Learning and growing are important to me. I’ve gone back to school. I just applied for a leadership institute and this year, for the first time, I dipped my toe into LimmudFest at Ramah Darom. Started in 2008, it is part of a bigger experience started in the United Kingdom in 1980 that was actually inspired by a visit to CAJE, the annual North American Jewish educators’ conference. Over the years, Limmud has grown. Per the parent organization’s year in review, “In 2018, there were 116 Limmud events attended by 41,000 participants run by 4,800 volunteers. There are now 91 Limmud communities in 42 countries.” Volunteer-driven, Limmud (“learning” in Hebrew) brings people together for an inclusive communal educational experience that also enables participants to build community and network. The idea of learning like this in a Jewish setting appealed to me and so I thought I’d check it out.
Limmud Atlanta and Southeast takes place annually during Labor Day weekend and draws attendees from all levels of observance throughout the region. Those staying for the full weekend or just for one night can camp out or take a cabin or a hotel room. A friend and I opted to drive up on Sunday for the day. I’d been to Ramah Daron in the mountains of North Georgia before for my synagogue’s retreats and was looking to a day of learning in a beautiful setting. At the same time, I had no idea what to expect as I hadn’t seen an actual schedule. I found out options varied from art sessions to live food demos to nature walks to panel discussions and sessions on topics relating to Judaism or social activism and much more.
One session I attended was supposed to be on the History of Diversity and instead was shifted to be about transitions in life. Diversity is a topic I believe the Jewish community needs to do a better job of embodying, and though transitions is one I can actually identify with now, I thought it a pity it was changed. Another session I attended related to a course I took last semester on affordable housing within the context of the Master of Public Administration track of the dual degree program I am in. Offering some background on the discriminatory history in the United States that has led to an inexcusable imbalance in how black and white families have or have not been able to build wealth through equity, the session then delved into how we can try to make a difference from within the Jewish community. (I would be remiss if I did not highly recommend the book The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America by Richard Rothstein; it is eye opening how the federal, state and local governments contributed significantly to the racial geographical segregation we have today; this goes beyond redlining and is a must read.) This Limmud session, called Housing Justice: The Jewish Role & Responsibility, was led by a young housing and environmental justice researcher who also volunteers with Avodah, an organization dedicated to social change. She led another session I attended on Intersections of Justice, in which we discussed texts, both from the Torah and from contemporary sources, on different marginalized communities and how the Jewish community approaches them.
On this topic of inclusive representation, I must say, truthfully, there is work to do. It is one thing to say we embrace those who are different; it is another to actually do it. I was truly thrilled to see so many idealistic young adults active in social justice. In this day and age of divisiveness and insularity, it was inspiring to witness.
At the same time, I felt there was a missed opportunity.
It would be wonderful if sessions touching on different populations within the Jewish community were actually led by people from these populations. Jews of color, of different sexual identity, of different levels of physical ability, of any other facet of identity are often overlooked. Outside of this weekend’s campgrounds, pick any website of any Jewish organization, synagogue, school. Take a look. Do the pictures of their boards, senior management, educational staffs reflect the pluralism we have in the Jewish community? No, they do not.
eJewish Philanthropy, in an article about the groundbreaking report by the Jews of Color Field Building Initiative, notes, “Researchers estimate that Jews of Color represent at least 12-15% of American Jews, or about 1,000,000 of the United States’ 7,200,000 Jews,” but how many black, Asian, Latino Jews are teaching our children at synagogue religious schools or Jewish day schools? How many are on the boards of these institutions or of the plethora of Jewish organizations in our world? Diversity shouldn’t only mean acknowledging Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist. Nor should it only mean Ashkenazi and Mizrahi. Or American and Israeli. Or men and women. Jews comes in many stripes and flavors.
When we as a people went out into the diaspora, our people reached all corners of the earth. It is time that we remembered that. For the Jewish community to be the light we can be, we must strive to be truly representative. As we approach the High Holidays, what better time for leaders and decision-makers within Jewish organizations to look inward, to view what they do and how they do it through a lens other than their own…and then make it better.