A whole new, wikified Jewish world?

Individuals approach Judaism at Limmud like they approach jogging or gadgets in online forums.

limmud 224.88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
limmud 224.88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Twenty-seven years ago, a small group of British Jewish educators set out to create a professional conference modeled on the Coalition for the Advancement for Jewish Education in the United States. What they created has become one of the strangest and fastest-growing phenomena of the Jewish world, one that may be transforming how large numbers of Jews gather and study. Limmud, which means "learning" and was initially limited to a small group of Jewish organizers and educators, is the most unusual conference you're likely to come across. Some 25 sessions may be running at any given hour, with 11 different periods dividing the day starting at 8 a.m. and ending at 1 a.m. Some 600 presenters and 2,500 participants - distinguishing between the two groups is nigh impossible - taught and studied topics ranging from history ("Jews and Pirates in the Caribbean" is one session) and culture ("Humor, Identity and the Holocaust"), to politics in England ("Ken Livingstone and the Jews of London") and abroad ("A Jewish-Zionist Constitution for the State of Israel"), from education ("A Parents' Guide to Sex, Drugs and the Internet") to the Jewish bookshelf ("Mathematics and Mishna" and "The Rape of Dinah in Early Exegesis"). There are dance classes and almost-hourly musical sessions. In three days, a group of participants put on a Fiddler on the Roof production, while others would chat and drink at the bar until 4 a.m. The Limmud organization fields a small army of volunteers who are the manpower behind the operation, and only three salaried professionals watch the money and coordinate activities for some 7,000 participants in various Limmud conferences around the UK each year. The number of participants has grown by an average of 26% each year for the past 13 years, according to organizers. Meanwhile, dozens of Limmud conferences have begun sprouting up around the world, from Colorado to Hungary, from Glasgow to the Galilee. Limmud is almost entirely self-sufficient. Participant fees pay for 80 percent of the roughly £1m. (around NIS 7.5 million) annual budget, and presenters, some of them renowned experts in their fields, are unpaid and expected to teach in exchange for being given the opportunity to learn themselves. "We want the teachers to know that they also come to learn. Everybody comes to learn and to teach," explains Clive Lawton, one of the original founders. What can be made of this strange, democratic way of conducting Jewish education? It is often remarked that Jews around the world are profoundly a product of the society in which they live. This is also true of Limmud, but in an unexpected way. The Jews at Limmud, at least the young ones who form the volunteer backbone and the majority of participants, have also assimilated to a new kind of identity, though this time the host society is an invisible one - the Internet. Personalized Sociologists often note that the Internet is quickly creating a "personalized" world, one in which people expect products and information to be presented whenever and however they want them. Hundreds of millions of young people in tech-savvy societies no longer wait for the news, but, through tools such as personalized homepages, RSS feeds, podcasts, and the like, have the news collated and delivered to them at their leisure. The Jerusalem Post, NBC, Reuters, the BBC, even cooking videos from the New York Times - are available for free download to desktops and handheld devices at the user's discretion. This personalization may have reached its peak in the Jewish world at Limmud. Many hundreds of sessions are explained in detail in a conference handbook provided to each participant, and are divided into tracks such as Education, Family and Politics. The scheduling is phenomenally complex and intended to offer as diverse a program for each session hour as possible. Try as you might, you can only experience perhaps one-twentieth of a Limmud conference, but the vast selection makes it possible to tailor the conference almost precisely to your interests. It is, if you will, a real-life aggregator of Jewish learning. In the wider world, this expectation of personalization is part of a break-up of the connection to the broader movements and institutions that created communities in the past. Similarly, young Jews in the West, measurably less involved in synagogue life and communal organizations, may be turning their backs on the demands of the organized Jewish world, but not on Judaism. Limmud functions in this fashion. One does not sink roots into a topic at Limmud. Rather, for an hour, one dips gently into it and pulls out. The staccato progression of sessions and immense pluralism of opinion among the presenters reinforces the individual's intellectual autonomy, rather than tether it to a communal or intellectual identity. The individual approaches Judaism at Limmud in the same way that he or she approaches jogging or gadgets in online forums. It becomes a motivating hobby in the sense known to veteran Internet users, possessing the immense appeal of meeting like-minded people but demanding no commitment beyond one's immediate desire to contribute. Wikified Wikipedia is a free online encyclopedia with a twist: it is written by its readers. Within certain ground rules, anyone can contribute their knowledge about almost any topic to the encyclopedia - so much so that certain topics, including some dealing with the Middle East, were "locked" by the Web site's administrators because articles meant to be informative and objective were being hijacked by parties to a conflict. The idea behind Wikipedia - that the combined, continually-edited knowledge of the multitude is more accurate and useful than that of individual experts - is a notion born of the Internet age. It has certainly been hotly contested, often by the experts themselves, but it has also been shown to be surprisingly accurate, since mistakes are reviewed at all times by hundreds of thousands of people. Limmud, too, is a "wiki." Anyone can offer to teach, and almost all offers are accepted. If organizers feel a topic is missing, or if only one side to a debate has come forward, organizers may seek out someone to fill the gap. But, beyond the fact that the content should be relevant to Jews, there are few other limitations on the identity or topics of presenters. Autonomy The young Jew who attends Limmud is a relatively new creature. To borrow an idea from the important book The Jew Within by Prof. Steven Cohen (who presented at Limmud) and current JTS Chancellor Arnold Eisen, these Jews derive their Jewish authenticity from within, not through a communal identity. Their Judaism is an inalienable piece of their identity, and it is theirs to do with as they please. They are on "personal journeys" to authentic personal meaning. Rabbis can offer them help along the way, but they are not loyal or subservient to any spiritual authority. While this understanding of the self is not new or unique to Limmud or the Internet - Cohen and Eisen were describing American Jewish baby boomers - it is a fundamental assumption underlying both, and one that may have sprouted deep roots thanks to the reinforcement of the Internet's focus on the autonomous individual. The Orthodox One group was largely missing from Limmud, and has been for a generation - the Orthodox. Individual rabbis may come or go, both on the Orthodox fringe and in the mainstream, but most have not disobeyed the decision of Dayan Chanoch Ehrentreu - head of the London Beth Din and for over 20 years the highest halachic authority in English Orthodoxy until his retirement in January 2007 - to boycott Limmud. This decision has meant that rabbis ranging from Shlomo Riskin of Efrat (who came briefly this year for the first time) to Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks himself and even the outreach arms of Chabad have avoided coming to the conference in the past. It is hard to fault Limmud for this boycott. The conference is kosher (supervision of the United Synagogue), appropriate for those who observe Shabbat and does not print titles on name cards so it won't have to sort out who is a rabbi and who is not. It refuses to organize prayers of any sort (religious rituals are set up by participants independent of the conference apparatus), so that it won't be seen as encouraging or discouraging any movements or perspectives. It even distributes detailed biographies of the presenters partly so that no one will find themselves accidentally trapped in a session given by someone they don't want to hear. Now, with Ehrentreu's retirement, organizers expect to break through the taboo and be joined by many high-profile Orthodox (though still not haredi) representatives by next year's conference. It is hard to escape the conclusion that the Orthodox leadership may not fully understand what it is they're avoiding. Limmud is not a stream of Judaism, merely a neutral method for presenting Judaism. It is Jewish education in the West aligning itself with the changing social structures of the West. In the past five years, Limmud went from a handful of annual conferences to over 30 in as many countries, suggesting that it is as relevant to secular Russians as it is to Jewishly-involved and committed New Yorkers. As one participant suggested, the Orthodox establishment may be avoiding Limmud not for purely halachic reasons but - as often happens with any establishment - out of a desire to sustain the hierarchical status quo of organized Jewish life. At Limmud, the powerful London Beth Din would in principle be no more and no less significant than any fiddle player in attendance. This abandonment of the Limmud space has meant that Orthodoxy has been unable to present its case and its interpretation to a large and growing group of young professional Jews who will be British Jewry's future donors and decision-makers. Conclusion The best evidence that Limmud may be a new sociological phenomenon and not just a new way of organizing conferences comes in the Darwinian way in which it evolved. Limmud's organizers, past and present, arrived at the current methodology through trial and error. Small individual changes in organization and membership over many years have slowly developed an institution unlike anything else in Jewish life. And while organizers can't quite articulate a broad theory of what they've created, they know that its popularity speaks for itself. The growth of Limmud has been unintended. It speaks to young British Jews in a way that makes profound sense to them. Hundreds of marriages have reportedly resulted from the conference, but participants are quick to deny, always with a smile, that it has become a "meat market" - "or, at least, it's a market with the absolute finest cuts of meat around," says a twenty-something male participant. Simply, they say, it is a place where they feel comfortable, where identifying as Jewish "is actually relevant to my life," according to one young woman. The young Jews at Limmud are not on the non-Orthodox side of the haredi/"English" culture war in English Jewry. Rather, they are refusing to engage in it, sidestepping it and approaching Judaism in the way most familiar to them. "If you've got what to say, the platform now exists," says one organizer. To anyone who grew up during any part of the 1990s, that's a familiar assertion. If the recent past is any guide, it is highly probable that wherever Jews go online, Limmud will follow with great success.