Why Limmud is now the festival of festivals

Nicholas Blain lights a havdalah candle at the end of Limmud’s pre-conference Shabbaton

Nicholas Blain lights a havdalah candle at the end of Limmud’s pre-conference Shabbaton

At the closing gala of the recent Limmud conference in Coventry, the historian Deborah Lipstadt recalled an earlier conversation with some young people who were struggling to think of any contemporary Jewish heroes. But instead of suggesting a few examples herself, she did something else. She asked members of the audience to stand if they had been part of the Limmud organising team; next she asked anyone who had presented one of the 900-plus conference sessions; and so on, through to visitors from abroad; or anyone who had supported a Limmud event . By the time, she had finished, almost the entire auditorium had risen to its feet. “You,” she declared, “are the Jewish heroes.” In little under 30 years, the Limmud winter conference has grown from a small retreat for Jewish educators in the UK over Christmas into an international phenomenon. The conference itself may still remain a centrepiece, attracting more than 2,000 participants, but it is no longer a one-off. It is now a festival of the festivals, part of an expanding network of residential weekends, day learn-ins and cultural jamborees across 46 cities from Johannesburg to Yalta in the Ukraine — all of which have adopted the Limmud model. And while Limmud may increasingly draw on the support of major philanthropic funds and established organisations, it nonetheless remains a movement built on grassroots volunteerism (not to mention the commitment of a family with two children paying almost £1,000 for a five-day stay at the conference this year). Limmud has caught the imagination of Jews worldwide because it offers a broader, more open experience of Jewish community, rather than one bound by hierarchy and convention or riven by religious compartmentalisation. A place of “yes, we can” rather than “no, you can’t”. Here no one asks who is a Jew or what kind of Jew you are. Young and old, traditional and alternative, religious and secular, affiliated and unaffiliated mix in a spirit of free inquiry and exchange. Cocooned in a temporary Jewish campus, it is easy to think that this is the Jewish community as many think it should be: democratic, egalitarian, inclusive, willing to encourage experiment and exposure to different ideas and views. “I just like the whole concept of creating your own little universe,” said Sissy Block, a participant in Coventry and volunteer with New York Limmud, which takes place next week. While the conference itself may be a short sabbatical break, its influence travels well beyond the last ride home. Limmud has given momentum to the growing cross-communalism that has catalysed such projects as the Jewish Community Secondary School, (JCoss, due to open in London next year). Removing institutional barriers, Limmud enables educators to step beyond their own immediate denominational circles and reach wider audiences. Nir Nadav, who was part of a team at the conference from the Montefiore Kollel — the Orthodox rabbinical programme run by the Spanish and Portuguese Jews’ Congregation — was gratified by the questions he was asked about halachah by Reform students. In this atmosphere of cross-fertilisation, Limmud has helped to bring the shared study of Jewish texts — demonstrated by morning chavruta sessions at the conference — out of the yeshivah hall into wider Jewish society. It has also helped move concern for social action or the environment into the mainstream: even kiruv (Orthodox outreach) rabbis these days talk of tikkun olam. This time conference participants carried their 340-page handbooks in “Bags of Peace”, made of Fairtrade cotton and sponsored by the UJIA; the logo was designed by 11-year-old Sara Kay, a pupil at Calderwood Lodge Jewish Primary School, Glasgow as part of a school project about co-existence in Israel. Limmud’s growing international dimension is also fostering a new sense of Jewish fellowship, united by a quest for knowledge rather than any particular religious or political programme. So year in, year out, this great gathering of Jews continues to win new admirers. More than 600 people at the conference — over a quarter of the attendance — were first-timers. Among them was Juliet Landau-Pope, 45, a life coach and Open University lecturer from North London, who came with her husband and two young children, but not without overcoming reservations .“I thought it might be claustrophobic, a Jewish Butlins where people would tell you what to do. I felt there’d be too much going on, I’d be overwhelmed by the choice,” she said. In the event, the family — who belong to Finchley Reform Synagogue — were persuaded by Swiss relatives, who were returning for a second year. “It was amazing. It wasn’t too crowded, it was spread out enough to find your own space,” she said. “I decided to do at least one thing each day that I wouldn’t normally do. One day I went to a Bible class, another day a workshop on singing traditional Iraqi Jewish songs, another a meditation on understanding mind control.” Overall, she said: “I felt I was taken back in time to student days with all the idealism you associate with being younger. But you also driven forward by the inspiration and positive energy. There is an emphasis not only on learning but commitment to social change and community building. “With all the doom and gloom, and people talking about the credit crunch, it’s inspiring to be reminded of the power of volunteerism. All your material needs are taken care of, your food and accommodation, and you get the chance to reflect on what really matters in your life.”

    Last updated: 1:37pm, January 26 2009