Deborah Fishman sits with David Wolkin.
This interview is part of the Network-Weaver Series.
[After serving for many years as a volunteer, David Wolkin is now the Executive Director of Limmud NY. This transition has given him an interesting perspective on networks, the value they hold for participants, and their role in the Jewish world. David has also served in a variety of Jewish educational capacities and received his MA in Jewish education from the Jewish Theological Seminary.]
What is a network?
It’s an overlapping series of webs between people. In many cases, some subset of these webs are entirely aware of the connections that exist; others aren’t aware of how they are a part of that system that forms and shares relationships. What emerges as a result of that tends to be very organic.
To what extent is purposeful network-creation necessary in the Jewish world?
Organizers of every Jewish program should be thinking about themselves as creating space for people to connect with each other. If you just say: We’re going to create a space to put people together – you’re going to be satisfied with results of that to some extent. You need to think about the kind of space you’re creating, and as many people as possible having voices in its creation is crucial. But sometimes you don’t need anything else. A lot of programs are doing that. They’re saying: We’re here to connect people and ideas, and the way to do that is through the formation of relationships. It’s all about placing an emphasis on relationships. Networks emerge from that.
How does Limmud exemplify that kind of space?
There’s a shift taking place where we’re seeing the growth of movements based on shared experience. That’s the idea that we can all be in same room and totally disagree about everything, and still be Jews together. Our ideology doesn’t say what it means to be Jewish – I think it puts the emphasis on how to bring people together, how to figure that out. Limmud’s ideology is a set of values that pushes towards the creation of these shared experiences.
I became Executive Director of Limmud in June. Before that I was involved several years as a volunteer, and I spent 10-15 years in Reform, Orthodox, and Conservative communities, across different worlds. I can see that Limmud is a space that can bring people from all those worlds together. If you can come to Limmud, you can be exposed to a very wide spectrum of what it means to be Jewish in New York. It’s also an ideal networking space, creating a non-hierarchical environment for leaders, teachers, and volunteers.
How does the fact that it’s non-hierarchical influence Limmud?
Primarily, Limmud is place of convergence for many different kinds of Jews and the people who love them. These people fill different roles. There are people who come to teach at the conference, with various skills and backgrounds. There are people who plan the conference; they have year-round interaction with each other. And there are the people who just come to enjoy the Limmud NY experience, though we do ask everyone to volunteer at the conference. The values of Limmud indicate that all these people are at the same level. No terms such as rabbi or doctor are listed with the presenters – it’s just people’s names. There is the same emphasis on the person holding the spotlight and the person standing in the spotlight.
How does this non-hierarchical structure play out in Limmud learning?
Especially as a growing global movement, I think Limmud provides the sort of learning that is relevant to people – they want to be treated as both teachers and learners. The people who are making the decisions when it comes to creating the program are not the institutional deciders in Jewish community – but they’re members of different communities in various way. They come from all across the board. People are putting serious passions into it, and that’s the most beautiful part.
What is the role of the individual in this experience?
Anyone who goes to Limmud can create an individualized experience for themselves. They can go to anything they read about that sounds interesting. One area I want to work on is strengthening the Limmud experience for teens. They can decide what class they want to go to, which isn’t the case in other Jewish experiences they’re exposed to. Limmud empowers them in their learning decisions – no matter what sessions they choose to go to, they’re in a massive Jewish learning experience.
What do you hope will emerge from bringing people together at Limmud?
I believe fervently in the idea of positive unintended consequences. There’s no way of predicting exactly what [will] happen when we bring people together each year, what kinds of connections are formed between them. Something different is going to happen every time – and it’s going to be incredible. Ideally, our volunteers will feel a commitment to continue being involved in some way, and other people will say: I want to help create this experience next year. Others will say: I was exposed to powerful Jewish experiences that I would not necessarily have encountered elsewhere, and I’d live to pursue these new opportunities once I get home.
David Wolkin tweets as @david_wolkin.
This post is cross-posted on Deborah’s blog, hachavaya.blogspot.com, as a part of her ongoing conversation series with network-weavers about their best practices.