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Unmoored from Shalom, Limmud stays close to home this year

Ruby Kraner-Tucci
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Published: 30 May 2023

Last updated: 5 March 2024

Facing transition in Sydney and a shortage of volunteers in Melbourne, Limmud Oz has opted for a less demanding, more intimate format.

Private homes across Sydney will be the stage for this year’s Limmud festival of learning with Limmud In Your Lounge (LIYL) replacing the traditional Limmud Oz conference.

Held over the King’s Birthday long weekend on June 10-12, the immersive three-day program aims to inspire familiar Limmud conversations but in a personal and accessible way, with small living-room sessions hosted by volunteers in nine suburbs throughout the city.

The alternative format is a sign of change for the much-loved festival of Jewish culture and ideas, which is transitioning to an independent community organisation separate from long-time backer in Sydney, Shalom.

Shalom’s new strategy is to act as an incubator by nurturing the development of new programs, and then empowering the community to grow them “to the best of their ability”, says program director Rabbi Alon Meltzer.

Limmud Oz Sydney is the first of Shalom’s programs – which also include the Sydney Jewish Writers Festival, LaunchPad and Thinktrepreneur – to undergo the three-year transition process, so its success in re-establishing itself independently will act as a test case for Shalom’s incubator process.

The partnership will end formally next year, but Meltzer said Shalom will remain a close support for as long as required.

“We've spent over 20 years building up Limmud and see it as a vital part of the fabric of communal life and conversation. If Limmud feels they need extra support for a longer amount of time, we will be there. We don't want to see this fall. For us, this is about building Limmud up with the strongest foundation possible,” Meltzer said.

“Limmud In Your Lounge is a very different and special format that resonates with a lot of people. We think our sessions will definitely spark exciting conversations.”

Why in your lounge room?

Limmud learning festivals across the world typically bring together hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of people in a conference setting with a choice of several parallel sessions.

In Australia, which hosted the first Limmud outside of the UK, they have run alternately in Sydney and Melbourne since 1999, with the exception of online conferences during COVID lockdowns. Usually, one city holds a full conference across the June long weekend, while the other holds a one-day Yom Limmud, offering highlight speakers for those who don’t travel.

Limmud Oz Sydney’s vice president Eli Levi said although it was Sydney’s turn to host a full conference, running a pared back format was a “more suitable option” given the resources involved in transitioning to new management.

“We still wanted to have a presence of Limmud this year, but it had to be in a format that was accessible and achievable, being mindful of our resources as we transition to our own entity,” Levi said.

Another key factor behind LIYL was Melbourne’s decision to not stage a Yom Limmud, which eliminated the opportunity to share the costs involved in hosting international speakers.

Levi said it was more “viable” to plan ahead for a full conference next year so that resources could better be shared across the country.

While participants will miss out on the choices available at a big conference, Levi believes LIYL offers a stronger opportunity for personal connection, particularly for those on the fringes.

“There have been limits to the opportunities that people have had in the last few years to connect to community, and I think having something in-person, regardless of whether it’s in a lounge room or a big conference centre, still provides that opportunity,” Levi said.

“A change in format opens it up to people who, [because] of COVID or another factor, just don’t connect with large-scale events. Having Limmud in living rooms across Sydney allows us to also reach out to communities who may not always be selected for events and may not feel that their suburb is acknowledged by the Jewish community as a place where Jews live.”

The LIYL format was first used in Sydney in 2018, as an addition to Yom Limmud, to satisfy a “community appetite” for more programming, as well as a strong push from volunteers to open up their houses. Levi said it received positive feedback.

“Limmud In Your Lounge is a very different and special format that resonates with a lot of people. We think our sessions will definitely spark exciting conversations. There's a lot of thought-provoking content that will be shared around local and international Jewish culture, politics, history, art and even Israel.”

Participants in Limmud Oz Sydney in 2021.
Participants in Limmud Oz Sydney in 2021.

Featuring in this year’s diverse program is an examination of the changes and complexities of Zionism from Netzer Australia’s Avishai Conyer; the reluctantly-Instagram-famous Shoshana Gottlieb (AKA JewishMemesOnly) discussing social media and humour as an educational tool; and a topical and interactive debate on the Voice to Parliament and its relevance for the Australian Jewish community.

The festival is suited to all ages and abilities, with several wheelchair accessible venues and a dedicated program for children aged five to 10. However, unlike previous years, there will be no virtual sessions or livestreaming available.

“We are focused for this event on bringing people back together in person. We do acknowledge that might affect some people who live in other parts of Australia,” Levi explained.

The Melbourne experience

Limmud Oz Sydney is not alone in its management challenges. Nomi Blum, who has coordinated Limmud Oz Melbourne for the past five years, says she is looking to step away from the top job.

Blum cites a variety of reasons for her decision, including changing habits after COVID lockdowns, a limited and ageing local volunteer base, and the difficulty of taking on the job without payment.

“COVID really threw a spanner in the works. We’ve spent a lot of time trying to invest in a younger group of people, but they just haven't stayed. I think COVID redefined people's values, and there’s [been] a real step away from volunteering in the community,” Blum said.

“Limmud works best when there's new blood coming through and new leadership. I think we're at that time. We’re looking to inspire people to take that on because it is incredibly rewarding. It would be a shame for it not to happen.”

While providing some relief for management, Blum said it is a “struggle” to keep the Melbourne community engaged during the off-year when the large Limmud conference is held in Sydney. Smaller events such as LIYL are “beneficial” for ensuring Limmud remains top of mind.

“The important lesson I've taken from COVID is that in order to make these events more accessible, there needs to be some alternative model,” she said.

“Certainly, Limmuds around the world have similar models where they have a Limmud In Your Lounge that runs throughout the year in addition to the main events. I think it's a good thing.”

The future of Limmud

While early ticket sales already indicate strong success for LIYL, that does not mean it is the only model for the future.

The traditional rotation of Limmud Oz in one city and Yom Limmud in the other is set to return next year.

Despite clear challenges, both capital cities plan to hold large conferences in 2024, with discussions underway between Limmud in Melbourne and Sydney, as well as in New Zealand, to share costs and resources.

Levi said whatever the format, Limmud Oz would champion Limmud’s long-standing legacy.

“Everything is always done with a view to honour and embrace Limmud's values, which we love and which have shaped many years of successful Limmud programming in Sydney and Australia,” she said.

The Jewish Independent will host a session on "Finding your voice on the Voice" at Limmud in Your Lounge on Sunday, June 11, at 5:30pm.

Photos: Courtesy of Limmud Oz Sydney (Bruria Hammer)

About the author

Ruby Kraner-Tucci

Ruby Kraner-Tucci is a journalist and assistant editor of TJI. Her writing has appeared in The Age, Time Out, Law Society Journal and Dumbo Feather Magazine. She previously reported on the charity sector as a journalist for Pro Bono News and undertook internships at The Australian Jewish News and Broadsheet Media.

The Jewish Independent acknowledges Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the Traditional Owners and Custodians of Country throughout Australia. We pay our respects to Elders past and present, and strive to honour their rich history of storytelling in our work and mission.

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