Limmuds in the Land of the Maple Leaf

[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 which was founded in the United Kingdom in 1980, is today in 80 communities and 40 countries.]

By Ysabella (Yszi) Hawkings

Canada’s first Jews arrived as British soldiers in 1760 to fight in the French and Indian War. The Jewish population grew gradually through the 19th century. Today, there are anywhere from 340,000 to 380,000 Jews in Canada, according to Jewish Virtual Library. They hail from countries in Eastern Europe, the former Soviet Union, Israel, and Morocco, as well as other parts of the Middle East and Africa.

All of Canada’s major Jewish population centers boast Limmud programs, including Toronto, home to 175,000 Jews, and Montreal (100,000 Jews), as well as Vancouver (30,000), Winnipeg (15,000) and Ottawa (12,000). reports that Canadian Jews tend to be more traditional than American Jews. Affiliations have shifted since 1990, when 40% of affiliated Jews identified as Orthodox, 40% Conservative and 20% Reform; now, many more Jews identify as unaffiliated. Affiliation notwithstanding, Jews of every stripe find a place within each Canadian Limmud community.

Peter & Lesley Sevitt, Limmud Toronto founders, at Limmud Toronto 2015. Photo courtesy Aaron Rotenberg.
Peter & Lesley Sevitt, Limmud Toronto founders, at Limmud Toronto 2015. Photo courtesy Aaron Rotenberg.

Limmud Toronto, the first Limmud group in North America, was brought to the city by British ex-pats Peter and Lesley Sevitt, who were overwhelmed by what they’d seen at Limmud Conference in the United Kingdom.

“Our passion for Limmud translated into bringing it to Canada,” Peter told eJewishPhilanthropy. “I felt it could inspire others to enjoy Jewish philosophy, literature, Talmud, poetry, history, and food, without anybody asking what denomination are you or are you involved in the community. It was an opportunity to connect with all Jews.”

Limmud Toronto kicked off in 2004 – when Canadian Justice Minister and Attorney General Irwin Cotler delivered the keynote address, followed by events in 2007 and 2009. It was re-launched in March 2015, with 90 presenters and over 400 participants. The next Limmud Toronto is scheduled for March 6, 2016.

In the past decade, Limmud has spread across Canada.

The Yona Choir at Limmud Winnipeg 2015
The Yona Choir at Limmud Winnipeg 2015

Limmud Winnipeg was started six years ago after a small group of volunteers heard about Limmud in the UK. While the Winnipeg Jewish community is usually quite isolated, Limmud Winnipeg has become a force for exposing the whole community to a diverse array of presenters. In mid-March 2015, more than 350 people converged on the 5th annual festival of Jewish learning.

“[I’m] still feeling the afterglow of this year’s Limmud,” said Limmud Winnipeg Co-Chair Julie Birek. “People who were there keep telling me how much they enjoyed it. We are on a roll!”

Limmud OttawaLimmud Ottawa launched in Canada’s capital in October 2013, in partnership with Carleton University. The inaugural event included a Saturday night Havdalah service followed by a full Sunday of presentations. The second Limmud Ottawa in November 2014 drew over 250 people. The next one is scheduled for Sunday, November 1, 2015.

“Limmud Ottawa celebrates and supports Jewish diversity,” said Jenny Roberge, chair of the 2014 planning team. “We encourage everyone to be proud of their perspective. We want everyone to hear the different takes on what others maintain as quintessential Judaism.  Our objective is to create new communities that only can be sustained by mutual respect.”

Limmud Van’s Saturday night cabaret of teaching, storytelling, music and dance.
Limmud Van’s Saturday night cabaret of teaching, storytelling, music and dance.

Limmud Vancouver is the newest Limmud on the Canadian block. Its first event in February 2014 succeeded in reaching the younger generation. The most unique attraction in a day punctuated by musical performances: the world’s only organ composed entirely of Manishevitz bottles.

Ruth Hess-Dolgin z’’l, the driving force in creating Limmud Vancouver, was committed to bringing Limmud home after experiencing Limmud Germany in 2011. Her husband, son and friends continue to carry her torch and transmit her Limmud legacy.

Indeed, the second-annual Limmud Vancouver brought hundreds of enthusiastic learners and teachers to a lively Saturday cabaret on January 31 followed by a thought-provoking day on Sunday, February 1, 2015. And, LimmudVan ’16 is already in the planning.

Le Mood Montreal, which was founded in 2011, drew 1,100 participants to its November 2013 event. The name play reflects the edginess of its founders, headed by Mike Savatovsky, who sought – and succeeded – to attract Jews who would not normally attend a “traditional” Jewish event. It is currently on hiatus as the community explores next steps.

The coming years promise to be exciting for Limmud in Canada as groups continue to push the envelope in fashioning what Limmud Ottawa activist Jenny Roberge calls “Jewish education without borders.”

Ysabella (Yszi) Hawkings has been involved with Limmud since 2010 as a participant and team member for Limmud Conference in the UK, Limmud Vancouver, and, most recently, Limmud Toronto.