How do you turn students into leaders? Have them volunteer, says new study

How do you turn students into leaders? Have them volunteer, says new study

Research by the Limmud adult education initiative cites increased rates of Jewish participation and leadership from those who donate their time to the organization

Yaakov Schwartz is The Times of Israel's deputy Jewish World editor.

Participants gather at Limmud Jerusalem in 2012. (Rocco Giansante)
Participants gather at Limmud Jerusalem in 2012. (Rocco Giansante)

An independent research study shows that when done right, adult Jewish education can provide a lot more than knowledge.

The Limmud Impact Study 2018, released June 5, shows that volunteer-based educational programs can foster a sense of community and leadership even outside the classroom.

“The impact of this study is not limited to Limmud,” the study’s author, Dr. Keith Kahn-Harris, told The Times of Israel. Based in London, Kahn-Harris is a senior lecturer at Leo Baeck College and runs the European Jewish Research Archive at the Institute of Jewish Policy Research. He has also been a regular at Limmud conferences since 1996.

“What this shows for other organizations and the Jewish community more broadly is that creating a community around volunteering is really important,” Kahn-Harris said.

According to the study, volunteers reported seeing a positive impact on their connections with other Jews. Eighty-four percent of respondents said that Limmud helped them make new friends, while 82% said that it enabled them to meet Jews different from themselves. Sixty-eight percent said that the volunteer-based organization, which holds multiple-day international learning conferences, deepened their sense of connection to the Jewish people.

Dr. Keith Kahn-Harris. (Courtesy)

Researchers polled over 500 volunteers from Limmud, whose non-denominational model has sprouted local offshoots around the globe since its establishment in the UK in 1980. According to the study, the annual UK conference attracts 2,500 participants, and Limmud programs internationally attract over 40,000 people each year.

Significantly, the research showed that volunteering with Limmud encouraged a new generation of Jewish leaders. Fifty-five percent said that involvement with Limmud bolstered their leadership skills, and an equal number reported that it boosted their confidence.

A full 20% said that being involved with Limmud led them to establish a new Jewish initiative or organization.

According to the impact study’s adviser Dr. Ezra Kopelowitz, CEO of Research Success Technologies in Israel, “Outside of the Orthodox religious movements, adult education is mostly limited to the classroom and focused on intellectual enrichment, without a focus on the broader life involvement of the individual in Jewish community.”

Students participating in the 2012 Limmud Jerusalem. (Courtesy Limmud Jerusalem)

In the report, Kopelowitz also said that most Jewish learning opportunities are provided by the religious or communal establishment and occur in small homogeneous groups in formal settings.

But according to Limmud chair David Hoffman, his organization’s adult learning initiative “impacts equally on Jews regardless of denominational identity, religious practice, or gender. Limmud has the greatest impact within a diverse community.”

Kahn-Harris agrees that in addition to bring driven by volunteers – “Limmud in the UK only has a skeleton professional staff,” he said – the diverse age groups also play a role in Limmud’s efficacy.

“Focusing solely on young people is not a good strategy. Limmud volunteer communities may be most sustainable and effective when they are multi-generational,” Kahn-Harris said.

But Kahn-Harris did note that the program had a greater impact on less-involved Jews – particularly those under age 40.

Speaker Florence Schechter addresses an audience at a Limmud Festival in Birmingham, England, December 28, 2017. (Cnaan Liphshiz/JTA)

He told The Times of Israel that with the exception of the ultra-Orthodox community, which generally does not participate in Limmud events, the conferences also have a positive impact on Orthodox attendees.

“[Limmud] does not necessarily change the way one practices Judaism and defines oneself Jewishly,” the study says. But, it “may change the nature of engagement with Jewish life in profound ways.”

The study also claims that “Limmud may play a vital role in maintaining Jewish practice into the future.”

The survey queried volunteers from the United States, Argentina, Bulgaria, Israel, Germany, Hungary, South Africa, and the United Kingdom, and was conducted in six languages.

It was funded by The Morris and Rosalind Goodman Family Foundation and UJA-Federation of New York. In addition to online questionnaires, it also culled from focus groups and informal discussions in Israel and the UK.

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