Agents of Change

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runyan_josh_otWith school out and use-it-or-lose-it vacation days beckoning, many spent last week relaxing at home or enjoying tourist destinations around the world. But for more than 2,000 people representing Jewish communities from South America to Europe, the last moments of 2014 — and the first of 2015 — were dedicated to everything from debating the importance and meaning of Jewish identity to exploring the intersection between food and spirituality.

One of the largest nondenominational gatherings devoted to Jewish thought and culture, Limmud Conference 2014 brought together activists, rabbis and scholars for five days of small-group sessions and larger lectures at the University of Warwick near the English town of Coventry. As an invited presenter, I witnessed Jews from all walks of life — some non-Jews participated as well — occupying roles they may not have been used to. In many cases, career teachers became students, while students challenged presenters.

In keeping with the Limmud movement’s values of empowerment, diversity and equal participation, titles dropped by the wayside. Even the vaulted chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, during his time at Limmud, was known simply as“Ephraim,” his first name displayed prominently in big, bold letters while the family name of “Mirvis” appeared as fine print on his badge.

What I saw has implications for how members of Jewish communities can empower themselves to be agents of change. This is all the more crucial when, as will likely happen during the coming budget fights in Annapolis — you’ll read about the $600 million shortfall facing Maryland in this week’s JT — community programs get weaned off of public finances. If such projects as reduced-cost housing for seniors, a major point of contact between elderly Jews and agencies of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore, or day school disbursements see their allotments of state dollars decreased, they will put more pressure on members of the Jewish community to take up the slack.

And the need is not just in the realm of finance. Throughout the city and its environs, social service organizations can benefit from an increased spirit of volunteerism, whether that be by reading to school children or, as Melissa Gerr reports, assembling low-cost prosthetic hands for trauma victims. When it comes down to it, the ultimate value of community is not in the diversity of its members or in how much they benefit; it lies instead in how much they contribute.

In England, Limmud participants listened as former refusenik leaders Yosef Mendelevitch and Natan Sharansky reflected on their respective times in Soviet prisons and the worldwide movement to get them released as “prisoners of Zion.” They told the story of Michael Sherbourne, a British scholar of Russian literature, who became a conduit of information between Sharansky and other refuseniks behind the Iron Curtain and the Western press. Sharansky, who today leads the Jewish Agency for Israel, noted that Sherbourne would stay up at all hours of the night calling various telephone numbers in Russia until they got disconnected by the KGB, and then would help organize British support for Russian Jews.

In the same way, each and every person today, said Sharansky, has the power to change the world.

“It was students and housewives who defeated the KGB,” he explained. “If each of us is reminded what is our role in history, we can do amazing things.”

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