Birmingham, England — At 4 p.m. on Christmas Day, more than 2,500 participants at a unique Jewish program here had 19 concurrent sessions to choose from. Among them:
Behind the Scenes at the Knesset; Challah Braiding Workshop; How Serious is the Terrorist Threat to Jews? Jews in Victorian England in 10 Objects; The Holocaust and Social Action; Literary Lives: T.S. Eliot and the Jews; The Relationship Between Jewish and Islamic Law; Superheroes/Hebrews: The Role of Jews in Film and Comics; A screening of “The Frisco Kid”; How to Understand (and Teach) Talmud; and an Introduction to Belly Dancing.
Welcome to Limmud Festival 2017, which, with more than 1,000 sessions, is billed as “the world’s largest celebration of Jewish learning and culture.” And, one might add, just the right antidote for an international Jewish community at the close of a year that saw increasing concern about anti-Semitism worldwide and deepening internal religious and political conflicts, with Jews castigating Donald Trump in the U.S., praising him in Israel and disagreeing — and even shoving each other — over prayer at the Kotel.
Limmud, in concept and content, is one of the bright spots of Jewish life in the last four decades. It has grown from a modest conference in 1980 for 75 British Jewish educators (who chose the end of December because the country is in virtual shutdown Christmas week), to a global movement with the annual Limmud Festival (also known as LimmudUK) as the flagship event.
Today there are 84 independent Limmuds, 19 in the U.S., each distinguished as a grassroots, volunteer-driven organization committed to inclusiveness, diversity, choice and community.
Yet for all of its celebratory nature — the official name of the event here was changed this year from “conference” to “festival” — there is more than enough angst to go around at Limmud.
As of this writing on Tuesday, halfway through the five-day annual event that has attracted Jews from 37 countries — the great majority from England on holiday — I had attended a range of sobering sessions. At one on the future of European Jewry, the presenter, a European correspondent at The Jerusalem Post, encouraged his audience members to make aliyah or arm themselves to defend against a growing and menacing Muslim population. Many in the audience pushed back, suggesting that the presenter was an alarmist (if not racist), and insisting that their governments were committed to ensuring the safety of their local Jewish populations.
At another session, several Israeli experts spoke on how their government struggles to determine whether and how to engage with European countries like Austria and Hungary that now include anti-Semitic parties in the government.
And I was part of a panel on “The Donald and the Jews,” where his lone semi-defender described the president as “deeply unstable,” but with the potential to respond more aggressively to “the existential threat of global jihad” than his predecessor in the White House. Several of us pointed out that the president has deepened the divide between liberal and Orthodox Jews at home and between American and Israeli Jews. It was also noted that “the silver lining” in President Trump’s actions is an upsurge of activity in synagogues and among centrist or left-leaning Jewish groups promoting women’s rights and social justice, immigration and other liberal causes.
The audience seemed well informed and concerned about the Trump impact on global affairs.
‘Made By You’
Overall, the number of festival offerings and the diversity of topics are hard to keep pace with, from daily Daf Yomi and intensive Torah study with rabbinic scholars to concerts, stand-up comedy and films, to sessions on what it’s like to be a drag queen or questioning whether brit milah should be considered as unacceptable as female circumcision. The program guide is almost 200 pages, and the issues dealt with are as timeless as the Bible and as timely as the #MeToo phenomenon. At a late-evening candid discussion attended by about 40 women and 10 men, several women shared personal stories of encountering workplace bias. Those in the audience offered support and suggestions about how to navigate what all agreed is a confusing and important moment in gender relationships.
“Our slogan for this year’s program is ‘Made By You,’” noted Abigail (Abi) Jacobi, co-chair of the festival, “because at the core of Limmud is the fact that we are a volunteer organization and believe that everyone can learn and anyone can lead.”
Anna Lawton, her co-chair, has been attending LimmudUK since she was 6 months old — her father, Clive, was one of the founders. “We represent the next generation of leadership,” said Lawton. She and Jacobi are still in their 20s.
They spent 14 months preparing for the festival, heading up a core team of 24 people who spent up to 25 hours a week — in addition to their fulltime jobs — on every aspect of the event, from programming to catering to logistics. Hannah Gaventa, who headed up communications, grew up in Limmud as well, first attending when she was six years old. (There is separate programming for hundreds of young children and teens as part of the festival.)
Formerly housed on college campuses, the festival was held at a Hilton conference center that included lodging and programming under one roof for most of the participants. (Given the convenience, the seemingly continuous sessions and the bleak weather, my wife and I haven’t been outside since arriving for the pre-festival Shabbat program last Friday, attended by “only” about 700 people.)
Lawton noted that the hotel setting has allowed more people with disabilities to attend.
While the festival has grown and become more organized and professional in its presentation, it has managed to retain its down-home spirit and warmth. That is chiefly because it is almost entirely the work of volunteers — hundreds of them in evidence at the festival — with only a handful of paid employees.
None of the 600 presenters at the sessions are paid. (I was one of several dozen invited presenters from overseas who received free travel and lodging for giving at least four talks at the festival.)
“It’s endlessly engaging and fun — I know of nothing else like it.”
The oldest volunteer this year was Yitzach Von Schweitzer, 92, who helped out in the bookshop. His wife, Rivka, assisted in the dining room. Von Schweitzer shared his unique biography at one of the sessions, relating how, as a native of Austria, he served in the Germany army in 1944-45, was a POW in London until 1948 and later moved to South Africa where he and his wife converted to Orthodox Judaism. They did so in part, he said, because of how impressed they were with how the local Jewish community helped tamp down tensions between the apartheid government and the populace.
Von Schweitzer said he chose to volunteer at the festival because he enjoys “being part of it,” though he smilingly added that the couple’s Orthodox synagogue in London “would likely take a dim view of it.”
Limmud’s leaders take pride in the fact that the festival continues to provide an all-too-rare space where, as Limmud CEO Eli Ovits told me, “Jews of all ages and backgrounds come together to explore Jewish life as a community.” Shabbat is observed, there are daily prayer services for all denominations and the food is strictly kosher throughout the festival. But the organizers acknowledge that it is still difficult to attract significant numbers from the charedi community because of the cross-communal Jewish learning and diversity.
Many of the British and European participants I spoke with said the festival is the highlight of their Jewish year, a chance to delve into texts and topics they otherwise would not encounter and to learn from top educators from Israel, the U.S. and other countries.
Josh Coplee, 29, from London’s Willesden Green, said Limmud is his only Jewish activity of the year. “I’ve been to six Limmud annual events and I keep coming back because it’s the only place that I can fully be my Jewish self without hiding any views or pretending anything — or being bored,” he said, adding that he co-chaired the group doing the site setup this year.
“It’s endlessly engaging and fun — I know of nothing else like it.”
Limmud NY will take place Feb. 16-19 in Princeton, N.J. See LimmudNY.org/conference.