities like the mock Indian Wedding Mehndi Ceremony (where the henna pens were particularly popular), Krav Maga and Chinese Comedy and they purposefully bypassed discussions on politics, history and linguistics. They were welcomed very much as participants, just somewhat shorter ones.

While Limmud reached the future-future leaders, it perhaps had its most profound impact on the ‘young professional’ set. This group was very much ‘over-represented’ in Limmud China comparative to other Limmuds in the very best of ways. While living in small communities, especially those that are highly organized and well-established, often means a limit to the number of opportunities for young professionals to assume leadership roles, the exact opposite phenomena sometimes can hold true as well. At Limmud China a different demographic was able to take on leadership roles. Just a few years ago, I would have categorized this region as nearly entirely lacking this type of opportunity, but Limmd China has now entirely proven me wrong.

As Jamie Fleishman, Moishe House Beijing resident and a young professional member of the Limmud China organizing team explains, “it was special as an organizer to see Limmud China come to life. We had an incredible team of dedicated volunteers – including many Limmud first-timers. It was great to see the younger professional Jews step up to make Limmud China happen.”

In fact, the overwhelming majority of the presenters were under the age of forty. Further contributing to the energetic and youthful spirit of this young annual event was the presence at the event of Entwine (JDC’s movement of up and coming Jewish advocates, influencers and leaders). This group from the United States and the UK attended the event as part of Entwine’s Inside Jewish China trip. But the group didn’t merely attend the event but also led sessions as well and seized the opportunity to further their understanding of Jewish life in the Far East by connecting with local community members. They quickly too became part of the community rather than mere guests.

Targeting the young professional set, Limmud also included a session led by Moishe House Beijing as well new Moishe House Shanghai. There was even discussion about the possibility of eventually bringing Moishe House to Hong Kong as well.

This type of programming, while initiated by the JDC, is empowering future Jewish leaders throughout the region in many small and emerging communities. It is about investing in places and in people. The Jewish Far East is a place of emerging communities as well as emerging leaders. While Limmud means many different things to different people, for the communities of the Far East it is an opportunity to help our communities grow together and for the next generation of leaders to grow as well.