Jewish learning takes Tel Aviv

In its first year, Limmud aims to reframe Judaism for the White City.

Limmud TLV classroom (photo credit: BARAK BRINKER)
Limmud TLV classroom
(photo credit: BARAK BRINKER)
While it is customary on Shavuot to stay up all night rejoicing and studying Torah, last weekend saw Tel Aviv celebrate the Jewish value of learning in a new light.
For the first time, the global Jewish learning movement Limmud reached the White City, setting the stage for Tel Aviv residents to cross paths with comedians, rabbis and a Supreme Court justice alongside hi-tech gurus, filmmakers and relationship experts.
Limmud, from the Hebrew word meaning “to learn,” started as a nondenominational Jewish charity in the UK 35 years ago, aimed at providing educational programs encouraging Jewish learning and community building. The model of holding a large-scale annual conference and sporadic other events centered on Jewish learning has spread to more than 80 communities in 40 countries around the world.
Held under the banner of a “festival of Jewish and Israeli culture,” the inaugural Limmud TLV symposium took place last Thursday and Friday at the Academic College of Tel Aviv-Jaffa and the nearby Ruth Daniel Residence.
The coastal Mediterranean city joined the Limmud scene already existing in other Israeli communities, including Beersheba, the Arava, Modi’in, Haifa, Jerusalem, the Galilee and Yeroham, and those taking part in the Russian-speaking Limmud FSU (former Soviet Union).
“The idea is that everyone should be learning and anyone can be a teacher,” Ilana Pinshaw, head of Limmud TLV’s partnerships and resources, told Metro. “It’s a platform and an event in which Judaism can be present, regardless of what one’s background is or what their interests are. Everyone can come here for something different. It’s about learning new things and exploring ideas that you don’t usually get to explore.”
The two-day learning program ran from Thursday morning until the early hours of Friday, reflecting the late-night Shavuot tradition. The egalitarian approach to Jewish and Israeli learning featured a rich diversity of interactive presentations, workshops and discourse held in both English and Hebrew.
“I see it as the Jewish TEDx,” Limmud volunteer and Jaffa native Eyal Raviv said, comparing the Tel Aviv event to the grassroots series based on the global TED conference phenomenon.
The program offered up to 11 simultaneous 65-minute sessions. Hundreds of attendees filed freely in and out of the whirlwind event, featuring a total of 130 sessions, 120 presenters and seven musical performances.
Numerous attendees expressed excitement over the exploratory lecture session titled “Is James Bond Jewish?” by Rabbi Rafi Zarum, dean of the London School of Jewish Studies.
The two-day extravaganza featured many well-known presenters, including filmmakers Emanuel and Nurith Cohn, Supreme Court Justice Elyakim Rubinstein, comedian Benji Lovitt, high-profile national-religious leader Rabbi Benny Lau, and Natalie Marcus and Asaf Beiser – creators of the popular TV satire Hayehudim Ba’im (The Jews are Coming).
Also on the program’s slate were presentations with headings such as: “Is Jewishness an eating disorder?”; “Queering Judaism: Redefining Judaism as a culture of inclusion”; and “50 shades of Shavuot.”
Notably excluded from the lineup were any politicians, although organizers indicated that this could change in future events. However, the topic of politics was discussed in sessions such as “The Center and the Periphery in the aftermath of the 2015 elections” and “Political youth movements – A view to elections 2030.”
ATTENDEES OF various ages, walks of life, affiliations, denominations and backgrounds filtered through the sessions conducted in the college’s classrooms, lecture halls and auditoriums. Participants, volunteers and presenters alike gathered during breaks in the corridors, atriums and outdoor areas of the palm-dotted Jaffa campus.
Born from the initiative and vision of Limmud TLV chairman Tal Grunspan, the entirely volunteer-run effort materialized after more than two years in the making.
“It took a pregnancy – nine months – until I decided I wanted to do it; it was a big commitment,” recounted Grunspan, whose interest in bringing the Limmud model to Tel Aviv was sparked after he attended his first Limmud event in the UK, where he spoke about his leadership role in Israel’s 2011 social justice protests.
The Tel Aviv native, whose many interests can be summed up under the label of social entrepreneur, mentioned that it was challenging to bring the Limmud conference to the cosmopolitan city.
“It’s tough to make it in Tel Aviv since there are already a lot of pluralistic Jewish activities,” he asserted, adding that “it needed an Israeli” behind the wheel in order to reach a mixed audience of native Israelis and international participants.
“This year, we were trying to put the ‘brand’ out there and inform the population of the concept,” he explained. “It’s a good brand for the city.”
Although the initiative lacked the type of community backing seen abroad from institutions like the Jewish Federations of North America, the program garnered support from the Tel Aviv Municipality, the Academic College of Tel-Aviv-Jaffa and the ROI Community network for Jewish leaders.
Organized by some 50 volunteers, the educational event managed to rally in more than 400 attendees.
Sabras represented about 60 percent of participants, while the additional 40% was comprised of the olim community and a sprinkling of people hailing from abroad.
“A lot of people in this country see themselves as Israeli, not Jewish – but here it doesn’t matter what your journey is, Limmud helps you take a step forward,” Grunspan explained of the challenge of attracting locals.
Chaim Chesler, the Israeli founder of the Limmud FSU module, also highlighted that the attendance of native Tel Avivians – and not solely Diaspora-originating olim – was of particularly importance for this specific event.
The coordinators aimed to reframe the concept of what it means to be Jewish, while taking into consideration that religious associations can be a deterrent among Tel Aviv’s population, which is largely viewed as urban, secular and hedonistic.
“In Tel Aviv, you often say the word ‘Jewish’ and there is a certain association, and people don’t want to be a part of it,” said Pinshaw.
Many involved with Limmud TLV noted that the concept helps bridge the polarized views of religion in Israel, and in Tel Aviv.
Chananel Rosen, who held a session on “Tel Aviv – the holy city,” pointed out that the lack of coercion and revered sense of independence are primary features of the city’s value core.
“This heightened awareness presents us with the challenge of forging a confident Jewish identity independent of the judgmental insecurity found across the political divide, and a society that embraces and cares for the ‘other,’” he maintained.
“Holding an event such as Limmud challenges us to think positively of how we can strengthen our heterogeneous but splintered society,” added the rabbi and associate director of the Yakar Jerusalem Center.
Likewise, Rabbi Susan Silverman – a prominent activist with the feminist prayer group Women of the Wall and sister of popular American comedian Sarah Silverman – said Limmud is particularly beneficial in Israel for promoting an all-inclusive approach to Judaism.
“Especially in Israel, we really need to complicate Judaism; we need to see it as a complex, energetic, moving force and not as this set of rules held by a few and a free-for-all for everybody else,” said the Jerusalem- based rabbi.
Before her presentation on orphan care and international adoption in a Jewish context, she spoke about Limmud as extending a framework for the issue of how to engage in the complexities of Judaism, by providing “not answers but responses, and not having the black-and-white, idolatrous Judaism be what’s authentic.”
ALONG WITH setting forth an environment to discover the complex nature of the Jewish religion, the Limmud TLV event also generated an enticing social context. Many participants attended the event to meet other open-minded people whom they would otherwise not necessarily have the opportunity to encounter.
“As a French person here in Tel Aviv, it’s very difficult for me; I’m not 20, and I don’t meet that many people my age,” said Joseph Machiah, who moved to Tel Aviv from Paris three years ago. “In Tel Aviv it’s all about music, and dancing, and bars – anything but something cultural, so this event is important.”
Machiah, who offered a midnight session on one of Israel’s favorite board games – sheshbesh (backgammon) – said he was drawn to the Limmud event because it offered a change of pace from the daily concerns of Tel Aviv’s young crowd, which is focused on “getting a job or getting into university and friends, and not about being Jewish.”
“There is a collectiveness here like in a master class in music. It’s not a competition, there is a group dynamic that is nice,” he enthused. “It’s very socially oriented. Every time you go to a different class, you meet different people with a different energy – and I love it.
“It’s a joyful, interesting, mind-boggling event… when you get out of it, your mind is flying.”
While many viewed the Limmud presence in Tel Aviv as novel, others saw it as an inevitable part of the city’s vast offerings.
“It’s great to see it existing properly in the main city in Israel. The concept is so Israeli, so it’s weird that it didn’t exist here before,” said participant Lauren Rosettenstein, an Australian who lived in Israel for seven years before moving to her current base in London.
Rosettenstein – who self-identifies as “religious,” but struggles with the politicization of religion and aligns with “secular” social issues – represents a microcosm of the types of simultaneously existing realities found in contemporary Jewish and Israeli society that Limmud TLV aimed to bring to light.
“Limmud TLV is huge – it is a totally different experience,” raved the veteran participant of Limmud Oz events Down Under. “This is more diverse; what is different is the variety of languages.”
While the organizers of the flagship Tel Aviv affair plan to make the symposium an annual fixture, they are also preparing the initial framework for branchoff events throughout the year.
With targets including an even higher turnout and more big-name presenters, 2016 is likely to place Limmud TLV more prominently on the map.