First online-only Limmud festival sets participation record

Organisers estimate that this year’s event attracted 5,000 from around the world


This year’s digital version of the Limmud Festival attracted record participation as the cross-communal event celebrated its 40th anniversary.

More than 3,800 people bought tickets but organisers calculate that once multiple viewers on screened sessions were factored in, the number of participants reached 5,000.

The combination of Torah study, lectures on literature, history and Jewish thought, comedy, music and political debate drew audiences from 46 countries including Iceland, Madagascar and the United Arab Emirates.

While Dame Maureen Lipman charmed younger viewers with her reading of an old Yiddish folktale, Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis revealed during a talk on resilience in times of adversity his favourite Leonard Cohen song, Anthem.

The Chief Rabbi said his favourite lines from the song were: “Ring the bells that still can ring/ Forget your perfect offering/There is a crack in everything/ That’s how the light gets in.”

“Just marvellous words,” Rabbi Mirvis said. “Let’s make music with what is left. Let’s remember those desperate times behind us but at the same time count our blessings and make our blessings count.”

Rob Simmons, the festival’s chair, said it had “united 5,000 Jews from around the world in a virtual community.

“Despite the distance and the difficulties, we are proud to have delivered 350 sessions, a welfare hub, chat rooms, participatory programming, and countless other innovations.

“Our steering team of 20 volunteers have dedicated 10 months to bringing this event together and I know the entire Limmud community is grateful for the spectacular results they have achieved.”

Although Israeli opposition leader Yair Lapid was a late withdrawal owing to the country’s latest political meltdown, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer was able to speak to an estimated 2,500 people.

An average of eight Zoom sessions an hour ran over three days from nine in the morning till nine at night from Sunday to Tuesday, as well as a pre- and post-Shabbat programme, with participants able to exchange views using the Slack messenger platform.

Some of the 80 who took part in the first educational retreat at Carmel College, Oxfordshire in 1980 reconvened to reminisce, including Michael May, the former director of London’s Institute of Jewish Affairs, who gave the event its name.

Sian Beenstock, 39, of Hendon, North-West London, confessed to being “in tears” when she learned that the physical event would not be taking place this year.

She and her husband, Gerrard, 45, met at Limmud in Nottingham 2001 and have been dedicated attenders since.

Mrs Beenstock enjoyed “great sessions but I miss the in-person bit, I was in the virtual bar and you could chat to people in some of the sessions but it’s not the same.” Overall, she said, “they have done a great job in this situation”.

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