By Michael Jacobs
If you attend LimmudFest and spill a cup of coffee, don’t expect one of the volunteer staffers to clean up your mess.
“Limmud expects adults to behave like adults,” Clive Lawton, one of the founders of the Limmud movement in
England 30 years ago, told the fourth training session of Limmud Atlanta + Southeast’s 2015 young adult development group Sunday night, June 14.
Lawton wanted the dozen 22- to 30-year-olds training to be Limmud leaders, most of whom haven’t attended a Limmud event, to understand that their role as volunteers is not to be service staff for the other attendees, who need to be participants, not just consumers.
“We want everybody to participate equally,” said Lawton, who was making a brief visit to Atlanta after a training program to Chicago.
Limmud, a Hebrew word for learning, is “spreading like a rash all over the world,” Lawton said. The values-driven, nondenominational movement promises to help participants take one more step on their personal Jewish journeys, however they define them.
“Limmud ought not to be superficial. It ought to be deep and moving,” Lawton said. Limmud should inform the way people see how the world works.
Limmud groups hold volunteer-organized events that give participants options for learning and give the learners, not the teachers, the power. Lawton said it’s hard to keep track in the nonhierarchical movement, but there are 80 to 85 Limmud groups now, including 17 in North America.
“It’s not the British Empire, but the sun doesn’t set on Limmud,” Lawton said, later adding: “It’s just very exciting to realize that you are connected to the global family.”
He said the YAD initiative is among the reasons that Limmud Atlanta + Southeast is a good Limmud group. YAD is a special contribution to the Limmud movement that other groups will try to emulate to address the eternal problem of how to train the next generation of leaders.
“We are looking to support a committed and prepared generation of emerging young leaders who will strengthen the Atlanta Jewish community not just through participation with Limmud, but by participating in leadership positions throughout the city,” Eliana Leader, who directs the YAD program, said in announcing the 16 people who started in the program in May.
She said a key moment on her path to Limmud leadership was a training session Lawton led two years ago, and she hoped Lawton would spark something similar in the Atlanta YAD group.
But first Lawton had to help the YAD members recognize what makes Limmud special compared with other Jewish and learning programs, although he warned that Limmud is not a fixed thing. “Every time you think you have it in a bag, break the bag open.”
The key is that Limmud is driven by a set of values, not by rules or a fixed structure. The organization is continually being broadened and flattened to incorporate more volunteers without creating a hierarchy.
People can jump into Limmud and find themselves in leadership positions within weeks, in part because the leadership is not limited, Lawton said. “There’s never a time to say we’ve got enough now.”
He said Limmud needs to be “porous and flexible and baggy and loose.”
The international movement intentionally lacks control over the local organizations. Anyone who wants to start a Limmud and is willing to comply with the movement’s values is welcome to use the name, Lawton said, and while Limmud will offer support and advice, it will not provide answers to problems that arise. Each group must chart its own course, even on such basic decisions as whether volunteers wear identification, enabling people to find them for help, or blend in, encouraging the ideal of everyone at Limmud being equal participants.
“Atlanta,” Lawton said, “is a beautiful example of the creature.”