A learning experience

In its fourth year, Limmud Arava – a two-day Jewish study program that attracts mostly secular participants – is still going strong.

Limmud session (photo credit: Courtesy of Gila Tal/ www.arava.co.il))
Limmud session
(photo credit: Courtesy of Gila Tal/ www.arava.co.il))
At 10:30 a.m. last Friday, Micha Raz parked his van just behind the bus stop beneath the entrance to the Sapir Center in the central Arava. Bunches of flowers, the kind he grows in the desert, packed the back of his vehicle, and he offered them as a farewell gesture to each of the Limmud session participants who were leaving to go back north.
Raz explained that the guests who came all the way from the North and Center to take part in the community Jewish study program deserved all his respect and his friendship: “The least I can do is to send them back home with some flowers for Shabbat to remember us.”
Inside the large Sapir community center, his wife Gila was still busy keeping an eye on the program schedule, hanging on to her smart phone and answering questions from the group of Australians who were there for the gathering.
Raz, who ran the English program of this year’s Limmud, was particularly proud of the 20 young Australians’ participation this year.
The Limmud sessions – community gatherings to study Jewish texts and thought – have become a kind of “must” in many communities over the years, first in England and expanding to many Jewish communities throughout the world. In the past couple of years, the conference has reached numerous communities in Israel, most of them in the periphery. The concept is based on volunteer work from both the organizers and the lecturers, and in the central Arava towns, halfway between the Dead Sea and Eilat, there is plenty of community commitment.
But most striking at Limmud Arava was the large number of secular participants – in fact, the only religious participants were among the lecturers and the guests from distant parts of the country.
While in most places, especially in the Center of the country, pluralistic Jewish study sessions have paved the way for encounters between observant and secular people around talmudic sources, this aspect was less prominent at Limmud Arava, which aimed to offer residents of the relatively remote region an opportunity to study Jewish texts from a secular perspective.
Though the general atmosphere was cheerful and open, it turns out that introducing a Limmud program in that region was not an easy task. The large majority of the region’s residents are secular, and many viewed the introduction of Jewish textual study as a threat, or at least a foreign concept, when the program began four years ago.
Still, the organizers – eight local women who built the program from scratch – insist that at no point was there any sign of hatred or any active opposition – “just some apprehension, and some fears about the level of participation,” says Shosh Shirin, one of the eight.
For now, it seems that the fears have been overcome, and the high participation rate among the locals is the greatest testament to the change of attitude, according to the organizers. That said, one of the immediate results of this environment seems to have been the decision to hold only a short-term program, rather than a year-long one. In the central Arava, at least for now, there is no plan for a Beit Midrash, but the two-day program of study and nature tours is still a winning concept.
In its fourth year, the Limmud Arava project has beaten all its former records with about 350 participants (though about 40% of them were guests from outside the Arava). This is a clear indication that studying Jewish texts – whether from religious sources or from contemporary Israeli authors – is no longer “an exotic or strange event, but part of our life here,” says Esterke Porat, head of the central Arava psychological clinics and one of the organizers.
The participants were varied – Arava residents and farmers, pre- and postarmy service youth, students from seminaries and mechina (pre-army preparation) programs located in Hatzeva (one of the largest villages of the region), lecturers and educators from all around the country (most of them with their families, including toddlers), participants from the Limmud project in the Galilee (known as Limmud Arava’s “older sister”) and the group of Australian youths, who are on a sixmonth program of volunteer work and learning in Israel.
For two days, these people formed an ad-hoc new community – one that “shares the care for a better society through studying and knowledge of our heritage, overlapping the differences – after all, we do have so much in common,” explains Porat, handing out written material to participants who stopped at her registration desk to taste locally grown dates displayed in a large basket.
ACCORDING TO the original formula set in England, a successful Limmud session entails a gathering of adults and youth, secular and religious people, locals and guests, veterans and beginners in the art of talmudic and biblical studies – all on a volunteer basis – and that mixture was largely present last week at Sapir.
“We rarely had a refusal from lecturers because we do not pay – they always all accept immediately with enthusiasm.
This is also part of the success of this project,” explains Leora Poliker, another of the organizers. “The willingness we find, each year, among lecturers and scholars to come all the way to the Arava, for no fee, to meet us and talk to us is really extraordinary – it warms the heart.”
Asked what drives them to put together this program, all the women of the team agree that there is a real thirst for finding common roots in texts and tradition, a love of learning together and of getting to know people from distant places. “It’s all that and more,” says Shirin.
“We understand that these texts belong to us, too, and though quite a few people here were anxious at the beginning – they feared we might allow some proselytizing to sneak into our life here – we have proven that Judaism and studying don’t mean exclusively religious observance; it is first a matter of shared culture, and now it works.”
Most of the sessions that were not directly dealing with religious texts were focused on social issues. These sessions attracted some of the largest audiences, including many of the young participants.
Twenty-four lecturers – educators, columnists, scholars, rabbis and a yoga master, as well as music legend Ehud Banai (who gave both a study session and a concert) – volunteered their time despite the distance.
The warm welcome that participants received from the people living in the desert is clearly a part of the atmosphere in the Arava. Bags and suitcases could be left unattended around the large plaza surrounding the central building where most of the lectures were held. Locals gave anyone who identified him- or herself as a Limmud participant rides back and forth from the villages.
“We are all frontier people,” explains Porat. “The outsiders are the average here, so at the end of the day, we are all the same.”
Later on, this reporter found out that even the rooms rented for the session were left unlocked, and visitors were simply asked to leave their payment there before they left.
“That’s true, we don’t make much use of locks and keys here,” says Kiryat Gatborn entrepreneur Shimon Ben- Shoshan, now of Ein Yahav, a tall, thin man, wearing a large Australian leather hat. “It’s like one big family here.”
Ben-Shoshan, who identifies himself as traditional, says that he found real pleasure in attending as many of the Limmud sessions as possible, and volunteered to drive some of the guests back and forth between the Sapir community center and the rented rooms in Ein Yahav.
POLIKER, PORAT, Shirin, Gila Raz, Drora Negev, Shosh Lubich, Oriah Neve and Rina Peretz-Gal, backed by community center administrator Micki Cohen, are the force behind Limmud Arava, which was held year after year, as they recall, “in our kitchens and our living rooms.” During the year, the team members meet with each other, compare the programs, propose names of lecturers, decide on topics, invite the lecturers and see that every detail is checked.
Limmud Arava started following an encounter with Limmud Australia, which Negev and Poliker attended as guests of the Australian community and thanks to the generous and continuing support of the Partnership 2Gether central Arava and the Zionist Federation of Australia.
“Upon coming back home, it was clear that we wanted to have it here also, we enjoyed it so much there,” recalls Poliker, who eventually went to get a taste of Limmud in England as well.
“We took the basic recipe of the Limmud sessions in the Jewish communities in Australia and in England, but we felt we needed to adapt it to our needs and tastes here,” says Shirin. That thought led the team to consider including other aspects of the Israeli experience, rather than focusing only on Talmudic texts.
“We invited scholars Prof. Eyal Zisser The Central Arava region is one of the most peripheral and remote in the country.
Part of the Jordan Rift Valley, it is located halfway between the Dead Sea and the Red Sea, roughly 130 km. from the nearest city (Eilat in the south and Beersheba to the north), and much of it is below sea level. The area has some 3,000 residents in 700 families scattered throughout seven communities, mostly agricultural moshavim. The arid desert region experiences sharp temperature changes and receives only about 30 mm. of rainfall annually. In the summer, temperatures regularly surpass 40°C, while humidity is fairly low.
[Middle East expert from Tel Aviv University] to talk to us about what is going on in the countries and societies surrounding Israel, Yair Sheleg [researcher at the Israel Democratic Institute] to talk about Jewish values vis-a-vis Western liberalism, and editorin- chief of the Eretz Aheret magazine Bambi Sheleg talked about new trends in Israeli society,” says Poliker. All turned out to be tremendous successes – the organizers had to arrange for larger halls than originally planned due to the huge number of participants.
Nadav Gal-On, a veterinarian originally from a kibbutz in the North, who now heads the Agriculture Ministry’s Veterinary Administration, led an open discussion on animal welfare from a traditional Jewish standpoint, stressing the need to show mercy and kindness to all creatures. Dr. Zohar Raviv, head of the Taglit education program in Israel, challenged the young participants from Australia on the possibility of a pluralistic attitude in Judaism (hint: it’s absolutely possible), while Eliraz Shifman-Berman, coordinator of the education department at Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem and facilitator at the Memizrach Shemesh Center for Jewish Social Activism, exposed them to the reality of poverty in Israel through a Jewish social-justice approach.
At the end of the latter presentation, some of the Australians admitted that they were shocked to realize there is such a high level of poverty in the country. They told this reporter that it was something they had to find ways to address during their stay and on returning to Australia, as some of them might be considering aliya in the future.
Then came one of the highlights of the program – a joint hevruta (smallgroup study) session open to all participants, with a special segment in English. The texts for the session were prepared by the Limmud Galilee team, which sent a respectable delegation, and nearly 300 people of all ages and denominations sat together to learn what the term “fire” means in Jewish thought – from the burning bush in the Sinai Desert, through the pillar of fire during the Exodus period, the fire of the Torah and the fire of the Holocaust.
At the end of the first day, amid a relaxed atmosphere, the large concert hall of the Sapir Center opened its gates, and all the participants, with additional guests from the region, packed it for Banai’s concert. The successful mix of Israeli rock, Jewish tunes and traditional songs raised the enthusiasm of the audience – who knew all the words by heart – and the evening ended with some Purim tunes. At the gates outside, Shirin, Porat, Poliker, Lubich and Raz looked overwhelmed with well-deserved satisfaction.
“IT IS becoming not only a successful event but a local tradition as well,” Porat explains the following morning, “yet the major task still challenging us remains the marketing inside the region.”
Shirin, Lubich and Porat agree that for the moment, and despite the huge success of this present Limmud session, the in-between generation is still not attending.
“We see here the generation of the parents, [age] 60 and older, we see – and this is a tremendous achievement – the young generation, the high-school students and those who attend the prearmy service programs, but the sons and daughters, who have decided to come back and establish themselves in the Arava after studying or traveling abroad, are not sufficiently represented, perhaps because they are too busy building their lives,” say Shirin and Porat.
Still, all agree that there are specific aspects of Arava life that help projects like Limmud succeed.
“For example, we only have one school here – Jews and Beduin, religious and secular, veterans and newcomers or even new immigrants – there’s only one place for all, it shapes the community attitude,” Shirin and Porat say. “Everyone has to get along with the others – there is no alternative for hundreds of kilometers around.”
On Friday morning, while Micha Raz is still packing the flowers in his van, Esteban Gottfried – the founder and leader of Beit Tefila Yisraelit (a venture to mark Jewish traditional events, like the Kabbalat Shabbat prayer, in a secular Israeli character) – examines the clouds in the sky.
Gottfried planned to hold Kabbalat Shabbat inside the large community center hall, but was seduced by the desert landscape around. After a while, he decides to remain inside – a sudden and heavy rain already surprised many earlier in the morning, and he doesn’t want to take any risks. He and members of the Tel Aviv group make their way to spend Shabbat with the local community and the Limmud guests.
About the Arava
The Central Arava Regional Council was established in 1978. The area under the council’s jurisdiction is 371,000 acres, or 6 percent of the entire country.
It comprises seven communities, including five agricultural communities, or moshavim: Idan, Hatzeva, Ein Yahav, Tzofar and Paran. The two regional centers are Sapir and Tzukim, the latter of which is an eco-tourism based community.
The farming methods used in the Arava are among the most advanced in the world, and the region produces more than half of the vegetables exported from Israel, mostly peppers and aloe vera, the plant known for its healing virtues, and of course dates.
Although the region is becoming a popular tourist destination for hikers with a developed network of rooms for rent as well as restaurants, the main source of income for residents is still agriculture. About 480 farming families produce nearly 60 percent of Israel’s vegetable exports, and 10% of the cutflowers exports.
Comprehensive plans for further development of the region already exist, but according to the locals who participated in the Limmud session, one of the most acute problems is the lack of facilities and programs adapted for seniors.
“Those who came here first and began the agriculture programs of the Arava are now around their 70s, at least,” says Shimon Ben-Shoshan of Ein Yahav, “and though most of them are still fine, it’s clear we’ll have to consider their needs.”
Ben-Shoshan owns a medium-sized building concern that operates in the region – building anything from warehouses to the little synagogue being constructed now in his moshav. Until now, Ein Yahav residents who wished to pray used a small empty warehouse.
“We don’t really have a minyan, but I don’t care, it’s fine with me even without,” he says.
One of the region’s peculiarities is the high number of second-generation returnees.
“The official figures talk about close to 70%” says Esterke Porat, who heads the regional council’s psychological clinics for both children and adults.
“People who grew up here tend to come back. They do all kinds of things – from the agriculture their parents established to teaching, law, etc., and if necessary, they live here and commute to Beersheba,” adds Shosh Lubich, who has lived in the Arava for 40 years.
The Limmud program is enabled first and foremost by the locals, with support from the Arava-Australia partnership program, the the Jewish Agency, and the Arava Regional Council and community center, which helps with the advertising and the printing of the brochures and schedules. – P.C.