Limmud 2017: ‘People really live and breathe this’

As the annual jamboree of Jewish culture, education — and of course food — gets under way, its co-chairs explain the challenges and triumphs of organising the Limmud festival


What is Britain’s most popular export?

It is a question which is no doubt receiving renewed interest, given government wrangling over Brexit.

Although it is unlikely to feature in any trade reports, Limmud should really make the list.

Started close to four decades ago, the concept — of Jews coming together to learn, teach, and explore concepts and ideas — has achieved worldwide popularity.

Every December people from around the world come to Britain for the charity’s leading event of the year — Limmud Festival. Around 2,500 people will attend the event, which begins today with a Shabbat programme and continues through next week on the outskirts of Birmingham.

Speaking to me on Tuesday, with just 3 days to go, Anna Lawton and Abigail Jacobi, the festival co-chairs, look composed and cheerful.

Both are Limmud veterans. Ms Jacobi has been going since the age of seven, while Ms Lawton, whose parents helped conceive the idea of the conference, has been attending for even longer.

“My first Limmud was in some gross student dorms and my parents made fish fingers and chips and we did toranut [serving and clearing food] at age four,” she says. “Gone are those days. We’re in a Hilton, we have Celia Clyne catering, it’s a different story.”

That story started almost 14 months ago, when the two were chosen to lead the organising team for Limmud 2017. Both have full-time jobs away from Limmud, as do the majority of its other organisers.

“Really everyone who is involved, barring about four office staff, are doing so voluntarily,” Ms Jacobi, a 26-year-old family support worker, explains.

“It’s amazing, because it means people are passionate about what they do. I think sometimes people have a feeling in their day jobs that they go about it and go home and they’re done — but with Limmud people really live and breathe it.”

Sub teams include those responsible for the event’s programming, liaising with the caterers, marketing, and getting the hotel ready for the festival.

The closer it gets to the event, the more issues there are to deal with. Take the programme handbooks, for example. They are printed late because applications to Limmud are only opened four months before the event. Anyone attending the festival can apply to present a session but the events have to be approved by the programming team.

“Generally we will accept anyone who applies for an event,” says Ms Jacobi. “We would only say no if someone were to submit something deemed to be inappropriate in the extreme.”

Examples of such inappropriateness, Ms Lawton clarifies, include “if they were to be antisemitic, or actively [religiously] proselytising, presenting a session on why you should live my way of life, whatever that might be. We don’t accept that”.

There are other challenges, of course.

Ms Jacobi explains: “We get hundreds of emails talking about specific dietary requirements, worries about bedrooms, about mobility scooters, will there be enough security in the lead up to the event, ‘now there’s been a terrorist attack I don’t want to come’— all these kind of things.

“Each reassurance takes time and energy and some are more complicated than others.”

Ms Lawton, who is 29 and works in an aesthetics clinic, adds: “Also, we’re on a budget, so there are challenges that come with that. Limmud is a charity and we do supplement every person’s place at the event — though for some people ticket prices are still quite inhibitive, which is another difficulty we’ve grappled with.

“One of the challenges we’ve faced this year is to make the event the best it can be while sticking to the budget, and trying to be creative within that budget — and trying to keep it accessible. So we have a bursary fund which we’ve made bigger yet again this year, and we have other areas where you can access the programme, as well as our Yad scheme where you get discounts by giving your time [volunteering] at festival.

“There are challenges involved in that. It was a big issue for us, and I think it is something we want to build on in coming years — to make this event financially accessible to everyone while also being realistic.”

Although they don’t reveal Limmud’s total budget, the co-chairs confirm that Limmud does not make a profit.

“We and all our teams pay to attend the event. Everyone pays. You won’t really find anyone who has not paid to come, or isn’t coming with a subsidised place from a different organisation,” says Ms Jacobi.

Another major shift this year is in how Limmud is presented to the outside world. Until now it has been called a conference, but from this year it is officially Limmud Festival.

“Limmud has gone through an evolution over many years,” Ms Lawton says. “It started out as a bunch of educators in what was very much a conference, and expanded from there.

“Where we are now, as one can see looking at the programme, is not an academic conference. This is now something more than that.

“There is definitely an academic conference element to it, and the learning is world-class and central to the programme, but there are some people who attend who won’t go to any sessions that could be called academic.

“The learning is still learning, but the learning may come from food sessions, dance sessions, spoken-word poetry, social experience, the conversations they have around the dinner table.

“For us, ‘conference’ was starting to feel a little but stuffy, and we felt we needed something to represent that we’re talking about street food, bar experiences, drag queens, poetry, theatre, a kids’ programme, a family programme.

“We’re talking about something that’s so much bigger.”

The nature of the programming is also shifting.

“We still have a lot of academics speaking on Torah, politics, geography, archaeology — but we’ve really moved on with some of our creative programming,” says Ms Jacobi.

“You might have seen in the programming highlights sessions called ‘my untold Jewish story’. That was something our programming chairs were hugely passionate about — to provide a safe environment for people.

“No presenters are listed for those sessions, though there are people who will be there to facilitate and speak, on things that we feel are still taboo in the Limmud community, which is a pretty non-taboo space.”

Examples include “people who aren’t circumcised, or infertility — challenges that maybe people are having but are still difficult to discuss within a Jewish space, and maybe even within an outside space.

“Limmud has always been a leader, we feel, in letting people speak and be open and understand each other — and it’s really taking this ability to a new level.”

The co-chairs are aware there are large swathes of the UK Jewish community who have never been, and would never really think of going, to Limmud.

But one of the myths they are keen to dispel is the idea that the festival has, as Ms Lawton puts it, a “one-track Jewish agenda.

“Our mission statement is to take every Jew that attends one step further on their Jewish journey”, she says.

“That is a subjective mission statement — your Jewish journey might be very different to my Jewish journey and hopefully we’ll both take that one step further along it at Limmud, but your one step might be very different to mine.”

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