New Legacies in the Making – Vibrant Communities, Vibrant Limmuds

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.

This installment focuses on Limmuds in Jewish communities with ancient roots in central Europe which had been under Nazi occupation followed by Communist domination and are today seeing a renaissance – Bulgaria, the Czech and Slovak Republics and Poland.


Limmud Keshet Bulgaria

Limmud Keshet Bulgaria; photo by Solomon Frances.
Limmud Keshet Bulgaria; photo by Solomon Frances.

Bulgaria’s roughly 5,000 Jews are part of a vibrant community with a long and fascinating history. Dr. Joseph Benatov, who teaches at University of Pennsylvania, lectures regularly on the fate of Bulgaria’s Jews during the Holocaust and leads annual summer trips to the Sephardic Balkans. He shared with eJewishPhilanthropy a concise history, providing important context to the development of Limmud Keshet Bulgaria. As Prof. Benatov wrote:

“Bulgaria’s oldest Jewish settlements date back to Roman times (and these Jews are known as Romaniot). Starting in the 1300s, Ashkenazi Jews began settling in the area. But the major turning point in Bulgaria’s Jewish history occurred after the 1492 Spanish Expulsion, when large numbers of Sephardi Jews arrived to the Ottoman Empire and founded communities throughout the Balkans. Over the next centuries, the Romaniot and Ashkenazim gradually assimilated into the Sephardi majority, and Sephardic culture – songs, cuisine, Ladino, customs, and folklore – has defined the Jewish community over the last 500 years.

Before WWII, the community numbered 49,000 Jews. As a German ally, Bulgaria deported over 11,000 Jews from occupied territories in Yugoslav Macedonia and Northern Greece to their death. At the same time, the Bulgarian government successfully resisted German pressures to deport the Bulgarian Jews, and the whole community survived the war. Many Bulgarian intellectuals, politicians, and church officials acted bravely in defense of the Jews. Between 1948 and 1950, about 42,000 Bulgarian Jews immigrated to Israel – including Shulamit Shamir, wife of Israel’s seventh Prime Minister, Yitzhak Shamir. After 1989, another 1,500 made aliyah.

Contemporary Jewish life in Bulgaria is very lively. There are two active synagogues – in the capital Sofia, where most of the 5,000 Jews live, and in Plovdiv, home to the second-largest community. Year-round, there is a wide spectrum of Jewish programming for members of all age groups.”

Over 10 percent of Bulgaria’s Jewish community participates in Limmud Keshet Bulgaria, which burst onto the scene in 2006. Maxim Delchev, who is educational director of the Beit Shalom JCC in Sofia and a founder of Limmud Keshet Bulgaria, captured Limmud’s impact by way of this thank you to the community:

“Thank you to the people who were afraid to believe in a Jewish adult educational experience 10 years ago, but took the risk and gave it a try.

Thank you to the people who didn’t think anyone from a small Eastern European community would want to volunteer their time and energy, but gave that idea a chance.

The doubts and the challenges made all of us work harder to prove ourselves that such a concept is not only doable, but successful.

Today, 10 years later, Limmud Keshet has become the biggest Jewish community event.

Families that live across the country choose Limmud Keshet for their reunion and get together for six days. Three generations come to Limmud to welcome Shabbat together. Others clean an old synagogue in the city of Samokov as a part of the Tikkun Limmud project. People from all around Bulgaria, who are otherwise not too involved in their Jewish communities, attend because they know that their perception of Jewishness is welcome. Even the Board of the Organization of Jews in Bulgaria “Shalom” has meetings during Limmud Keshet, as it is the one place they are certain everyone will be there.

From September 1-6, 2015, we will be holding the 10th Limmud Keshet in Bulgaria, and for this dream-come-true, I say:

Thank you to the 600 people who come every year and will continue to be a part of Limmud Keshet, to participate, learn and teach each other.

Thank you to the 70+ volunteers who make Limmud Keshet the successful experience that it is.

Thank you to OJB “Shalom” and JDC, whose partnership has made Limmud Keshet a reality in Bulgaria.


Limmud CR-SR
By Tereza Gafna Vanova

Limmud CR-SR; photo courtesy Helena Vankova.
Limmud CR-SR; photo courtesy Helena Vankova.

Czechoslovakia split into the Czech and Slovak Republics in 1993. Jews have deep roots in both countries, arriving in what is now the Czech Republic in the year 995.

Among the most famous stars of Jewish scholarship are 16th-century Rabbi Yehudah Low, the “Maharal” of Prague, whose Alte-Neue Synagogue remains a place of pilgrimage; and, 19th-century Rabbi Moshe Sofer, the Chatam Sofer, who headed the renowned Pressburg Yeshiva in Bratislava. Prague also saw the first published woman author in Yiddish when Meneket Rivka, a book on ethics for women by Rivka bat Rav Meir, was released posthumously in 1609.

Despite a long, often fraught history, the Czech Republic’s 3,000 registered Jews – 1,400 in Prague alone – are focused on the future. The Czech Jews behind the launch of Limmud Czech Republic-Slovak Republic (CR-SR) have already seen how Limmud contributes to that future.

Like other post-Communist countries, the Czech Jewish community has undergone a renaissance in the past 25 years. The kehillah ranges from the unaffiliated (an estimated 10,000 – 12,000 non-registered Jews) to those who express their Jewishness through a specific activity – think volunteering, chess club, Hakoach sport club, or children enrolled in a Jewish school – to families who live a large part of their lives involved in various Jewish organizations, synagogue and/or school(s.)

And, like other Jewish communities around the globe, the Czech Jewish community is looking for new, meaningful and engaging ways to bring Jews together and make them feel positively about their Jewishness. One of the kehillah’s main goals is to find activities that will encourage people to become proactive in creating the local Jewish space. Limmud fits the bill.

In 2013, six volunteers in Prague began planning the first Limmud. It was natural to reach out to Jews in the Slovak Jewish community, with its 6,000 members and to whom the Czech community is bound by marriage and friendship.

Initially, we wanted to revive a tradition from the 1990s, when young singles from the Czech and Slovak Republics met for Shabbatonim. With help from Limmud International, we organized a five-day residential Limmud for 150 people, April 30-May 4, 2014. Half the participants were children, ranging from 5 months to 16 years.

The program was packed with presentations, panel discussions, crafts and cooking sessions, workshops for kids, as well as arts and social programming. The sessions were held in Czech and Slovak, which are mutually understandable, as well as English. Registration was full within the first week and we had to turn many away. From the start, it was obvious our efforts fell on very fertile ground. People were thirsty to come to a Jewish place where they could learn, socialize and relax at the same time.

Attending Limmud CR-SR became the thing to do. People wanted their kids to spend time with other Jewish children. People wanted to learn, to spend Shabbat with others, to spend both meaningful and leisure time with friends, and to get a taste of Jewish communal life. And, people came to find their place on the Jewish map.

“We had a massive positive response from the attendees,” said Petr Papousek, 37, president of the Federation of Jewish Communities. Doffing his presidential hat, Petr joined the ranks of Limmud volunteers and was responsible for catering and kashrut.

“Those who came last year were thrilled by the experience. They want to come again this year and have urged their friends to register early before the places are filled up. Most importantly, they want to become presenters or help as volunteers.

“Volunteering is ultimately the highest goal of Limmud – Limmud is not created for Limmudniks, but by Limmudniks. Limmud is what people make it. And, very importantly, once they experience the vigor, it is easier for them to bring this energy back to their home communities and use it for creating their own meaningful and active Jewish space.“

The next Limmud CR-SR is fast approaching, April 29-May 3, 2015. Forty volunteers are already deeply involved, either as presenters, children’s program facilitators, or cultural coordinators. Interest is huge, expectations high, and the energy – overwhelming. Wish us luck!

Tereza Gafna Vanova is one of the founding volunteers of Limmud CR-SR. She teaches Judaism in Prague Lauder Jewish Day School and is a subject specialist at the Foundation for Holocaust Victims. She lives with her husband and two daughters at their vineyard in Chrámce, northwest of Prague.


Limud Keszet Poland
by Monika Elliott

Young Leadership team at Limud Keszet Poland; photo courtesy  Piotr Kulisiewicz.
Young Leadership team at Limud Keszet Poland; photo courtesy Piotr Kulisiewicz.

The history of Jewish life in Poland is still, even today, filled with little known facts about this historic cradle of Jewish civilization. And here is a new one: Limud Keszet Poland has become the largest gathering of Polish Jews, on Polish soil, since 1968, when 20,000 Jews fled Poland in the wake of a concerted Communist-sponsored anti-Semitic campaign to smear and expel Jews. Its most recent event drew 800 participants over three days in November 2014.

Until World War II, Poland was home to 3.3 million Jews and the largest Jewish community in the world. Dating back over 1,000 years, it was one of the great centers of Jewish political, cultural, and religious life. Estimates on the number of Jews in Poland today range from several thousand to 25,000. Every day more people learn about their Jewish roots and turn to the community.

Since the fall of Communism in 1989, this Jewish reawakening has been expressed in a wide variety of venues and organizations, including the Jewish Culture and 7@Nite Festivals in Krakow, the recent opening of the Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw, thriving JCCs in Warsaw and Krakow, Jewish cultural associations throughout the country, the Lauder School, Taube Foundation for Jewish Life & Culture, the Jewish Religious Communities of Poland under Rabbi Michael Shudrich, and the Progressive Jewish Communities of Beit Polska, Beit Gdansk, Beit Krakow, and Beit Warsaw, to name a few.

The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), active in Poland for a century, introduced Limud Keszet Poland in 2008 to nurture the post-Communist Jewish rebirth by bringing together people of various Jewish identities, opening new possibilities in terms of Jewish engagement, and allowing Jews in Poland to express their Judaism in whatever way they are comfortable.

What makes Limud Keszet Poland so special is the fact that this volunteer-led event is able to draw Jews of all ages – from 6 months to 90 years; of all denominations and traditions – from Orthodox to Progressive; and speaking various languages – Polish, Hebrew, Yiddish and English – together for a weekend of fun and learning.

With more than 100 lectures and workshops led by renowned scholars, artists and rabbis, as well as everyday Jewish community members, there is something for everybody. From arts and crafts workshops for children to cooking classes to discussions on Jewish philosophy and Tanakh, at Limud everyone shares their areas of expertise.

Beyond learning, Limud Keszet Poland is also a unique place for community members to socialize and really get to know one another. Participants come from all over Poland, including large population centers and smaller cities. They eat and pray at the same table, sharing in ways that ordinary life might never allow.

Perhaps the real key to Limud’s success is that it is about breaking barriers – particularly hard to do given the history of Polish Jewry, in which barriers often formed important protections, especially under Communism, and before that, under the Nazis.

Letting others know too much about you or your family history had proven deadly in Polish-Jewish history, but in today’s Poland such barriers only serve to keep our community fragmented, which is why Limud works to pull such walls down.

“Limud is the only opportunity in the whole year to meet every kind of Jew in this country, from a baby to an elder, from a religious to a lefty, from ‘neophytes’ to people well knowing who they are,” said Limud volunteer Marcin Grynberg, who comes together with his family. “We are all together, children included. We chat, we speak of crucial matters, we listen to each other’s stories and to other subjects mostly related to Jewish life. Where could I get so much just in a weekend? I’m awaiting that time from the very moment Limud ends.”

Limud Keszet Poland is also a space to network and build collaborations. Five year Limud veteran and volunteer Emil Jezowski, 25, captures this facet. He is involved in several Jewish initiatives, including Minyanim, for Taglit-Birthright and Masa alumni in eastern and central Europe, and Zionist youth movement Hashomer Hatzair.

“We resurrected Makabi Warsaw Sports Club through Minyanim,” Emil recounted at Limmud’s flagship conference in the United Kingdom in late December. “It was big before the war but the Nazis forced it to close in 1939. In November, we did a session on it. The people in Wroclaw [aka Breslav] said, ‘Wow, you’re doing it. We also want to start it!’ Linking through Limud leads to other collaborations.”

Limud Keszet Poland then is an ideal vision of what we as a Jewish community would like to be – united and sharing in the joys of practicing and learning about our tradition and planning for a better future.

Monika Elliott is the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee’s Poland Program Director.