Rabbi Joshua ben Perachia said: Make yourself a teacher, get yourself a study partner, and judge every person mercifully.
– Mishnah, Avot 1:6
In the 1970s, the annual conference of the Coalition on Alternatives in Jewish Education (CAJE) appeared on the North American scene and was seen as a revolution in Jewish education. Every year, the coalition drew hundreds of educators from across the continent for several days of multicultural, multimedia, multidenominational Jewish learning – a huge smorgasbord of lectures, workshops, concerts, prayer experiences, with "something for everyone," held on a college campus. It was the place to be. The model was copied in local spinoffs. The key thing was a rich variety of options, and an anti-hierarchical approach: there are "70 faces of Torah;" no one has a monopoly, and there are endless ways to learn and to teach. A democratization of Jewish education? A symptom of post-modernism, where "everything goes?" In the 80s, the idea migrated to the UK, with the establishment of the Limmud conference, which has taken off in the past few decades (while CAJE has shut down), drawing thousands of people to a campus where volunteers teach a dizzying variety of topics, and achieving international acclaim. And spinoffs continue, as Limmud conferences are held around the world, in more and more places every year.
A key to Limmud is its pluralism – which is the reason that some people are suspicious of it (mainly the chief rabbis of countries with chief rabbis, like the UK and South Africa). In the past several years Limmud has made its way to Israel, and each year more local conferences have sprouted. The openness of the system can lead to frustrations, as there is no advance registration, and there is total free choice. Thus, it is not uncommon for a volunteer teacher to prepare and travel only to encounter an empty room. A few years ago I volunteered at a regional Limmud, and found myself in an early morning slot, competing with a famous rabbi, Pilates, and sleeping in. I had three students. And sometimes the enthusiasm of the organizers outstrips their ability to market the idea to a population that doesn't quite get it, leading to situations where the total enrollment at the conference is simply not enough to support the number of classes and workshops that are offered.
With some trepidation, we decided this year to give it a try in our part of the Galilee. We spent most of the year building a coalition of institutions and communities with an interest in adult education - Reform, Conservative and Orthodox communities and leaders, a secular-humanist rabbi, the Hartman Institute, the Gandel Institute (Israeli Melton Mini-school), the Midrasha – a pluralistic Jewish studies academy at Oranim Teachers College, and the ORT technical college in Karmiel (which donated the use of their beautiful campus). With no budget, but various in-kind support from the partners, a program for a one-day "festival of learning" on the theme of Judaism and social justice came together; almost all the publicity was done through the mailing lists and social networks of the partners; all of the teachers were volunteers – some famous professors or public intellectuals, some local teachers. We crossed our fingers, with no way of knowing what to expect.
When the day came, last Friday, the response was impressive, with over 150 participants, a rich schedule of great and well-attended sessions, a festive, enthusiastic atmosphere, and lots of supportive feedback.
It's interesting to think about which communal rituals will pass away and which will survive and become the symbols of the New Judaism that is developing here. Meanwhile, we're looking forward to the Second Annual...