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Why I’m so happy to have joined the Limmud crowd

JC journalist Daniel Sugarman had never attended Limmud before - but the experience left him wanting more

    Photo: Eli Gaventa

    When I was told that I would be reporting on Limmud for the JC, I didn’t quite know what to expect.

    I’d never been to Limmud before. In the particular circle of UK Jews I grew up in, Limmud just wasn’t a thing. If I ever thought about it at all, it was in terms of dismissal. I wasn’t interested in taking part in drum circles, for example, or kabbalistic discussions on sexual fluidity in Shir HaShirim. Limmud was a gathering of heretical hippies, as far as I was concerned, and very much not for me.

    But over the last decade, my attitude had changed, along with my Judaism, and so I greeted the prospect of Limmud with wary enthusiasm. As I set out for Birmingham, gale force winds buffeting my car, I resolved to go in with an open mind.

    I was, in fact, blown away — not by the wind but by the festival, which exceeded all my expectations.

    Firstly, the organisation was extremely impressive. As one of my colleagues remarked: “At party conferences they must pay a huge amount for some organisation to set this up — and it’s done just as well here by volunteer teams.”

    Everything, from the food and the information desk to the signs pointing the way to the various sessions, was excellent — especially when taking into account the thousands of people the festival is catering to, both figuratively and literally.

    But perhaps even more impressive was the quality of the sessions on offer. I can’t speak for those I didn’t go to, of course — and with over 1,000 options over the course of the festival, there were bound to have been some duds among the diamonds. However, the sessions I attended, on topics including feminism, LGBT issues and Israeli politics, were well thought out and engaging, in each instance making me consider aspects of these issues in ways I had not thought of before.

    The festival-goers, as I suspected, were a diverse crowd –—but I am not sure I had fully appreciated just how diverse they would be. Orthodox mingled with Masorti, Reform, Liberal and possibly other denominations I haven’t even heard of. Men wearing kippot queued for lunch together with women wearing kippot and people who identify as non-binary wearing kippot. Topics were debated not just during the sessions, but in the bars and dining areas. To my amusement, I happened to overhear a discussion by a group of people, sitting a metre away from me, about the pros and cons of the JC, completely oblivious to the fact that a journalist for the paper was sitting right next to them (I decided to remain anonymous and spare their blushes).

    I came away from the festival with more knowledge than when I went in, and with the words of King Solomon from Proverbs ringing in my ears: “Its [the Torah’s] ways are pleasant, and all of its paths are peaceful”.

    As we head into what is likely to be another difficult year, I will look back fondly at the few days I spent near Birmingham, where Jews of all stripes could come together in an atmosphere of mutual respect and harmony. And when December rolls around, I won’t be waiting for the JC to ask me to go to Limmud — I’ll be the first to volunteer.

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