people sit smiling in a crowd as they take in a learning session
Listening to a session at Limmud Bay Area, June 2015 at Sonoma State University (Photo/ Courtesy Limmud Bay Area)

How a culture of volunteerism creates vibrant communities

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On Wednesday, March 20, we usher in Purim — which, according to our Sages, is the only holiday the Jewish people will continue to celebrate for eternity. Why is that? Because across the 127 diverse Jewish communities of the Persian Empire, Jews of all ages and languages “confirmed and undertook upon themselves” — meaning they voluntarily embraced Jewish learning and communal responsibility.

How does this voluntary, holistic commitment embody the promise of eternity? And, anticipating the March 17-19 national Jewish Funders Network gathering in San Francisco, how might we support and harness it?

A study of Limmud, which pioneered cross-communal, intergenerational Jewish learning gatherings (organized and run almost entirely by volunteers around the globe), offers insights.

Released last summer, the Limmud Impact Study, was conducted independently by British sociologist Keith Kahn-Harris; Ezra Kopelowitz of Research Success Technologies in Israel was project advisor. Funded by the Montreal-based Morris and Rosalind Goodman Family Foundation and UJA-Federation of New York, the study explored how Limmud affects the Jewish journeys of its volunteers.

Kahn-Harris surveyed volunteers in the Bay Area and nine other Limmud communities in seven countries, conducted two focus groups at Limmud Festival 2017 and interviewed volunteers from 50 communities across 25 countries at Limmud Connect (Limmud’s first global volunteer forum) in Israel last May.

Here are three takeaways about the impact of volunteerism on ensuring vibrant, strong communities well into our future.

1. Promote generational diversity to enrich young and old.

For many Jewish communities and organizations, it has become axiomatic that younger Jews are key to a strong Jewish future. The study indeed affirmed the long-term value of attracting and investing in young people: Of respondents aged 40 and under, 73 percent agreed that “the Jewish life I live is strongly impacted by my experience at Limmud.” Nearly 50 percent were likely to report a change toward greater Jewish interest and commitment since their first Limmud.

In addition, we found that for volunteers of all ages, those who had a lower degree of Jewish interest and commitment at their first Limmud exhibited heightened commitment (58 percent) and curiosity (81 percent) as their Limmud journey continued. Thus, Limmud is an appealing point of entry for under-engaged Jews of all ages.

The study also suggests that communities are most successful when they are multi-generational. In practice, we should explore ways to promote intergenerational diversity in leadership, team composition and learning opportunities. This promises a richer communal experience for all. And to sustain vibrant communities, it is necessary to recruit new people of all ages — just as the Purim story and celebration involve young and old equally.

2. Pursue Jewish learning and literacy to expand Jewish connection and action.

Owing to their positive reversal of fortune on Purim, Jews actively choose to own their heritage, send gifts of food to their neighbors and give charity to the needy. Commitment to Jewish learning was intricately linked with communal responsibility.

The impact study showed that Jewish learning strengthens connections with other Jews and interest in the Jewish community beyond Limmud.

Among respondents, 89 percent agreed that Limmud increased their Jewish knowledge, 68 percent agreed it exposed them to a wider variety of Jewish traditions, 65 percent said it led them to a greater engagement with Jewish learning, and 62 percent agreed it made them more curious about Jewish life and Judaism.

Beyond creating a lifetime framework for study, volunteers also associate Limmud with meeting, learning from and building relationships with a diverse array of people. Indeed, volunteers made new friends (84 percent), met Jews who were different from themselves (82 percent) and deepened a sense of connection to the Jewish people (68 percent). More than a third of respondents reported that Limmud had led them to become more involved in their communities. And 20 percent reported that involvement in Limmud even led them to set up (alone or with others) a new Jewish initiative, such as an educational program, a cultural event or a new place of prayer.

Indeed, the Bay Area leads in high-tech innovation, as well as many Jewish-social action innovations, which benefit the Jewish world and beyond.

3. Nurture leadership skills and opportunities for ongoing impact in every aspect of life.

Limmud volunteers form the foundation of the leadership of our grassroots, cross-communal organization. The volunteers, in turn, develop broad skill sets to apply elsewhere in their lives.

Significant proportions of volunteers reported that Limmud impacted positively on their career (41 percent), increased their confidence (55 percent) and helped them develop leadership skills (55 percent). We found that the more senior the volunteer leadership level in Limmud, the greater the impact on the individual’s Jewish life and on the greater community.

The turning point of the Purim story happens when Queen Esther accepts the mantle of leadership. She shows the way, yet she doesn’t do it alone — she appeals to all to join her in prayer, in action and in responsibility. For volunteerism to thrive, we too must hand over the keys to our community and share leadership opportunities.

The bottom line of the Limmud Impact Study is that it uncovers the tangible benefits of volunteering, benefits that in turn nurture Jewish learning and communal involvement. Our experience in the Bay Area reinforces this.

In one case, a newly arrived Israeli family that strongly valued community, Jewish education and connection to Israel realized these priorities as Limmud Bay Area volunteers.

In another, a local Jewish community leader got engaged to someone who was not involved or affiliated Jewishly. Becoming Limmud Bay Area volunteers together provided entry to Jewish conversations and connections. They just celebrated a beautiful Jewish wedding.

And then there was the lawyer from the Czech Republic who didn’t have a Jewish education. Since becoming a Limmud volunteer, he is now a regular at a class in a local synagogue.

We invite visionaries and volunteers to partner with and take leadership roles in Limmud Bay Area 2019, which will be taking place from June 28 to 30 at Sonoma State University in Rohnert Park.

In conclusion, when your organizations invest in and hand over leadership to volunteers, they will be more committed to excel and to live an enriched Jewish life. We will then have more invested Jewish leaders and passionate grassroots activists who take ownership for the future of our people — bringing with them the “light, joy, happiness and infinite value” the Megillah celebrates.

Mila Wichter
Mila Wichter

Mila Wichter, founder and president of Limmud Bay Area, is a Wexner Heritage Foundation alum and the founder of the Contra Costa Jewish Day School in Lafayette.

Eli Ovits
Eli Ovits

Eli Ovits is chief executive of Limmud, which operates in 90 communities in 42 countries.