Three Years in the Chair

by Helena Miller and Uri Berkowitz

All endings are also beginnings. Mitch Albom, in his book “The Five People You Meet in Heaven”, makes this observation and also says that we often don’t recognise the potential of endings. In Jewish terms, we are very comfortable with the connection between endings and beginnings. As soon as we finish reading the Torah, on Simchat Torah, on that very same day, we begin again. From Haazinu to Bereshit, with barely a pause for breath.

At Limmud International, we have been preoccupied with endings and beginnings in the past few months. After three years as Limmud International co-chairs, we have been succeeded by David Hoffman. David joins Kevin Sefton, who took over as Limmud Chair from Carolyn Bogush. And, Limmud has also welcomed new Executive Director Shelley Marsh.

Endings are an opportunity to look back at our successes. We hope that we took the amazing legacy that Andrew Gilbert handed us when he stepped down as Limmud International Chair and developed it responsibly and creatively.

We have supported many new Limmud groups in the past three years and worked with many established groups. Indeed, 2012 saw new groups with Limmud events in Baltimore, the Bay Area, China, Jerusalem, Macedonia and Mexico. And, while it may be tempting to focus on the exotic and the unusual, in truth, every group we have helped to develop is important to the growing Limmud family. We are pleased to report that there have been Limmud events in over 60 communities in 26 countries.

We created “Training on Tour” events based in Atlanta in 2011 and Budapest in 2012, and developed an increasingly strong training programme for Limmud International delegates at Limmud Conference in the UK in December each year.

We conducted robust research with Steven M Cohen and Ezra Kopelowitz leading to “The Limmud International Study: Jewish Learning Communities on a Global Scale.” We raised our profile, thanks to new PR initiatives. Communication has developed – a regular newsletter and the Limmud online forum are just two examples of how we have been able to keep in contact.

Endings are an opportunity to think about the challenges ahead. We have not always been able to help every group through its difficulties. We know that setting up a Limmud community is only the beginning: keeping it going and managing succession planning, developing new volunteers, funding on-going Limmud events are as much of a challenge as getting going in the first place.

We hope that funders will not only recognise the long term potential of Limmud – to engage people in rich Jewish content and build future leadership in a non-coercive atmosphere, but will also see themselves as participants in their own Limmud communities.

Various groups continue to face the challenge of navigating local politics and dealing with presenters and presentations that do not appear to adhere to the Limmud values of inclusivity. Limmud is a values driven organisation that must face the practical realities of each community in which it exists – e.g. differences in approaches to voluntarism, availability and demand for kosher food, and approaches to Israel/diaspora relations.

The most common refrain made by local groups is: ‘it’s not like that here’ – the truth is it’s not like Limmud anywhere! Indeed every community is different and at the very heart of Limmud is the ability to draw together people who are different from each other in a respectful way so we can genuinely learn together and from each other.

Endings are an opportunity to think about the lessons that we have learned. We two had to learn how to work together. We did not know each other before we agreed to co-chair Limmud International and our Limmud journeys up to that point had been very different. But we both shared a passion for Limmud and from that starting point, we learned how to lead Limmud International so that it benefitted from our strengths. For both of us, Limmud has been a vital component in our Jewish identities. We learned that being co-chair meant that we could collaborate, not compete. We did not always agree with each other, and we also learned that to be a co-chair means that you each have to trust the other.

Endings are an opportunity to say thank you. To our steering group, whose members over the years have worked to ensure our success, to the Limmud professionals with whom we have worked, to our friends and supporters world-wide, to our funders. Whilst co-chairing Limmud International has given each of us a mutual support system in each other, we fully recognise that we could not have achieved anything without each of these people. Thank you to Limmud members all over the world. Without the drive and energy of Limmud International group members, Limmud would not have “developed into an amazing international movement of study and friendship, and mainly of Jewish identity and identification” as Haaretz wrote some years ago.

Endings are beginnings. Like Limmud itself, they are transformational experiences. We two will go on to accomplish new things, both within Limmud and in our “outside” lives, and Limmud International will go from strength to strength under its new leadership. We look forward to keeping in touch with many of the Limmud friends we have made during the past three years, and we wish them all well as they take their Limmud communities into 2013.