Limmud in the Lands of Kangaroos and Kiwis

[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.

Limmud Oz, as Limmud Australia is called, has a place of honor as the first Limmud outside the United Kingdom. Limmud’s footprint in Oceania expanded in 2008 with the establishment of Limmud NZ (New Zealand), but it has not yet taken hold in the (much) smaller Jewish communities of Fiji and French Polynesia.]


Photo by Shirli Kirschner
Limmud Oz: Starting Young; photo by Shirli Kirschner

The Jews Down Under
By Michael Misrachi (Sydney)
and Mandi Katz (Melbourne)

Limmud is the most recent in a line of Jewish imports from Britain to Australia. The Jews themselves, who arrived with the British settlement of the continent, were the original import. There were eight Jewish convicts aboard the First Fleet, which arrived in Botany Bay (Sydney) in 1788.

The Australian Jewish population swelled with the post-WW2 migration from Europe (it has the highest number of Holocaust survivors outside of Israel), and with more recent migration from South Africa, Israel and the Former Soviet Union. Today there are approximately 120,000 Jews, concentrated mostly in Sydney and Melbourne, with a 7,000-strong community in Perth and small numbers in Adelaide, Brisbane, Canberra and elsewhere.

A 2008 study of Australian Jewry by Monash University reported a very strong sense of Jewish identity, with close to 90% citing Jewishness as a defining characteristic in their lives. Approximately 70% of Jews under 35 have attended one of its many Jewish schools. Close to 80% of the surveyed group identified as Zionist. And, despite the distance, around 80% of Australian Jews have visited Israel at least once.

The majority of affiliated Jews belong to an Orthodox synagogue even though most are not observant. Reform (Progressive) synagogues still represent only a small proportion of the community. There are now Conservative (Masorti) synagogues in both Sydney and Melbourne.

Enter Limmud Oz

Photo by David Sokol
Photo by David Sokol

The Australian Jewish community historically has been institutionally strong, tending toward a rigid communal structure. In Sydney, there is an umbrella fundraising and planning body; and, until recently, there was a single kashrut authority. So when Limmud Oz came on the scene in 1999, it was somewhat of an anomaly: bringing together people from all walks of Jewish life who would not normally interact, to engage in substantive Jewish conversations, grapple with Jewish ideas, and learn.

Limmud Oz is now an annual, multi-day event, which alternates between Sydney and Melbourne. Teams in both cities work together closely, enabling them to optimise on international guests. When Limmud Oz takes place in Melbourne, the Sydney team hosts a one-day Yom Limmud event and Limmud Fest, a weekend retreat set in nature.

“Limmud Oz provides secular Jews like me, who are not involved with the organised community on a regular basis, the opportunity to get inspired and connect with the rest of the community,” explained Limmud Oz 2015 Co-Chair Tomer Hasson. “Alongside those who are more involved in their local shule or school, we discuss, debate, relate, get exposed to a wider range of opinions, and learn, without judgment or apologies.”

Limmud in Sydney

Photo by Tomer Hasson
Photo by Tomer Hasson

Limmud Oz was originally launched in Sydney by The Shalom Institute (Shalom), a pluralist educational organization. It has since been transitioning to becoming volunteer-led.

“Shalom’s support continues to be important,” Hasson explained. “It now facilitates, enables and empowers Limmud’s volunteers, from the board to the event volunteers. Shalom also invests in volunteer development by subsidising their participation at Limmud Conference in the UK, after which they come back as active leaders.”

Limmud Oz Sydney attracts some 1,200 people, making it one of the best-attended Limmud events per capita in the Jewish world. It is one of the Sydney Jewish community’s largest, most important, treasured – and controversial – events.

Ahead of the most recent conference in June 2015, a local Jewish academic who is highly critical of Israel and supports the BDS movement sought to present. This forced Limmud Oz to grapple with community and broader politics as well as to scrutinise its own principles and values in an unprecedented way. For Limmud Oz, which prides itself on inclusiveness and commitment to diversity, this was a hugely difficult, although maturing, process.

Limmud in Sydney continues to strive to expand its reach (especially into the Israeli and FSU communities); to become more multi-generational (by engaging more families and young people); and to keep its program fresh.

Limmud in Melbourne

Courtesy Limmud Oz Melbourne
Courtesy Limmud Oz Melbourne

The Melbourne Jewish community is often characterised by its traditional orientation. It has a vibrant synagogue scene and a wide range of Torah study programs for adults. At the same time, the city boasts a strong Jewish Bundist legacy, including a secular Yiddish day school.

Israelis in Melbourne also have strong formal and informal Hebrew language and culture networks. Add to this a range of adult Jewish learning programs on offer at a number of Jewish cultural institutions, as well as courses at Melbourne’s two largest universities.

In the richness of Melbourne Jewish life, Limmud still occupies a unique place – largely because of its cross-communal nature. Founded in 2004, Limmud Oz Melbourne has been volunteer-led and -run since its inception. With a thousand participants in 2014, it continues to be one of the biggest events on Melbourne’s Jewish calendar, as well as one of the larger Limmud gatherings run entirely by volunteers.

“Limmud provides a broad platform for engaging with unashamedly Jewish content including texts and Jewish history,” said Limmud Oz Melbourne 2014 Co-Chair Annette Charak. “It offers a place where people can grapple with the big ideas in Jewish life in a very open way.”

Michael Misrachi, who has been involved in organising 10 Limmuds in Sydney, is Education Director at The Shalom Institute.

Mandi Katz was a co-chair of Limmud Oz Melbourne 2014 and will lead the programing team for the June 2016 event.

The Jews of New Zealand
By Adina Halpern

Spanning generations; courtesy Limmud NZ.
Spanning generations; courtesy Limmud NZ.

Jews arrived in New Zealand in the pre-colonial years. Most were traders or entrepreneurs; a few were gold diggers. When New Zealand became a British colony in 1840, more Jews came, and swiftly became involved in civic affairs. Until the rise of the Nazis, the small Jewish population was mostly from Britain.

The make-up of the Jewish population was radically altered starting in the 1930s. About 1,100 refugees were admitted to New Zealand before and at the start of the war, and several hundred survivors came after the war – primarily from Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia. Further Jewish migration occurred in the mid to late 1950s from Hungary and Poland, with the Warsaw Pact invasion and the Suez crisis.

Despite a constant outflow of young people and families to Melbourne and Sydney in particular, the Jewish population of New Zealand has continued to increase; and, since the 1970s, there has been significant migration from the Former Soviet Union, South Africa and Israel.

In 1848, only 61 of the 16,000 non-Maori (indigenous population) were Jews. Today, there are likely between 10-20,000 Jews among the 4.5 million residents of New Zealand. They are concentrated in Auckland and Wellington, which have both Orthodox and Progressive synagogues. Small Jewish communities also exist in Hamilton, Nelson and Christchurch; and there is an increasing presence of Chabad rabbis who minister to the huge numbers of Israeli backpackers and residents.

Limmud NZ

Courtesy Limmud NZ
Courtesy Limmud NZ

Limmud NZ, now its sixth year, grew out of a Jewish learning conference for local teachers initiated by the Zionist Federation of New Zealand. Of the country’s 3,000 actively involved Jews, more than 400 attended Limmud NZ’s August 2015 weekend in Auckland. This makes Limmud New Zealand’s largest Jewish communal event of the year, bringing together all segments of the community.

In addition to six or more learning tracks for adults and teens, Limmud NZ offers special programmes for children and teens and educators. Strong participation from the youth groups Habonim and Bnei Akiva contribute to the energetic, young vibe. Limmud NZ also brings a taste of global Jewry to the local community.

“We’ve been extremely privileged to have presenters from the UK, USA and Israel,” said Limmud NZ volunteer Brian Bookman. “We also have fabulous local speakers who’ve shared extraordinary experiences from their home countries. This year, we had sessions on Thessalonika and Berlin. Last year, we heard about Belfast and Bolivia.”

“Limmud has had a huge effect on our small, far flung community,” he continued. “It has increased the thirst for learning and made the successful introduction of the Florence Melton Adult School of Jewish Learning possible. It has also increased the ability of Jews within Auckland and across the country to work together on matters of mutual interest.”

Adina Halpern is a founding trustee of Limmud NZ. A commercial lawyer, she is a member of both the orthodox synagogue and the progressive temple.