We know well how to come together in crises, as we did after the Pittsburgh massacre and as the fires burn in California. The challenge is coming together all the other times. With the midterm elections and their intense partisan polarization behind us, and in this season of Thanksgiving — accentuating life’s bounty — this is a propitious moment to explore ways to weave connections between Jews, first and foremost by learning together.
Imagine a space where alumni of the myriad Jewish programs, where people of all ages and backgrounds, where thousands more Jews come together and learn – a place they can call their community. This is certainly feasible.
It requires Jewish pride and ambition, an explosion of volunteerism and community building efforts. It requires us to build people and not just buildings.
There is no denying American Jews feel divided and fractured. Nor is there a panacea or miracle cure. Many are disillusioned about our shared future. I believe there is a way to heal the divides by designing and building more inclusive communities. I offer three lessons from the experience of Limmud, an international grassroots organization dedicated to Jewish learning for all, with its proven track record as a bridge and catalyst for community building.
When the going gets tough, we learn together
What do Jews do in crisis? We come together to learn. Limmud, which means learning in Hebrew, is our response to threats, political divides and tensions. Learning encompasses traditional Jewish sources, as well as history, culture, Israel, and everything that touches upon Jewish under the sun. Learning protects our spirits as a people.
And according to our tradition it also builds peoplehood. Toward the end of the Torah Moses tells the Children of Israel, “hasket and listen, for on this day you become a nation.” The sages note that the word has the same root as “kitot,” or classes – namely, the Israelites formed classes to study Torah. Learning together was key to becoming a nation.
We know that Jews who pray don’t often pray together. And for many Jews, prayer and prayer halls do not resonate. But all Jews can learn together. Limmud pioneered cross-communal, cross-generational, volunteer-led gatherings where people learn together, question together, seek positive experiences together. In fractured times, learning is the glue.
Much as our progenitors from every corner of the world connected through Jewish learning — overcoming geographical, cultural and linguistic divides — we can, too, while recognizing, indeed, celebrating, our very real differences.
Respect, Diversity, Participation
Notwithstanding the fissures, our goal is to safeguard a space for dialogue, sustained by a framework of shared values.
The 20 North American Limmuds, including Limmud NY, enable people who deeply disagree to have the difficult conversations on everything Jews care about. How? They accept a framework which rests upon respect for people who hold different opinions, insisting that we listen to one another, argue for the sake of heaven rather than to score points, and agree it is legitimate to disagree.
Add to this an unshakeable appreciation and promotion of diversity – bringing together Jews of every stripe. It is said that the incense which was burned in the Temple was comprised of 11 ingredients, including a foul-smelling plant. Were any one of the components left out, the incense would not have been fragrant. More than that, it would have profaned the most sacred Jewish space. Diversity is not just the spice of life, diversity is vital to Jewish life. Like the fabled incense, our communities must be designed to envelop the full diversity of Jews.
Convening Jews in a community also requires recruitment and participation. It means the people who are involved in the community reach out to those who are marginalized or less able to participate. Limmud is also a place where people can process what’s going on in the world. Built on respect and committed to diversity, Limmud provides a framework to address the fracture, trauma and disconnection.
Build people, build communities
Learning should be accessible, something individuals can connect to and own. This type of learning builds people. More than building individuals, when their curiosity is ignited and they are excited about the myriad issues their Jewish learning informs, they take the keys to their community and build – from the grass roots up.
This is not about one organization building communities on its own. It is about partnering with fellow Jewish organizations that have formed a percolating network which nurtures Jewish learning and activism.
Indeed, Limmud is investing significantly around the globe in infrastructure that leverages the meaningful learning already taking place and helps build communal leadership. We have joined forces with organizations that engage families and young adults as well as those that provide content. By collaborating and partnering we are designing the communities of our shared future.
Traveling across the Jewish world it has become increasingly clear that the process of community design and educating leaders is a year-round effort, and not about an individual event. Our recent Limmud Impact Study underscored how these dividends last for many years. Limmud is in essence a communal space where we convene and design our communities, empower all and build our common future.
Imagine if we all came together to design communities centered on learning, in a framework of respect and celebration of diversity. Thousands more would feel empowered and we could design and build our common future.
Eli Ovits is Limmud’s Chief Executive Officer. The organization’s U.S. branch is in its second decade.