Wexner Heritage Alumni Limmud Volunteers
Matthew Bronfman is an alumnus of the Wexner Heritage Program from NY and Chairman of the International Steering Committee of Limmud FSU.
Our most recent Limmud was July 1-3 in Jerusalem, for Russian speaking Israelis. In all, we will have 5 Limmuds this year for Russian speaking Jews in the US, Israel, Ukraine and Russia.
I became involved in this project 4 years ago when I was in Cordoba, Spain for a World Jewish Congress meeting. Chaim Chesler, the founder of Limmud FSU, convinced me that my support as well as that of the World Jewish Congress would help him obtain the necessary funds to launch this dream.
My grandparents were from the Moldova area and were the lucky ones who got out just before the beginning of the 20th Century (about 1890). I really felt that if I could help bring Judaism to the Jews of Russia in a non-threatening, pluralistic way, I would be doing a service to our brothers and sisters. I took a look at the British model and was very excited at the potential. And getting multiple Jewish agencies to all share in a single endeavor and not try to own it was another challenge that I thought was worthwhile. I came to my Judaism quite late in life— Wexner had a huge impact on me—and I wanted others to feel that Judaism is open to them no matter how they want to access it, whether through dance, art, Torah, cooking, literature, or any other realm. Any and all ways are great and valuable. Each person’s journey should be his or her own and Limmud provides for that. I loved that all these amazing scholars, philanthropists and Jewish professionals were taking their time, at no compensation, to come to Moscow to engage with mostly non-affiliated Jews, most of whom would not be considered halakhically Jewish by some rabbis.
The volunteers are the other reason that I like the model so much. The number of people who volunteer at Limmud keeps growing and the local leadership is really taking hold in Moscow– the model is working!!
It has been a great success, beyond our early dreams and we look forward to continuing the work.
Linda Fife, Limmud LA
I love the idea of bringing Jews from across the spectrum to engage with one another. My Wexner experience was most powerful because of that opportunity. As we sat at the table learning together, we also had the opportunity to learn about one another. We were no longer “a Conservative Jew” or an “Orthodox” Jew or a secular Jew or a “Reform” Jew; we were simply Jews engaged in dialogue and learning with one another and about one another. But Wexner, as Shoshana mentioned, is limited to small numbers of participants, while Limmud is open to all. I wanted others to have that same opportunity I had to learn with Jews from all segments of the community.
In Los Angeles today, we tend to live in silo communities in which we rarely engage with Jews outside of our home community. As a result, I see us as a community becoming less and less tolerant of each other. Shoshana’s “passionate pluralism” is exactly why I believe that the Limmud model is so very important. I believe that it is vital to our future to engage in conversation with one another and to learn with one another. I have been involved in a whole variety of Jewish communal institutions but I believe that my work with Limmud is the most important so far. It is through this engagement as peers and with acceptance of differences and awareness of commonalities that I think we will build a stronger more vibrant community. The fact that in Limmud we are all volunteers working towards a common goal is also powerful. There isn’t a staff to do it for us. We are it. That means that everyone has an important role to play. Each one of us has the opportunity to grow as individuals while also connecting with fellow Jews we might never have met…just like those of us who participated in Wexner.
A particularly interesting aspect of Limmud LA was planning Shabbat. The group planning the conference struggled with how to approach Shabbat. We spent considerable time discussing how to make everyone feel comfortable. It was a chance for each of us to learn what celebrating Shabbat meant to a diverse group of Jews. By the end of the discussion, those who were “more observant” were voicing the “less observant” viewpoints and vice versa….because we each “got” what Shabbat meant to the others around the table. Learning like that, open and considerate– recognizing each person’s choice and approach as legitimate for them is, for me, what Wexner and Limmud is about.
My advice to those who are thinking of launching a Limmud in their community? It was helpful to know that Shep [Rosenman] and I were partners in this endeavor and that we were there to support and encourage one another when the going got tough. One of the gifts of LimmudLA was the opportunity to work with Shep. I learned a lot from him and with him. Not only did I have the chance to bring something I believe is very valuable to LA, but I also gained friends and for that I am most grateful.
I would also suggest that it is helpful to reach out to those who have stepped into this kind of endeavor and can offer guidance and suggestions. While each endeavor is unique to a community and its leaders, I have always found it helpful to brainstorm with others who have been involved in similar activities. Be open to all suggestions (doesn’t mean you have to accept them). Reach out to people you might never have thought to reach out to so that you begin with as broad a view as possible. Talk to everyone. This kind of endeavor is really about personal conversations. Don’t try to do it all yourself! Delegate and let others take on leadership roles. Laugh and enjoy the people you are collaborating with. Don’t think of it as work!
Michal Hillman, Limmud Atlanta, a WH alumna from Atlanta, a community volunteer.
Growing up in the South, every one is an aunt, uncle or cousin or kissing kin! Families and friends are intertwined and interrelated. Limmud is an opportunity to recreate southern hospitality minted with learning. Many Limmud teachers had family in their classroom, some for the first time! Old friends reconnected at Limmud. Two women who grew up in South Carolina literally bumped into each other on campus. Both are living in Atlanta (within 4 blocks of each other) and neither one of them knew the other was in town and both had been here 40 years!
My local involvement made me realize that the community needed a massive transfer of Jewish knowledge in an enticing and economically viable package. My Wexner experience reinforced for me the importance of continuously transferring Jewish knowledge. Wexner/JAC provided me with the background and skills to implement Jewish learning and knowledge transfer in a different way. Limmud provided the perfect vehicle for delivery to the Atlanta community.
Jodi Mansbach, Limmud Atlanta
I love Rabbi Gelfand’s comment about passionate pluralism. The organization I had previously helped launch was all about passionate pluralism as well. It’s something that comes naturally to me but something that I’ve found hard to communicate among the leadership and funders here in Atlanta. What appealed to me about Limmud was that I would not be going it alone. I joined a group of people internationally who are committed to the same ideals. Having that emotional support, technical assistance support has made all the difference in sustaining me as a leader and our organization overall.
I have always seen Wexner as a tremendous gift. The chance to study with renowned teachers and to do so for an extended period of time during the year and more intensely at summer institutes is so much more impactful than a one-off adult education for two reasons: the quality of the teaching and the chance to build a more personal connection.
Having said that, I always thought that it was a shame that more people could not have that opportunity. To me, Limmud offers a similar though hardly identical experience to a broader base of people. The quality is there along with the immersion experience, the chance to have breakfast with a renowned scholar and interact on a more personal basis.
Two stories: One that relates to my personal need to feel a part of something bigger and not be going it alone in Atlanta is that the week before our first Limmud, I began to receive emails from staff and volunteers all around the world wishing us well on our first program. It was so inspiring. Second: the Thursday before our first Limmud, we had a leadership team meeting and we had volunteers practically crying and thanking us for the opportunity to be a part of Limmud, telling us it was by far the most incredible volunteer experience that they had ever had in the Jewish community or elsewhere.
The advice I would give other Wexner alumni considering launching Limmud in their community is simple: Do it. Our Limmud has been done on a shoestring budget with no full time staff, just a seasonal administrator that helps coordinate travel and some other details starting a few months before the conference.
Also, make sure that at least 2-3 members of the leadership/founding group go to another Limmud. Preferably more. Ideally they should go together so they can process it together. Without the firsthand experience, something about Limmud will get lost in the translation. There are Limmud values you can put on paper and some that you just have to experience to understand. Do it!
Shep Rosenman, Limmud LA, a Wexner Heritage alumnus from Los Angeles.
When I wrote my application for the Wexner Heritage Program, my focus was on how important it was to build a post-denominational Judaism that ranged from the secular through the observant community. I had been involved in several efforts to build such a community in LA, all of which had failed. The first time I ever heard of Limmud was at the 2002 Wexner Heritage Summer Institute. Nigel Savage, one of the founders of Limmud UK, us off our feet with his description of a post-denominational Jewish community that was centered on volunteerism and learning. I was so excited by his presentation that I sought him out and told him to let me know as soon as Limmud was coming to LA because I wanted to attend. Nigel quite correctly said, “No. If you want to bring Limmud to LA, you’ll take the first step.” Several years later, I went to Limmud NY with fellow WH Alum Linda Fife, thinking that I probably wasn’t going to make the time for this venture because my law practice was so busy, my kids were little and a host of other very real reasons. As great as the educators/presenters were, as great as it was to meet well known and lesser known personalities from the international Jewish community, what struck me most about Limmud NY was the excitement of just being with another group of unlabeled Jews, all of whom were journeying in some fashion or another. I was prompted to launch LimmudLA because I saw it as an opportunity to build that post-denominational Jewish community that I envisioned in my Wexner Heritage application.
What speaks to me most about Limmud is the notion of ownership. When we go to synagogue, when we go to school, we are so often placed into boxes and force fed agendas, politics or philosophies. Through underscoring the importance of volunteerism and choice, the Limmud model forces participants to take some ownership over their experience. This in turn, has the capacity to allow and perhaps even force participants to make similar choices after the conferences. This facilitates a greater ownership of one’s own Jewish experience throughout the year, not just on a Limmud conference weekend. This is one of the key places where Wexner and Limmud intersect. Both organizations are about leadership. Wexner seeks to build Jewish communal leaders. Limmud seeks to build Jewish self leaders, many of whom will end up leading the community. Wexner frames the Jewish story in a way shared by all its participants. Limmud frames the Jewish story from a multiplicity of individual perspectives in an environment in which it is safe to observe, think or practice differently from each other or from the way you normally think, observe or practice, but all participants share the story of that conference, which becomes part of their common bond.
I will never forget our first LimmudLA havdallah. I was choked up that night as we sang “Hineh El Yeshuati,” led by Reb Mimi Feigelson and Yehuda Solomon of the Moshav Band and several of us with guitars and drums in hand. I looked around and saw all kinds of earnest and inspired faces turned to the light of that single Havdallah candle. They were singing, swaying, dancing, praying. I didn’t notice anyone talking or joking. Through moist eyes, I saw a group of people who came together for one purpose: to separate between the holiness of Shabbat and the ordinariness of the rest of the week. In that moment, we created holiness out of the separation. My tears began to flow freely when a prominent female Reform rabbi from LA, wearing her kippah and jeans sang and danced in between two Hasidim, wearing their Shtreimels and Beckeshes. That moment changed the lives of those three individuals and changed the perceptions of countless people who witnessed it. To me, that moment was the pinnacle of “passionate pluralism.”
While there are so many reasons not to embark on such a project, my advice is: Articulate those reasons, but do not honor them. Look deep in your heart to see where your values lie. If you value a whole Jewish community, rather than a multiplicity of nodes on the Jewish network, then react and do – “naaseh v’nishma” – undertake to build a Limmud in your community. All of the problems will be managed and manageable. Don’t let that stop you from building your Limmud. If you value owning your own Jewish experience, if you value transmitting to your children, friends, and the next generation of Jews, if you value the notion that you can impact the way the Jewish community grows and learns and observes, do this: “naaseh v’nishma.”
Jeffrey Schwarz, Limmud NY
Jeffrey is a Wexner Heritage alumnus from NY. Jeffrey is a member of the Board and Vice President/Treasurer, as well as having been a founding Co-Chair of Limmud NY. He is also a member of the Board and the Treasurer of Moving Traditions (one of Slingshot’s 50 Most Innovative Jewish organizations in North America).
For me, as I look back on my Jewish journey over the past two decades, it is clear that the road I’ve been on originated at 375 Park Avenue, the building where my Wexner seminars met, and led directly to the Hudson Valley Resort, the site of the first annual Limmud NY conference, albeit with a brief detour to Nottingham, England. As my teacher and friend, Rabbi Shoshana Boyd Gelfand put it more succinctly than I ever could: Wexner and Limmud are flip sides of the same coin.
The Wexners and Rabbis Herb Friedman, of blessed memory, and Nathan Laufer gave me an invaluable gift—the gift of my Judaism. Wexner enabled me to move past the earlier versions that I had experienced, the pediatric Judaism, followed by the dogmatic Judaism, to see that Judaism could be open-minded, smart, sophisticated and nuanced, relevant and useful to an adult who in all other aspects of his life saw himself in that way. Wexner also showed me how significant the impact of great teachers could be on one’s life. Ruth Calderon, David Ellenson, Yitz Greenberg,
Donniel Hartman, Irwin Kula, Deborah Lipstadt, and David Silber to name just a few Wexner teachers that shaped my life. It was clear to me that Jewish wisdom offered significant and enduring value as I grappled with the questions confronting all human beings. With my Wexner colleagues, faculty and students alike, I came to experience how a community could develop centered around learning. The only limitation, but a frustrating one, was that Wexner was/is a leadership program. I wanted to share what I had discovered with family, friends and the broader community (not in a proselytizing or instrumental way, but simply “this has added value to my life-you might find the same” type of way), but I knew of no venue within which to do so.
Post-Wexner, as I engaged in Jewish communal life, I was struck by how the composition of volunteer leadership did not reflect the diversity of the Jewish community. Over the years, I served on many Board and many Executive Committees of organizations that engaged in good works, but never felt sure that I had fulfilled the hopes that Les and Abigail had in establishing the Wexner Heritage Program.
In 2002, I was invited by my friend, Karen Radkowsky (the person with whom I would ultimately share the position of Conference Chair for the inaugural Limmud NY conference in January 2005), to join a strategic planning committee that was to research the British project named Limmud and determine whether such a project might fill a void in New York Jewish communal life. When I arrived on the campus of Nottingham University I was amazed by what I found. Over 2,000 people of all ages, singles, students, multi-generational families, and all backgrounds had come together, for the better part of a week, l’asok b’divrei Torah: to busy themselves in the words of Torah. What was particularly exciting for me was that there was no set curriculum, but that the program was all about multiple options/personal choice, and the ‘words of Torah’ were understood in the broadest of ways. Finally, and most fantastically, this whole event was organized and produced by volunteers!
The unanimous conclusion of the strategic planning committee was that notwithstanding all that Jewish life in New York already offered, there was nothing like Limmud. We set about bringing the essence of Limmud to the New York metropolitan area; our visions was a multi-generational, economically diverse, pluralistic, volunteer produced retreat experience, centered around Jewish learning, broadly understood.
Roll the clock forward to January 2009. By that time four annual Limmud NY conferences had come and gone, each bigger and more successful than its predecessor. Cumulatively, nearly three thousand people had been to a Limmud NY conference, which had been made possible by the work of hundreds of volunteers. However, that wasn’t what I was thinking about late Thursday night/early Friday morning, as I sat on the floor of a room in the Nevele hotel in the Catskill Mountains of New York state. In a few hours people would be arriving at the Nevele; by Shabbat over 900 people would be present for the fifth Limmud NY conference, and the hotel’s boilers were not working; there was no heat or hot water! I looked around the room at the 25-30 people shivering there. Along with a few Board members, the group was comprised of this year’s conference Steering Committee and core volunteers, the people who had spent much of the previous year working to make the conference a reality. As the group wrestled with the question of “do we/don’t we cancel the conference?” I marveled at its composition: mostly twenty- somethings, mostly women. It is highly unlikely that anyone of them would be found in your local Federation Board room, and yet their dedication and the dedication of all the previous years’ volunteers was what had brought us to this place. In that moment, I was certain whatever decision this group reached would be the right one!