A distinct feature of the Limmud Jewish learning conference is that speakers are represented by their names alone – minus the title.
“Anyone can participate, anyone can learn from one another and everyone’s opinion is equally valid,” Limmud chief executive Eli Ovits tells The Jerusalem Post, following the announcement that his organization will be receiving the Jerusalem Unity Prize this year.
President Reuven Rivlin will bestow the award for the Diaspora category upon the international network of Jewish learning communities at a ceremony in Jerusalem in June. Limmud was selected for the honor for “promoting mutual respect the world over.”
Expressing his gratitude, Limmud chair David Hoffman said, “Limmud promotes Jewish unity by offering an inclusive cross-communal space for Jews of all ages and backgrounds, to meet, learn, volunteer and build community. Unity is about celebrating our diversity while working together to create a dynamic Jewish future. This is what Limmud does.”
A core tenet of Limmud is that everybody is an equal member of the community, whether layperson or rabbi, communal leader or educator, adult or child.
“Unity is one of our core values,” Ovits says in a telephone conversation with the Post from the UK, the country where the Limmud movement was born in 1980. It has since spread to 84 communities in 44 countries, with regular events taking place all over the world throughout the year.
“The only thing that connects Limmud communities and Jewish groups around the world are the values, which were created by Limmud volunteers,” he continues, highlighting the value of respect. “That means you’re respecting people’s individual opinions and still walking out as friends and appreciating the differences as the vibrancy of the Jewish people.”
Limmud draws participants of all denominations and parts of society, showing, according to Ovits, “that in an increasingly polarized world we are strongest when we work together.”
Ovits opines that too often people focus on the differences that divide them, rather than on what unites them.
The Jerusalem Unity Prize is a new award, initiated by Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat together with the families of Eyal Yifrach, Gil-Ad Shaer and Naftali Fraenkel, the three Israeli teenagers who were kidnapped and murdered in 2014.
“The beauty of this prize is that it sends out the message not to take unity as a given but something that you constantly have to work at,” Ovits reflects. “I think there are clear divides within the Jewish world,” he adds, saying that some reflect the political climate in different parts of Europe, the US and Israel.
Limmud board member and head of strategic development David Bilchitz, based in South Africa, agrees with this assessment.
“Today, when deep schisms separate Jews politically, religiously, within communities and between the Diaspora and Israel, the Limmud model and message is more necessary than ever,” he says.
“Building and sustaining unity takes hard work and a constant effort to understand and bridge our differences. Owing to Limmud’s shared values, Limmud offers a platform to explore, understand and discuss differences, emphasizing common denominators and what we can learn from each other. It is thus a beacon of light in building the future of community through respect and accepting diverse Jewish identities.”
In striving to be open to all individuals, Limmud must make its programming physically and mentally accessible to all, including for instance, people with disabilities and people of all age groups.
“We have people in their 90s coming, so we have to think about how to make the elderly feel welcome and at the same time resonate with teens,” Ovits says. Limmud’s intensive educational programs include running a variety of sessions simultaneously from which participants may choose which speaks to them the most.
“There are a lot of things we grapple with, which makes it interesting and fun,” Ovits says.
Limmud is seeking to engage more volunteers and in turn to attract even more participants, beyond the 4,000 volunteers and 40,000 people who participated in 74 learning festivals and events in 2016.
Ovits says that demand for Limmud increases on a yearly basis and the network is calling on individuals, organizations and foundations to support their local groups and their global efforts to “help sustain our success in bringing unity and celebrating the vibrancy and richness of being Jewish today.”
He stresses that many Limmud volunteers go on to lead in various Jewish institutions, ultimately impacting upon different corners of the Jewish world at large.
“I look at Limmud through the prism that it’s not just a standalone organization, but it’s a set of ideas as well that are relevant to many organizations. They have inspired many more organizations – the creation of organizations, as well as leadership of them,” Ovits says.
“Our hope is that it will continue those values and continue to evolve and to be relevant to different parts of Israel and the Jewish world.”