Limmud in the Context of Informal Jewish Education

Development of the “Limmud” project in the context of the informal Jewish education system

by Dr. Dmitry Maryasis

Over the last twenty years, the Jewish community of Russia, which plays a significant role in the socio-political life of the country, has come a long way from underground existence to the most dynamically developing Jewish communities of the world. For this kind of success not to be short-lived, the community had to create and develop a modern educational system and it did. What is interesting is that two systems of Jewish education have been and still are developing in parallel – the formal and informal ones – both developing rapidly, in like manner, at that.

The system of formal Jewish education embraces kindergartens, schools, universities and programs of post-graduate education, both secular and religious. All over the country, various scientific centers hold special conferences, “round tables” and seminars in different fields of what is called Jewish Sciences (Judaica). The system of informal education, on the other hand, consists of a number of projects implemented within the framework of various Jewish organizations, independent projects and recently emerged specialized centers. These centers are involved in the systemization and scientific-methods substantiation of knowledge and skills accumulated over quite a considerable period of development of informal Jewish education in Russia.

In 2006, in our country, there appeared a new international Jewish educational project “Limmud” pretending to play all but the main role in today’s field of education for Jewish communities in the post-Soviet territory. This article is a discussion of the development prospects of the project in the CIS countries in terms of what the author understands by the term “Jewish informal education”. Thus, the article consists of three parts: a short analysis of present-day approaches to informal education in general and to Jewish education, in particular, a short history of the development of project “Limmud”, examination of today’s realities in the development of the project on the CIS territory and the estimate of its future development.

What is informal education?

In quest of an answer to “What is informal education and how does it differ from formal education?” the author carried out a small research, which cannot be called scientific in the full sense of the word. The author analyzed materials found at the Russian and English-language segments of the Internet while searching “informal education” (informal education/non-formal education), as well as some publications in periodicals of the Jewish community. Within the framework of the present research, there have been held a number of discussions with professional teachers who had worked in the system for a long time.

Even this small research has led to quite interesting results. The Web resources are clearly divided into two groups: Jewish and non-Jewish. In the Russian segment, the leading part is played precisely by Jewish sites which, one way or another, carry information about Jewish informal education. They are more numerous and much better promoted. In the English segment, the search for Jewish sites on this topic, among the first fifty sites of different search engines, yielded no results. At the same time, as will be indicated further, the non-Jewish sites of both segments present informal education in a similar vein. It is of interest that, as compared with their non-Jewish analogues, the Jewish sites come out with a more profound and better considered conception of informal education. It appears that the reason for this lies in the very tradition of Jewish education which goes back more than two thousand years, the fact that will be dealt with in more detail further on.

Thus, generally speaking, by most non-Jewish Web resources, informal education is regarded as “academic programs and courses organized and held outside the traditional education system, with no appropriate document proving the training outcome”. A more extensive definition may also include the idea of informal education being an unsystematized training of an individual in knowledge and skills which he naturally acquires in the process of communication with the social environment and via independent cultural values inclusion”. It is important to note that in similar sources the term “informal education” is all too often used alongside the term “additional education”; in other words, it refers to a certain number of hobby groups, athletics classes and other workshops conducted in addition to school and university classes. They are designed to either facilitate a more effective mastering of the information obtained within the framework of formal education by those for whom it is difficult to apprehend the material submitted within the limits of certain teaching methods or with the purpose of organizing the pupils’ spare time to keep them off the street left to their own devices. As an example of this kind of approach we can consider the information spread by the Press Service of the Israeli party “Israel is Our Home” (IOH) about the preliminary hearings on the draft bill on informal education in Israel. In this case, though the site is an Israeli one, it would be more appropriate to refer it to the group of non-Jewish ones since in this context informal education is regarded from the state, official point of view, which in Israel is quite similar to the American one.

Russian language Jewish resources, on the whole, demonstrate a similar approach to the interpretation of informal education. However, in the course of a more careful analysis of the information contained there, a number of serious distinctions come to light. These distinctions lie in a more system-based approach to attaining objectives, which was most vividly defined by Anna Pivovarova, Director of informal education and People Development of Hillel Russia: “The principal difference between informal education and formal lies in their objectives. The objective of formal education is to provide knowledge and that of informal – to help a person make progress”.

As we see it, two reasons determine the necessity of a system-based approach to informal Jewish education. Firstly, as Dr. Schneider convincingly puts it in his article “Peculiarities of correlation of the formal and informal in Jewish education”, over centuries, elements of both systems have been closely interlaced in the very tradition of Jewish education. Therefore, to enhance the effectiveness of the process, it was necessary to create a clear-cut structure in which both its components did not interfere with each other, but on the contrary, formed an integral pattern facilitating a most overall development of students. Secondly, it is on informal education that the Jewish community lays the responsibility for upbringing, let’s say, “a Jewish personality” both among the younger and the older generations. To cope with this task, we need a comprehensive formation that would enable us to attract new people to participation in community life, to cultivate in them the sense of Jewish self-awareness, to evoke in them the need of belonging to the Jewish community for the rest of their lives irrespective of their professional aspirations and individual perception of present-day Jewry.

From the very start of its formation, 18-20 years ago, the system of informal Jewish education in Russia enjoyed the possibility of availing itself of world achievements and the latest methods in this field, some other educational structures were practically devoid of. The combination of this and the two components led to a situation in our country today when it is the Jewish informal education that is most advanced in terms of conceptuality of approaches, development of methods and teaching techniques and the realization of the educational process.

Thus, as the author sees it, the most coherent and explicit definition of informal education is as follows: “It is a system of logically and conceptually worked out methods targeted at personality development in a specific field and based on the students’ active role in the educational process with no appraisal of their knowledge or professionalism, their personality development being the only target of assessment”. It is from this standpoint that the place of project “Limmud” in the present-day system of Jewish informal education will be considered.

The history of the “Limmud” project’s formation and its essence

The project came into being in England, in 1980. Its founders were four young British Jews who were not at all pleased with what was going on in the local Jewish community, namely, beadledom, unhealthy rivalry among Jewish organizations and lack of any progress in Jewish life. The name for the new organization was derived from the Hebrew word “education”.

Over the past 29 years, the number of participants in the project has grown from 80 people coming only from Britain to some 5000-7000 from different countries (Great Britain – the majority, Israel, USA, the Netherlands, Argentina, Australia, Turkey, Lithuania, Russia, Ukraine, Belorussia and others).

At its core, Limmud is a conference. Its uniqueness lies in the principles it is based on, namely:

  1. Voluntary participation. All those who prepare the conference throughout the year and are directly involved in its work do so on voluntary basis. Moreover, the majority of volunteers pay the total cost of participation in the project. Presenters get no fees for their speeches. If a presenter is invited by the organizers, he may get his passage paid. If he volunteers to be a lecturer for Limmud, he must pay for his participation.
  2. Every person who wants to address the conference gets such an opportunity. To do this you needn’t be a professional in the chosen theme. The scope of the conference is quite broad. It embraces everything that may be characterized by the term “The Jewish world”. In different countries it gets a different interpretation. For example, in the British Limmud, a Jewish presenter may speak on any topic (for instance, I was present at a sitting devoted to various decision-taking models), whereas, a non-Jewish presenter must come out with a topic related to Jews (for example, at his sitting, an Israeli Arab spoke about the life problems of Arabs – citizens of the State of Israel – in that country).
  3. A big choice. At every sitting of Limmud (which lasts an hour and 10 minutes), conference organizers try to provide the participants with a wide choice of topics and types of presentation (from a lecture to a creativity workshop). Thus, in Limmud, in Great Britain, there may be 30-35 events going on at the same time in the middle of the day.

The setup of the conference is simple. Every participant receives a Limmud program (in Great Britain it is a volume of almost 400 pages) which carries, with dates and hours, a detailed schedule of all the events, their short description and brief biographies of lecturers. Apart from some special occurrences, there is no preliminary registration for lecturers. Before every session, participants decide where they want to go if at all. For those who, for some reason, do not want to attend the next session, there is a special place with tables and chairs where one can have a rest. As a result, the lecturer does not know how many people will attend his lecture. There is a risk that not a single participant of the conference will find this or that theme interesting. This situation is certainly not pleasant for the teacher. But only this line of approach guarantees the feeling of free choice that, in fact, attracts the majority of participants.

There is no age limit for the participants. To the British Limmud, a lot of people come with their families. For young kids, there are special group organized in the manner of field Jewish camps. It is difficult to determine the targeted audience.

In more than 30 years of development, Limmud has become something larger than a conference – an existence conception of the Jewish community. In Great Britain, within the framework of this conception, there are held journeys on foot, festive arrangements which include the marking of Shabbat; in a lot of cities there are one-day Limmud conferences organized along with special training seminars for volunteers. The flexibility of the conception allows for a lot of types of activity to be undertaken within its framework.

In 2006, Limmud appeared on the CIS territory. What makes the situation essentially different from that in Great Britain, where the project was born, is that in CIS Limmud was introduced by Chaim Chesler and Sandra F. Cahn. Chaim Chesler is a high official of Sokhnut, now retired, with an experience of work in Russia, in the middle of the 90s, 20th century; Sandra F. Cahn is a high life representative of the New York Jewish community. Way back, at the beginning of the new millennium, they decided to acquaint the Jewish communities of the former USSR with the unique project and to prepare a Russian-language conference. There were a lot of problems, the main one being the necessity to create a large financial project fund since the absolute majority of participants could not afford to pay for the conference, what with the great distances they had to cover and the overall low income level of Jews in this region.

Thanks to the amazing energy and commitment of these people, the needed money had been raised when there arose another problem, i.e., how to preserve the independence of the project from the will of the donors, since in this very independence lies the reason for the success of the conference in Britain.

At first, the problem looked somewhat theoretical, as after the money had been raised, the main task of the organizers was the creation of a local team, project volunteers, who would be involved in the preparation of the conference. A lot of effort had been undertaken for that end. Firstly, on the Russian side, Pr. M.A. Chlenov, a famous leader of the Russian Jewish community, came out as the project co-founder, which fact supported the already positive attitude to the project in the Russian Jewish community, let alone the standing and influence of Mr. Chlenov that helped open doors which, otherwise, would be hard to open. Secondly, a lot of work had been put in to create a CIS Limmud steering committee as such. A lot of people, somehow or other, were present at the first meetings, but since the attendance was absolutely free, the attending energy of most participants lasted only one or two sessions. However, starting with the first meetings, there began to form a team of young activists headed by the then chief executive officer of MJRC Alexander Pyatigorsky.

A one-day Limmud conference, held in Moscow, on May 14, 2006, was the outcome of the first several months of work. On the whole, the event was a success, but the one-day format did not make it possible for people who had never heard of the project to understand its essence and the way it differed from a common lyceum or other similar events. However, it has to be mentioned that the project received acknowledgment on the map of Jewish Moscow, which was by no means unimportant for its further development.

The final formation of the core of the conference steering committee took place in autumn, the same year, with the appearance of the only salaried employee in the team – Eugene Malkina, the “Limmud” project’s manager. This is when the seemingly abstract, at the start, problem of the relationship between the sponsors on the one hand, and the team of volunteers standing for the true independence of the project from the will of Jewish organizations, on the other hand, took quite a practical course. On the one side, Jewish organizations and funds (mostly foreign ones) acting as donors, as well as Chaim Chesler, responsible for the collected money, wanted to have full control over everything, which is absolutely justified, while on the other side, there is a team of local volunteers who wanted to be independent in decision making on the conference in that of its parts, as a minimum, related to the program, the recruiting of employees and the pricing policy. After some tough negotiations, they came to the following reasoned compromise: the volunteer team won independence in the program policy, namely, in their work with lecturers (invitation, selection, work on the lectures’ themes) and the drawing up of schedule; the logistic preparation was also delegated to the local team in the person of the project manager. Whereby, Chaim Chesler had regulatory control over the process of preparation and expressed his opinion whenever it was necessary to introduce some changes. His point of view was considered to be decisive and was, in fact, a guide to action, what with the impossibility to reach, by way of discussion, a decision accepted by everybody. Eventually, with the local team having gained the necessary experience, Chesler loosened his control over the process and interfered in the preparation only when it was necessary to make political decisions important for an effective co-operation with donors. The above described scheme of team-work proved its consistency since the specified terms are still relevant and are accepted by both parties.

By the time the article was written, five conferences had already been held: Limmud-Moscow 2007 (April 13-15, 2007) with 130 participants; Limmud- CIS (October 18-21, 2007) with 720 participants from the CIS countries, as well as a number of presenters from Israel and USA; Limmud-Moscow 2008 (April 11-13, 2008) with 230 participants including a number of lecturers from Israel and some guests from Belorussia and Ukraine; Limmud-Ashkelon (September 25-26, 2008) with 1500 participants; Limmud-Yalta 2008 (October 27-30, 2008) with over 1000 from the CIS countries and guests from Israel and USA; Limmud-Moscow 2009 (April 17-19, 2009) with 350 participants; Limmud-Jerusalem (July 1-2, 2009) with 750 people present; Limmud-New York in August, 2009 and, finally, Limmud-Birobidzhan in September, 2009.

All of them may be unequivocally assessed as being successful despite a number of organizational and program mistakes brought about by the organizers’ lack of experience and the impossibility to foresee everything beforehand.

The main thing that has been achieved is the popularity of the project among a considerable part of the Jewish community, at least, in Moscow, as well as the strengthening of the Limmud CIS status as part of the international network created on the basis of the British Limmud. Today, despite the financial crisis, in a relatively short time and with, practically, no advertisement, the latest Moscow conference assembled a record number of participants ready to pay for logistical expenses, which fact, needless to say, assures us of the project’s great future in the Russian Jewish community.

Project “Limmud” in the system of Jewish informal education in Russia

Limmud is an absolutely Jewish project as it is a present-day interpretation of the Jewish educational tradition, which has been discussed at length above. The very structure of the conference is built on the basis of informal approach to formal issues. For example, the goal of a lot of lectures is to impart knowledge, but the availability of choice and optional attendance makes all the difference. Because in this case, a participant attends this or that lecture guided only by his own choice and understanding that the knowledge he gets at the lecture will contribute to his internal growth and personal enhancement, which is, as is said above, the very goal of informal education. The opinions of the conference participants confirm that its structure creates an atmosphere of psychological comfort, which enables them to enjoy the process of learning and studying, which, as is known, does not occur too often.

Anna Pivovarova, in a conversation with the author, mentioned another very important feature of Limmud. It is known that in the Jewish tradition, the theme of teacher-pupil relationship is very well worked out. From the very beginning, the teacher must proclaim his stand on matters of principle so that the pupil can choose a teacher whose philosophy is close to his. According to Anna Pivovarova, Limmud is a unique forum for proclaiming one’s ideas where you can, at one stroke, familiarize yourself with different stands on one and the same point. “Pupils” or those who are just going to become such, can find “their” teacher there.

Limmud has another unique feature that allows us to speak of it not as of a “project” in the narrow sense of the term, but as of a model of the Jewish community. A lot has been already said about the educational value of the project to the participants. However, both the organizers and the lecturers must come a long way to really become part of Limmud. One needs to spend a major part of one’s free time, with no material benefit whatsoever, to prepare a high-grade conference and to work at it in a professional manner, taking into consideration all the seemingly insignificant particularities of the technical and logistical organization of the event. Thus, the success of Limmud depends on the professional level of conference volunteers and the extent of their commitment.

So how can we combine the volunteer character of the conference with high professional requirements? It appears, the answer lies in the motivation field. Only the desire to do something not for oneself, but for your close ones, your friends, the community, the desire to make the world surrounding us more interesting, brighter and better – this is what allows us to achieve such a result. In fact, this is the fulfillment of one of the central community-forming principles of the Jewish traditions “Tikun Olam” (it may be translated into English as the “improvement of the world”).

Today Limmud is only making its first steps in the CIS countries. If we talk about the technical aspect of the project development, financing still remains to be its primary concern. For financing to run on, we have to arrange, within the framework of conferences, large-scale colorful events and to invite to them representatives of donors and all potential donors as well. This creates a feeling of a political show, which, undoubtedly, contravenes the main principles of Limmud and degrades the standard of the project in the eyes of some participants. However, there are grounds to believe, that eventually, with Limmud developing in the CIS, the need for such promotional events will be declining and in the future it will completely disappear, failing which, the project will never become truly communal.

In terms of content, the conference has already won a definite popularity and is perceived as an integral part of the Jewish informal educational system. There are people for whom participation in the project is all but the only contact with the life of the Jewish community. Limmud has already become a trendsetter – Jewish organizations take in everything that enjoyed popularity at the conference and use the information to develop their own educational projects. However, organizers of the project and some of the lecturers participating in the conference need to undergo a serious cycle of inner development to be able to regard Limmud as a means of improving the World. It may seem that these are just high-flown words, but I think that without this understanding the project will have no long history of success that it enjoys in Great Britain. Without it the project has no chance of really becoming one of the central elements in the system of informal Jewish education in our country.

Dr. Dmitry Maryasis is Director of the Moscow office of the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress (EAJC).

image: session at Limmud FSU in Truskovets, March, 2010