The Limmud Vision for 2020: Empowering Every Jew

By David Hoffman and Eli Ovits

It’s not always easy to sell a successful model as needing support, as needing long term investment. After all – by definition, the model is a success. Surely success breeds success?

Well, yes and no.

Limmud is a successful model. But it’s also constantly growing and innovating. That brings its own challenges. And sometimes it’s a victim of its own success!

Limmud provides a welcoming, non-judgmental environment to foster dialogue, encourage diversity, and celebrate everything Jewish. A Limmud event includes every subject touching on Judaism, Jews and Israel, the local community and global issues, plus Jewish art, music, drama and every cultural aspect of Jewish life. Limmud events attract Jews of all affiliations – and no affiliation.

Once upon a time, the Limmud model of a cross-communal, multi-generational space, run by and for its community of volunteers, where everyone is a student and anyone can be a teacher, was radical, new and very different. It’s still radical, it’s less new and it has been so successful that these sorts of spaces are now more common.

And yet the Jewish world needs cross-communal engagement as much as ever, if not more. We see a declining affiliation with institutions which are failing to appeal to many younger Jews and families, who are looking for different approaches to their Jewish identity. This year, the Institute for Jewish Policy Research released a study showing that synagogue membership in the United Kingdom has declined 20% in the last 25 years.

Indeed, the Jewish world is increasingly post and non-denominational. People seek individual choice, yet still hunger for community and human interaction.

But at the same time there is clearly an appetite for a sense of Jewish community. There are also endless varieties of individual yearning for Jewish empowerment and accessible Jewish education. What Limmud likes to call the individual Jewish journey.

The approach of Limmud is to open programs to all ages and backgrounds, to facilitate a marketplace of ideas and enable thousands to explore, learn and connect in a welcoming space. Other cross-communal initiatives are also looking at the same sort of approaches – many of them inspired by Limmud, but by no means all. This has encouraged older Jewish institutions to invest more in their programming, too, which has enriched Jewish life. What was counter-cultural some decades ago, is the norm in many communities today.

Nevertheless, safeguarding such a cross-communal approach is not a given and requires ongoing investment. The challenge is to ensure that organizations like Limmud are constantly responding to the changes in communal circumstances; developing new and innovative initiatives; and, replenishing the volunteers which are their life blood. This is critical. It is what ensures that all Limmuds are serving the community in which they are situated because they are constructed by members of that community, and not presented as a solution by outsiders.

That is immensely valuable: it creates empowerment and cultural participation, and it is that which leads so many Limmud volunteers to provide valuable communal leadership after their time with Limmud. For instance, drawing on their Limmud experiences, Limmud volunteers have assumed top roles in the wider Jewish and general community. In Britain, an overwhelming number of those listed in the 2017 Jewish News “Thirty Under 30” movers and shakers impacting the Jewish community, cut their teeth in Limmud. Similar lists in other places demonstrate that Limmud also incubates Jewish leaders in North America, Israel, and elsewhere.

Since its founding in 1980, over 80 groups in 44 countries have adopted Limmud’s volunteer-led model. Some 18 new groups just in the past three years – with many more on the cusp of launching soon. An old model continues to grow and could ultimately empower every Jew. This growth has been grassroots and volunteer driven in most places, with others sparked by Federations, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and other valued partners – who helped identify and cultivate the local volunteer base with us. For example, Israelis from northern Israel were inspired to start Limmud Galil – the first of nine Limmud groups in Israel today. Not to mention the phenomenal development of Limmud FSU, or the 19 Limmud groups across North America. The central Limmud organization has supported this steady international development with volunteer training and educational resources.

We’re writing this as a call out to the world of philanthropy. Philanthropists have been central to this communal cultural shift, too. The organized Jewish world has become more collaborative, open to research and evaluation than ever before. Funders increasingly foster partnerships between the organizations they support – creating a more vibrant community. Philanthropists have helped raised the bar, encourage critical thinking and sustainable development.

Indeed, just this year a foundation awarded a multiyear six figure challenge grant to Limmud North America (Limmud NA), a new 501(c)(3) that serves to support our efforts across the continent and beyond. Perhaps it was that Limmud NA is a new entity and requires seed funding that appealed. More likely it was understanding that by partnering with a proven model, that model can become more sustainable, reach thousands more Jews, support hundreds of volunteers and develop meaningful learning resources. Sometimes what is perceived as an established concept deserves another look and fresh perspective to realize greater impact.

Our plan “Limmud 2020” is a call for such partnerships. To enable us, together, to empower every Jew. It is the culmination of a grassroots-led process of finding out what those engaged with Limmud want from us, as well as ongoing input from our philanthropic partners.

Limmud is a good example of an established organization that is not standing still. We know our model works, but it also needs work and effort to sustain it. We need volunteers; we need expertise; and we need philanthropic partners. With new funding – at every giving level – a model for cross-communal interaction will ultimately reach and benefit every Jew. It will allow us to train and empower hundreds more volunteers to become communal leaders. And what those volunteers create is an investment in the quality and diversity of learning itself. We understand that future generations may learn differently and we need to look at how to strengthen educational offerings as well as the positive social encounters at and in between our events.

At our programs, Jews find a space to discuss and explore the whole range of Jewish experience -including ethics, morality and justice, to exercise their intellectual curiosity, even share their sense of humor – markers of what being Jewish means to them. So many more communities and individuals can gain from a Limmud.

On the eve of the Jewish Federations of North America’s General Assembly (the GA), Saturday night, November 11, 2017, Limmud is hosting Limmud After Dark LA, the official launch of a new learning and outreach initiative for our 19 Limmud communities across the US and Canada, as well as the invitation to start up new Limmud volunteer groups across the region. Limmud After Dark will feature a rousing musical Havdalah by Hillel Tigay & Judeo and an array of exciting presenters, ranging from Emmy Award nominee Mayim Bialik, and Holocaust scholar Michael Berenbaum, to spirituality expert Sherre Hirsch, comedian Benji Lovitt, and others. We hope it will inspire GA delegates to help bring Limmud back to their own communities, and support it where it already exists.

We hope those who champion Jewish involvement across North America and in the whole Jewish world will help broaden our reach.

The promise is great – from connecting the under-engaged to promoting Jewish unity predicated on respect for difference. Limmud 2020 will spur thousands to take ownership of their Jewish future; empower people to lead; and, provide key educational resources for Jewish communities the world over. This is merely the end of the beginning and therefore the optimal time to partner with us in our critical mission.

David Hoffman is a barrister and Chair of Limmud. Eli Ovits is Chief Executive of Limmud.
Visit www.limmud.org to learn more.