The longevity of our community is only as secure as its future leaders. Without young Jews who are seeking to take up the challenge of communal involvement, we may enter a period of terminal decline: youth may seek either to step out of the community entirely or emigrate to a country in which Jewish and career opportunities appear more diverse and easier to access.
In my own life, I’ve found that one significant portion of my friends (in their mid-20s) are not involved in the community because they have not found a Jewish space that interests them, whilst another group have just completed years of gruelling service in youth movements and have expressed the desire for some ‘time off’.
Throughout the Jewish world, this phenomenon has been termed the ‘disappearing Jewish middle’. According to the 2006 Kaplan Centre survey of the South African Jewish community, of those aged between 18-24, only 12% said that they were members of, and participated in, Jewish communal or religious organisations while 20% said that they were neither members of nor participants in Jewish activity.
Of the group which indicated that they were uninvolved in Jewish organisations, many claimed that Jewish institutions did not offer them anything that they found interesting.
Assuming that a significant percentage of young Jewish leadership is channelled into our Zionist movements (which are the vibrant centre of our community, even though they are rarely acknowledged as such), there are two important questions that arise from the survey.
First, if only 12% of the 18-24 year olds are involved and participate in Jewish organisations, where are the other 88%? Secondly, for those who have been dedicated to running complex educational youth movements, where do they go next?
This question is even more significant in light of the reality that 68% of 18- 24 year olds and 58% of 25-34 year olds who identify as ‘traditional (not strictly Orthodox)’ have no organisation that specifically caters to their needs. The range of institutions that currently target our youth do not seem to be attracting the involvement of a sufficient quantity and diversity of our young people.
In December last year, I was privileged to participate in what I think is a modern Jewish right of passage: Limmud Conference, held at the University of Warwick in the United Kingdom. It consisted of 6 days of continuous Jewish learning, at which there were often 30 sessions on offer simultaneously (with famous Jewish names like Orthodox bible lecturer Avivah Zornberg, Holocaust historian Deborah Lipstadt, Jewish and Israeli political analyst David Newman and musician Chana Rothman).
Yet it was not the content of the learning that left the biggest impression on me. Rather it was the sight of hundreds of young Jewish volunteers, who had paid over 140 pounds to come to Limmud for the week. I met many friends from my gap year in Israel who were now in senior positions in the Limmud leadership infrastructure. Since its inception in 1980, approximately 10% of UK Jewry has, at some stage, been a participant at a Limmud event (28 000 people), contributing decisively to the Jewish cultural revival in the UK, which has seen the growth of numerous Jewish education and community projects.
Interested to see how the current Limmud UK leadership understood the impact of its success on the local community, I sat down with its current chair, Elliot Goldstein. He said that the Limmud model was not only a success in England but had been exported to 46 countries throughout the world from Moscow to Melbourne, from Turkey to Toronto, Poland and even Serbia.
Goldstein suggested that Limmud’s success is attributable to five key features which appeal to young people who have not found a home in any other Jewish organisation: it is a volunteer-led institution that empowers its members (predominantly young people) to participate in every aspect of the Limmud community; it promotes Jewish learning without an agenda (in comparison to the Jewish outreach movements); it appeals to many different sections of the community (spiritual to the intellectual, the unaffiliated to the ultra-Orthodox); it is unyielding in its commitment to diversity (while other sectors of British Jewry may foment division), and it is relatively independent from petty communal politics.
So, what relevance does that have for South Africa?
First, Limmud in South Africa has involved a colourful range of young Jews — from those who consider themselves active members of the community to those who have never been inside a synagogue. Secondly, it helps to answer the dilemma of why young Jews are so disproportionately attracted to Limmud. They have been willing to take senior volunteer positions in its structures around the world, a situation not reflected in other communal youth-orientated bodies.
Young people are not disaffected or lacking in commitment to our community; they are simply not forced to step up to the plate because too often events are organised for them or freebies are handed out.
Limmud can offer our community an opportunity to reflect on the general challenges of how we build new organisations, or reform existing ones, in a way that seeks to engage the youth and encourage them to take up positions of responsibility.
While Limmud South Africa still has a number of challenges to address, it is undoubtedly an increasingly important space for Jewish youth leadership to be groomed.
The most attractive features of Limmud South Africa for young people are its focus on being relevant to the whole Jewish community, creating an inclusive learning environment that values mainstream and dissenting Jewish voices (a feature that appears to be absent from many other communal institutions) and establishing a strong social base where a diversity of young Jews can meet.
For our community to thrive in the future, we need to renew our commitment to Jewish education, create a space in which there is a healthy respect for communal diversity and invest heavily in growing tomorrow’s leaders.
Our youth want to be engaged and become partners in building the next phase of our communal life. Let us hope that they will be heard.