Limmud South Africa: Aye-Sayer to Jewish Diversity and Possibility

Grassroots, bold and sassy, deep, integrative, and committed to Jewish text and the Jewish fringes, Limmud SA adds fire to the South African Jewish scene.

Participants pause to pose in the middle of great discussion; photo courtesy of Howard Sackstein.
Participants pause to pose in the middle of great discussion; photo courtesy of Howard Sackstein.

[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 Adina Roth

Limmud South Africa will celebrate its ninth year July 31-August 9, 2015.

It all began when two student leaders from the South African Jewish community attended Limmud Conference in the United Kingdom in December 2005. Upon their return, eyes aglow and minds a-whir, they spoke about a Jewish festival like we had never seen – a smorgasbord of Jewish learning and culture, a place where all voices could be heard and where there was space for multiple opinions, dialogue and engagement.

In September 2006, a small group of Jewish lay leaders met in Fishhoek, just outside Cape Town, and the vision for Limmud South Africa (SA) was born. It launched in Cape Town and Johannesburg in August 2007.

Today, South Africa’s three largest cities share a 10-day celebration of Jewish learning and living. Limmud Johannesburg and Limmud Cape Town bookend the activities with weekend residential events; Limmud Durban offers a mid-week, two-day festival. (Take note: There is even a Safari option!)

Welcome to Limmud SA! Photo courtesy Bianca Shulman.
Welcome to Limmud SA! Photo courtesy Bianca Shulman.

Limmud SA is integral to the fabric of South African Jewry. In addition to the annual conferences, there are year-round Limmud activities, including Tikkun Leil Shavuot learning, movie nights, Jewish cultural exchanges and Taste of Limmud events.

South African Jewry in a nutshell

The South African Jewish community is by far the largest on the African continent. Most South African Jews trace their origins to the arrival of East European immigrants, a high proportion from Lithuania, between 1880 and 1940. During the 1930s, there was a further influx from Germany as a result of Nazi persecution. During the 1970s, Jews came from Israel and a number of southern African states.

According to Jewish Virtual Library, between 1948 and 1994, many Jewish South Africans helped support the anti-Apartheid movement. Jewish university students, in particular, vehemently opposed Apartheid.

Nelson Mandela, one of the great leaders of the anti-Apartheid movement who was elected president after its downfall, wrote, “I have found Jews to be more broadminded than most whites on issues of race and politics, perhaps because they themselves have historically been victims of prejudice.”

Mandela’s defense attorney, Isie Maisels, was Jewish.

Limmud SA has become a home for many Jews who fought Apartheid and a space to explore what it means to live in post-Apartheid South Africa.

Limmud South Africa logoLimmud vibrancy in action

Of the approximately 75,000 Jews who comprise the community today, nearly 90 percent affiliate with Orthodox synagogues. The vast majority – about 55,000 – live in Johannesburg.

In 2007, despite a ban from the South African Chief Rabbi’s office, the first Limmud Johannesburg (JHB) drew 400 participants. David Bilchitz, currently Limmud International Steering Committee chair, co-chaired and initiated the kick-off event. Within four years, it swelled to 1,000 delegates. Limmud JHB moved from a one-day format to a residential model in 2011, and promptly sold out.

Limmud JHB is extremely proud of the diversity of its participants. From people who don’t feel comfortable anywhere else in the Jewish community to those who attend Orthodox synagogues and schools, from alienated LGBTI activists to Chabadniks seeking something fresh and open minded, Limmud JHB brings together an incredible spectrum. For some, Limmud provides the only place where they can explore their Judaism. For others, it is a space that shakes up their Jewish assumptions.

Cape Town’s Jewish community numbers about 16,000, and is considered more open minded. No surprise then that Limmud Cape Town launched in August 2007 with a sold out residential weekend, chaired by Vivienne Anstey, Limmud SA’s co-founder. Limmud Cape Town is so successful that every year it sells out before the program is even released.

Limmud Cape Town posterLimmud Cape Town gives priority to growing local talent, including leaders in South African development and civil society. For example, anti-Apartheid activist Albie Sachs presented on how his Jewishness informed his revolutionary spirit. Father Michael Lapsley, a South African Anglican priest and social justice activist, was interviewed about forgiveness and reconciliation.

More generally, Limmud SA makes it a point to nurture local presenters. Among them are experts on the architecture of the tabernacle, modern Israeli literature, Jewish self-obsession, and the relationship between biblical culture and Egyptology.

‘The sessions – whether on art, literature, music, philosophy, history, religion or politics – always give me an opportunity to learn something new, hear interesting speakers and engage in intellectual thought of the highest standard,” said presenter Erica Emdon Elk, a writer, lawyer, and anti-Apartheid activist who has found a Jewish home at Limmud.

Limmud Durban, which some consider South Africa’s best and most intimate conference, was co-founded by Cookie Isaacs and Adir Puterman in 2008. Every year, around 200 people take part – more than 10% of Durban’s 1,800 Jews – despite an aging demographic and ongoing Orthodox rabbinic antagonism. This year, Limmud Durban is making a special effort to attract younger participants and families.

Limmud SA’s impact is felt in other areas, too. For example, Habonim Machaneh hosts a learning program designed in conjunction with Limmud SA during its annual summer camp. And, Limmud organizers are involved with the King David and Herzlia schools in Johannesburg and Cape Town respectively, to fashion Limmud-inspired programs.

And, thanks to Limmud SA, the Florence Melton School for Adult Jewish Education came to Cape Town and Johannesburg, underscoring the flowering of empowered, text-based Jewish learning.

Ongoing challenges

As Limmud SA grows and matures, we find we are confronting challenges unique to our community.

First, there is the ongoing ban by the Chief Rabbi. This prevents South African Orthodox rabbis from presenting. It also deters many from attending.

While this ostensibly relegates Limmud SA to the fringes, our presence has become so entrenched there are many who consider Limmud mainstream.

Indeed, fearing Limmud’s success, the Chief Rabbinate launched the Limmud-inspired Sinai Indaba. We consider it a feather in our cap and salute similar future ventures.

While Limmud SA continues to stand tall, we are well aware of the uncertain communal and political landscape. The South African Jewish community has been steadily diminishing in size. From 120,000 in its heyday, waves of emigration beginning in the 1970s and continuing to this day have seen Jews leaving for the United States, Canada and, more recently, Australia, with others making Aliyah.

Because of crime and other socio-political realities, the Jewish community also struggles with a certain insularity and conservatism.

Still and all, South African Jewry is here to stay.

Limmud SA has shaken assumptions and challenged communal strongholds of power. It has been a breath of fresh air, stirring the green-shoots of verdant possibility. We will continue to evolve, grow and lead with our blend of local and international excellence.

Grassroots, bold and sassy, deep, integrative, and committed to Jewish text and the Jewish fringes, Limmud SA adds fire to the South African Jewish scene. We serve as a powerful aye-sayer to the nay-sayers.

Josh Hovsha, Limmud JHB’s 2015 Conference Co-Chair, summed it up this way: “Above all, Limmud has connected me to a new group of people whom I am proud to call my friends – people with differing, and at times conflicting, interests. A group united by a generosity of spirit and the desire to learn, share and create.”

Adina Roth is a clinical psychologist with dual master’s degrees in literature. An alum of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem and Drisha Institute for Jewish Education in New York, Adina has been a national Limmud SA programming chair and three-time Limmud JHB programming and conference chair. Adina runs B’tocham Education, a bnei mitzvah program, and organizes women’s Torah and megillah readings. Adina lives in Johannesburg with her husband, daughter and son, and is interested in fostering creative and diverse community spaces within the Jewish community and beyond.