The grandad of Limmud looks back with pride


Havdalah at Limmud (Photo: Jonathan Hunter)

When Clive Lawton co-founded the first Limmud in 1980 with 70 participants in the building of a (now defunct) Jewish boarding school, he had no idea that more than 40 years later, not only would it still be going strong, but that it would be running in over 40 countries. “I call it ‘the great British export’,” he laughs.

The aim of Limmud back in the 80s had been to shake up what he calls “the disgracefully boring” structure of Anglo-Jewry. “I knew that there were lots of interested people in the Jewish community, but the great denominational divide at that time meant that there were remarkable Reform rabbis and remarkable Orthodox rabbis, but neither side was hearing from the other.”

Starting out on a shoestring, at the end of the first festival, Lawton handed round a bucket for donations. The success of the festival was such that they managed to cover half the deficit. “We were then able to go back to philanthropists and show them what we had done, and they funded the rest.”

Lawton says that “most people at the first Limmud had been bowled over and they came away wildly enthusiastic, wanting to help at the next one”.

Its success lay in its philosophy that “adult education needs to treat people like adults and let them choose what they want to learn”, says Lawton, who later went on to become its executive director for several years. “Right from the start, we had four sessions running in parallel with one another. People were blowing a fuse, crying: ‘How am I supposed to choose?’”

The reason for the plethora of choices is, says Lawton, that people learn in different ways, be it through text-based study, crafting something or singing to name but a few. “Jewish learning is anything to do with Jews. Everything is a gateway. If you want to learn how to make falafel, you might as well go to the session afterwards on the Spanish Inquisition.”

The volunteer-led approach is another of the characteristics of Limmud Festival, as is what Lawton, 72, refers to as its “flatness” i.e. participants all wear badges, but they only have their name on them and don’t give away their status or position. “That means that you can find yourself sitting next to a world-leading expert on such-and-such without realising it. People sit down next to me and ask: ‘Is this your first Limmud?’”

But I doubt that happens very often since as we are walking to dinner, every second person wants to have a chat with him or hand him a gift for his newest grandchild, Ella, the youngest ever Limmud participant at just seven days old.

Lawton used to bring his own two daughters along when they were babies, and now his daughter Anna and her husband Adam are bringing their own three children with them.

Several years ago, Anna chaired the festival. That Limmud is carrying on down the generations must surely fill Lawton with pride?

Explaining it like only an educator of his calibre could, Lawton says: “It’s like being a grandparent. Grandparents can choose to be proud of their grandchildren, but they didn’t make it happen. Their kids did. So, the right response is to feel pleasure, not pride. I am so pleased that volunteers feel that it is something they want to continue with.”

With October 7 at the forefront of participants’ minds, Lawton, who is now CEO of the Commonwealth Jewish Council, says that the terrorist attack “traumatised Jewish people, but what we know about trauma is that we have to find a way to manage it. Coming to Limmud this year has enabled people to come into a celebratory Jewish space, where they are very aware of the situation, while at the same time, they have hope.

“If you look around, I will say we are irrepressible, not because of guns and tanks, but because of our optimism and positivity.”

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