What do a Polish burlesque performer, a gerontology professor from Buenos Aires, a Canadian female kashrut supervisor, a former contestant on Bulgaria’s “Who Wants to be a Millionaire” and a sleeping-disorders specialist from San Francisco have in common?
They are but some of the 150 participants in Israel last week for a first-of-its-kind event by Limmud, the organization that sponsors Jewish learning festivals around the world.
Representing 50 local communities in 25 different countries, they are all volunteers in this predominantly volunteer-led global initiative. They come from places as remote as New Zealand and Costa Rica, and engage in professions as diverse as human rights advocacy and cruise ship staff recruitment.
“These are the people who are usually so busy running events and enriching others that they often don’t have time to enrich themselves, so we wanted them to have that opportunity,” says David Bilchitz, a legal scholar from South Africa and co-chair of the event. “We also wanted to use this forum to start thinking strategically about the future of Limmud,” he adds.
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The participants at the four-day gathering, titled Limmud Connect, represent only a fraction of the 4,000 Limmud volunteers around the world who plan and run festivals in their respective communities.
Founded in 1980, Limmud has spanned out from a relatively small annual festival held during the Christmas break in England to a global phenomenon, hailed as one of the most successful and innovative Jewish projects of recent decades.
Now held in 90 communities in 42 countries around the globe, Limmud events draw about 40,000 participants a year. They attract Orthodox Jews as well as non-believers and everything in between.
Bilchitz, a former chair of Limmud International who helped found the South African branch of the organization, says the timing was ripe for a gathering of volunteers from around the world, because “we now have a critical mass of global Jews.”
Who are these volunteers and what drives them? Haaretz spoke with participants from some of the smaller Jewish communities represented at this inaugural gathering.
Juan Pablo Iglesias, Chile
To earn his livelihood, this 39-year-old resident of Santiago works as a marketing executive for a medical startup. On the side, he writes children’s books.
It was right after the Israeli war in Gaza in the summer of 2014 that Iglesias felt the urge to write. “That was the first time I ever felt afraid as a Jew living in Chile,” he recounts. “Chile has a huge Palestinian community, and there was a tremendous amount of hate speech on social media at the time. I thought the best way to change attitudes would be to write a book.”
His book is about two boys – Daniel, a Jew, and Ismael, an Arab – who overcome their bad feelings toward one another by playing soccer. It has already been published in Spanish, Iglesias says, and is about to be published in English, Hebrew and Arabic. He is now working on two other children’s books, which he says are also soccer-themed.
Born to a Jewish mother and Christian father, Iglesias says that aside from meals at his maternal grandmother’s house on religious holidays, he did not have much of a Jewish upbringing. It was his first visit to Israel, on a Birthright tour, that opened his eyes. “I met members of the Jewish community for the first time on this trip, and when I came back I started getting involved in all sorts of social causes,” he recalls.
Iglesias was one of the founding members of Limmud in Chile four years ago. The last event held there drew 1,000 participants, he says.
Adina Halpern, New Zealand
Even before she relocated to New Zealand 23 years ago, Adina Halpern was familiar with the challenges of life in a small Jewish community. “I grew up in a small community 30 miles [50 kilometers] from London,” she recounts. “There, and then in New Zealand, I learned that if you want there to be a Jewish community, you need to be involved – because no one else is going to do it for you.”
A commercial lawyer who also specializes in mental health issues, Halpern was and remains a driving force behind Limmud New Zealand, which she says has been a resounding success.
“There are 4,000 Jews in New Zealand, and 400 come to our events,” she notes. “That’s a huge percentage, and they come from all over the country.”
Participants at this year’s Limmud New Zealand festival, scheduled for next month, are in for a treat, says the 58-year-old.
The opening event will feature a performance by a Maori tribe. Anticipating the question, she notes that there are many similarities between the Jewish and Maori cultures.
“For example, we mourn the same way and we suffer from the same problem with lateness. No one else in New Zealand is late apart from the Jews and the Maori.”
Eilanit Gadkar, India
Technology is her profession, but this 23-year-old, Mumbai-based systems engineer says her true passion is dance. “It’s what I do for my soul,” she says.
Gadkar’s dream is to make Israeli dance a fixture of Jewish life in India. “Now, we have Israeli dance events maybe once or twice a year,” she says. “I want to make it something continuous.”
Growing up an hour away from the nearest synagogue, she says her family was not particularly active in the local Jewish community. That all changed when she visited Israel on a Birthright trip three years ago, where she met her now fiancé.
Upon her return to India, Gadkar started volunteering at a Jewish after-school program in Mumbai, where her boyfriend was already active, and last summer she worked as a volunteer at a Jewish camp. In the past few years she has also volunteered at Limmud in India.
“After I was on Birthright, I decided it was time for me to give back to the community,” she says.
Limmud India was founded five years ago. Before that, Indian Jews would often travel to China to participate in local Limmud events there.
Gadkar says Limmud India events typically draw somewhere between 70 and 120 participants.
Jonathan Marcus, Germany
This 37-year-old real estate executive is the rare example of a German Jew with roots in Germany – in other words, not a Jew from Israel or the former Soviet Union. His grandparents, who came from Berlin, played an active role in rebuilding the Jewish community after the war. Marcus attended Jewish high school in Berlin and, in recent years, has served as gabbai (or custodian) of the historic Fraenkelufer Synagogue in the up-and-coming Kreuzberg neighborhood.
When Limmud was launched in Germany 10 years ago, it was natural that Marcus would be asked to pitch in. Today, he serves as chair of Limmud Germany and as national representative on the regional board.
In a country where Jewish history and Jewish culture generate profound interest among the general public, running a Limmud event presents unique challenges, says Marcus. “The whole point of Limmud is to keep the conversation within the Jewish community,” he says. “Obviously, we want to take as inclusive an approach as possible to that community, but we don’t want the event to be overwhelmed by people who have no direct connection to it.”
For that reason, he says, Limmud Germany sometimes has to vet participants and, unlike their cohort in other countries, he and his fellow organizers do not seek out coverage in the mainstream media. “We don’t want to spark too much interest,” he admits.
Limmud sessions in Germany are sometimes devoted to unusual topics. By way of example, Marcus cites an issue raised at a recent discussion. “One of our presenters asked the following question: ‘When will it be OK in our synagogues to recite a prayer for the State of Germany?’”
Eva Wichsova, Czech Republic
Born in Prague a year after the fall of communism, Wichsova, 27, serves as regional director for Moishe House, an international network of hubs designed to help young Jewish adults create their own communities. In this capacity, she oversees the organization’s activities in the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Belgium, Austria, Bulgaria, Sweden and South Africa.
Her Jewish journey began at age 9, she says, when she attended what was then a new Jewish summer camp in Hungary created to serve children from countries in the former Soviet bloc. “After that, we started our own summer camp in Prague,” she relates. “I went from being a camper to being a counselor, and started becoming more and more active in Jewish life.”
Although she has a degree in journalism and public relations, Wichsova says she preferred to keep working in the Jewish community. After completing a program in Jewish studies at Paideia – the European Institute for Jewish Studies in Sweden, she was hired by the Jewish Federation in the Czech Republic to take charge of youth programming in the country.
When Limmud was launched in the Czech Republic in 2014, she served as a key member of the planning and organizing team. Last year, she took her Limmud engagement to a new level, accepting an offer to join the board of the international organization.
Lest any misunderstandings arise, she adds: “But I’m still very much connected to everything happening in Prague.”