May 1, 2009

Biggest Jewish Studies Event in Continental Europe Gives Baltic Jews Reprieve from Crisis

Amidst the backdrop of a global economic crisis and looming political meltdown at home, the Baltic states refused to surrender their 6th Limmud-Keshet conference to circumstance. Instead, with JDC support, local volunteers poured in hours of preparation enabling 1,000 people to gather in Vilnius, Lithuania for a weekend-long study fest of Jewish learning and culture that has become a worldwide phenomenon.

Inspired by Limmud UK, the Baltics Limmud was initiated and is co-sponsored by JDC in partnership with the Jewish Federation of Los Angeles. Since its launch in 2004, the event has resonated with the emerging Baltic communities, who struggled to revive their Jewish identities after the decades-long rule of Communism. With over 150 workshops offering topics as diverse as the Arab-Israeli conflict to the Jewish Kitchen, this year’s conference celebrated the richness and multi-dimensional nature of Judaism. One participant, Alina, age 32, said through Limmud she learned, “Judaism is like a diamond: the more facets it has, the more beautiful it is!”

Not only did the conference celebrate diversity of thought, it touted the accomplishments of a community learning to grow and stand on its own feet. Run entirely by over 100 local volunteers, every participant is encouraged to become a teacher as well as a student, such that sessions are conducted by local talent without famous guest lecturers or keynote speakers.

In the case of the Baltics Limmud, Jews who only recently rediscovered their own Jewish identities help fellow Jews do the same by organizing and leading the workshops and sessions themselves. The volunteers become grassroots leaders in their communities and carry on the ‘spirit of Limmud’ throughout the year—a very important step in self-sustainable community building.

Despite the gloomy atmosphere of job losses, rioting, looting, and growing anti-Semitism, this year’s Limmud managed to bring in new faces to Baltic community life. Over 15 percent of this year’s attendees had never participated in a Jewish community event. As every year, only the lack of a bigger venue prevented the admission of more participants; the event had a waiting list of 300 people.

Whether a first-timer or a six-year veteran of the annual event, this Limmud conference managed to distract all participants from the bitter realities encroaching on the outside world. Sasha, 28, from Riga, said of the event, “Everybody around me either lost his job or is afraid of losing it. I’m so grateful that we can have a respite from all that and feel the warmth of being together.”
And bringing Jews together is one of Limmud’s greatest purposes. Over the years, this initiative has grown to include new sponsors and, most notably, the contributions of the local community despite the economic downturn.

Andres Spokoiny, JDC Area Director for Poland and the Baltic States, emphasized the importance of events like Limmud in the face of such crises. “When people are afraid to lose their jobs, when they feel all around them is collapsing, when there’s so much insecurity around them, Limmud tells them that there’s always solace to be found in the community,” he said. “Here people discover one basic fact about our Jewish tradition—that it can give joy and meaning as well as comfort in tough times.”

No comments: