Ben Lewis

A digital event — but that won’t deny the Limmud spirit

'Lifelong friendships have formed, and many couples have found each other at the bar'

December 22, 2020 12:16

What started as a humble conference for educators in 1980 is now not just one of our community’s premier events but one of our proudest exports around the world.

Limmud is 40 and at this year’s virtual festival, we will take the chance to look back over the years which have gone by and ahead to what the future holds.

How do you define the Limmud vibe? A thousand Limmudniks would give 1,001 answers. In putting together sessions to aptly commemorate this landmark, I’ve been pondering this, with vital help from people who have been there throughout the four decades of Limmud’s existence.

Obviously the immense programme plays a central role. Deciding what to do is agony for many. Everyone has a strategy, including just sitting in one room all day and letting everything come to you. And of course, once the sessions start, anything can happen.

There may be lectures, but through the years we’ve had singing bowls, yoga, dance, stand-up and discos. Even in more “standard” sessions, the willingness of Limmudniks to get involved is legendary.

Limmud’s devotion to volunteering is key - it is “made by you” - and that spirit is infectious. Just ask Helena and Steve Miller. Helena (who is co-head of teacher training at the London School of Jewish Studies) recalled, “I had just started teaching the first year and Steve couldn’t convince me to go, but we attended the following year and by the third Steve was coordinating the whole event”.

An amazing number of volunteers representing a true cross-section of the community continue to buy into making Limmuds happen each year.

The democratisation of the power in Limmud continues to make it stand out within the community. Some remember when the closing gala doubled as Limmud’s agm, exemplifying that sense of co-ownership. If only we could fit everyone in one room today!

People will tell you about the connections they have made. Lifelong friendships have formed, and many couples have found each other at the bar. People who live in different worlds - geographically, ideologically, religiously - have space to engage.

The intermingling, where renowned presenters are not on a pedestal, is unique, as LSJS teaching fellow Lindsey Taylor-Guthartz put it, “You could hang out and end up chatting to Deborah Lipstadt or Aviva Zorenberg over the books’’. Or indeed, get your drink served by a senior rabbi.

Food is an important feature - from preparing meals together in the early days, to four decades of baked potatoes. Things have evolved now, with Celia Clyne catering and the guilty pleasure of meat meals. Limmud was certainly ahead of the curve with hand gel-wielding volunteers at every meal.

Most of all, there’s the continual progress. Limmud at 40 remains at the cutting edge, with something new always being tried. This spirit of innovation, plus the devotion to volunteering, means Limmud will never be a perfectly slick operation.

But without its ragged edges we’d all have fewer fun stories to share. Looking forward, as well as back, is key, which is why we’ll be doing both in the sessions to commemorate this milestone at festival this year.

Online it will be different, but the same Limmud spirit will be on display. We’ll learn from a huge variety of presenters and one another, discuss issues we care about, and - through it all - make connections we couldn’t make anywhere else.

These values have helped us break down barriers to build community for 40 years. I am sure our screens won’t stop us succeeding again.

Ben Lewis was co-chair of Limmud Festival 2019 and is the chair of the Limmud@40 programme for Limmud Festival 2020

December 22, 2020 12:16

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