Revolution in Jewish Life Called Limmud

Robust Identity Challenges Synagogues and Federations

Limmud Life: Events like the recent Limmud New York getaway are taking up space in the Jewish world that synagogues once exclusively occupied.
Jerrold Bennett
Limmud Life: Events like the recent Limmud New York getaway are taking up space in the Jewish world that synagogues once exclusively occupied.

By David Hazony

Published January 24, 2012, issue of January 27, 2012.
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Second, your place of work does not appear on your nametag. Neither do markers of formal hierarchy of knowledge, like “professor” and “rabbi.” This is because Limmud’s conceivers have realized that by developing a deferential rather than a creative atmosphere, such titles can encourage other people to plead ignorance rather than cure it by taking their learning into their own hands. The suspicion at Limmud, in other words, is that titles and affiliations, when tossed into a bubbling cauldron of intellectual ferment, can often do more harm than good.

And the third, and perhaps most beguiling, principle: There are almost no professional Limmudniks. While the international Limmud body’s paid staff is minimal, the volunteers run the conference almost exclusively. Participation fees cover more than half of the conference’s budget. There is a glaring absence of freebies. Which means that Limmud is largely immune to the pressures of philanthropic organizations and professional-caste standards. It is open-source Judaism: People there can chart their course, thankfully ignorant of what is expected of them — making contacts, coming up with ideas, changing their lives. In the process, Limmud is developing a powerful, unique brand unlike anything seen in the Jewish world in a generation.

Which is why Limmud may end up overturning the apple cart of Jewish life.

It’s not just a nice getaway; it’s by far the most interesting thing happening in Jewish life. It is more spiritual than synagogue, more challenging than yeshiva, more fun than youth groups, more effective than day school, more creative than Jewish community centers, more intellectual than grad school. Or at least it has the potential to be all these things, depending on who is leading a session, who is in the audience and who is on the other side of your Guinness at any given moment. That potential is evident every moment of the conference, and it leaves you wondering where, exactly, all this energy and identity has been all your life.

The main challenges for Limmud, it seems, are now twofold. First, it must find a way to successfully replicate the experience I just witnessed in places other than England. Although “Limmud” conferences have popped up around the world, not all of them have re-created the magic of Limmud-U.K. or followed its set of principles. Keeping the brand meaningful will be hard.

But more important, Limmud will have to find the appropriate way to extend that experience into the rest of the year. Critics have likened the conferences to summer camp, where the shortness of the period and the unreality of the environment make fantasies come true, but is much harder to translate into real life.

The thing is, I went to summer camp. The best ones aren’t stand-alone but are connected with youth movements, where the whole point is not the summer experience as much as finding a way to carry the enthusiasm through the year — local club meetings, biannual conventions and more. What my own camp experience taught me was that it was anything but an unreal bubble. It was the highlight of a whole year of redoubled expectations. And eventually it became the engine that drove my identity. In the end, the camping experience contributed decisively to my decision to make aliyah. And I am far from alone.

But regardless of how Limmud evolves, its effects will soon be felt across the Diaspora and in Israel, as well. Limmud is not just a name, but also a style, an attitude and, at its best, a hope. This is what revolutions look like; if you find it hard to believe, it’s because Diaspora Jewry hasn’t seen one in a long time.

David Hazony is a contributing editor to the Forward, and the author of “The Ten Commandments: How Our Most Ancient Moral Text Can Renew Modern Life” (Scribner, 2010).

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