What the Jewish World Can Learn From Limmud

Ha’aretz journalist Allison Kaplan Sommer went to the Limmud conference outside in London to discover “why this grassroots Jewish mass gathering was so different – and better – than all other Jewish events.”

Here’s what she wrote:

“It wasn’t hard to predict that soon after walking through the doors of the international phenomenon known as Limmud I would soon be singing its praises.

For years, I’d heard and read tales describing the wonders of the 35-year-old mass grassroots Jewish learning event born in the United Kingdom – both from British friends who grew up attending the annual event, and from colleagues who returned from Limmud UK filled with enthusiasm bordering on obsession that normally characterizes new cult members.

“You HAVE to go to this thing!” normally skeptical and cynical Israeli journalists told me, their eyes wide with excitement. “It’s nothing like any Jewish conference or gathering you’ve ever seen!”

These colleagues, like myself, have attended an uncountable number of Jewish conferences, so I didn’t take their praise lightly. This year, as I headed from Heathrow to Birmingham on a bus full of Israelis who, like me, had been invited to “present” multiple hour-long sessions on their areas of expertise, I was a particularly hard sell on any mass gathering of Jews. Over the past month I had attended three conferences in the United States: the Reform Movement’s Annual Biennial, the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America, and the premiere Haaretz Conference in New York City. That’s a lot of salmon dinners, speeches by Israeli politicians, Ari Shavit lectures, and Starbucks-fueled panels on the future of the two-state solution and how to keep millennials engaged in Jewish life.

But, yes, as predicted, I was sold. The Limmud I attended in Birmingham, which drew close to 3,000 participants this year, is the original gathering that traditionally takes place during the holidays between Christmas and New Years. I learned that this was an unprecedented luxury level for the Limmud: for the first time it was held in a hotel – the Hilton Metropole, – instead of the traditional college campus with spartan dormitory accomodations.
Clive Lawton, a Limmud co-founder and the unofficial godfather of the conference with his white beard, sandals, and funky T-Shirts, reassured me that the atmosphere was “as Limmud-y as in past years.” Towards the end of Limmud, news broke that even the Queen of England appreciated the event – she put Lawton on her New Year’s honors list, bestowing on him the Order of the British Empire for his contribution to the Jewish community.

Limmud International_logo_RGB_300dpiIn short, my cult member friends were right. In the words of Britain’s most successful comedy export, Monty Python – Limmud is something completely different. Its unique spirit is why what began as a 75-person event in 1980 has exploded into this massive gathering, and gone viral internationally, replicated in more than 83 Limmud events in 43 countries around the world, and heavily subsidized by various foundations. The various events are overseen by Limmud International, an offshoot of the British group that “nurtures and supports the network of independent Limmud groups outside the UK.”
So what IS Limmud, anyway? My Haaretz colleague Judy Maltz, who attended Limmud last year, described it as a “Jewish mega-event” that is “not quite a conference, not quite a festival, a bit of Jewish summer camp with a sprinkling of college campus life thrown in for good measure.”

All this begs the question: why IS this Jewish mass gathering so different – and better – than all other Jewish gatherings? What are the magic ingredients that have caused it to go viral, not virtually, but in real life, replicated all over the world? And what can the rest of the Jewish world learn from its successful recipe? Here are my attempts at answers, though, in the Limmud spirit, many of them simply raise more questions.

1. Like Seinfeld, it’s about nothing … and everything
This, of course, is not to say that Limmud is meaningless – it has a clear goal – Jewish learning. But beyond that huge umbrella, it has no agenda. When you show up at Limmud, you can be yourself and you are embraced for it – nobody is pushing you to be anything other than what you are – no one is preaching that you become more observant, less observant, more traditional or more feminist, more left-wing or right-wing – or more or less Jewish than you are at the moment. Its firm commitment to this is laid out in the Limmud mission statement: “We do not participate in legitimising or de-legitimising any religious or political position found in the worldwide Jewish community. Anyone coming to Limmud seeking opportunities for this will not find them. We have no part to play in the debates between/across denominations.”

This includes the topic of Israel. Standing-room-only crowds turned up both to hear die-hard supporters of Israeli government policies – including government representatives – as well as “Breaking the Silence,” the organization that collects testimonies of soldiers who served in the occupied territories.

Unlike standard conferences, there are no mega “plenary sessions” where all conference participants crowd into a massive room to hear speeches by heavy hitters.

Essentially, it is five days of “breakout sessions” – more than a thousand of them, tens of them happening simultaneously, from early morning to late evening. The biggest challenge is making choices and pacing oneself.
Because so many things fall under the aegis of “Jewish learning” Limmud offers a smorgasbord of sessions for every kind of learning junkie, from the well-tread topics to the utterly offbeat. Similar to a ComicCon convention for buffs of every fantasy and science fiction genre, this was JewCon.

10154414_318877654968954_6841938039820088861_nLike approaching a massive buffet table, you can choose to gorge yourself on the topics you are obsessed with, be it intense Bible study, Holocaust history, sexual abuse in the Jewish community, LGBT and transgender issues, Jewish feminism, Jewish-Muslim tensions in Europe today or Israeli politics. Or you can wander and taste things you were utterly unfamiliar with before or always wanted to try, like Israeli dancing, origami, painting on silk, or singing in a choir.

2. There is a minimum of hierarchy and ego

With Limmud as a genuinely grassroots phenomenon, run by a massive workforce of volunteers, and not an event created top-down by an established Jewish organization, there is never a sense that any person is more important than the next. There are no lofty “VIPs” or people who visibly appear to be “in charge” (though obviously someone – or, rather, a group of someones, in the form of the three co-chairs of the event – was steering this incredibly well-organized and tight ship.)

That’s no accident – it is an essential part of the Limmud DNA, dating from when it was founded to defy the Jewish establishment’s way of doing things. In a way, it is a large-scale version of the “havura” movement, emphasizing content over form, and rejecting institutional labels, fancy titles, ceremonies and other forms of prestige or need for proof of “membership” to anything.
The spirit of acceptance and the fact that the threshold to being a part of Limmud, even an important part of it, is so low that every person is accepted for who they are, regardless of religious status, amount of Jewish education or affiliation or lack thereof, is clearly the reason that it has taken off in parts of the world where communities are trying to reconnect to long-neglected Jewish roots, such as the diaspora of the former Soviet Union – there are no less than 12 Limmud FSU events worldwide.

The lines between teachers and students are continually blurred. I was invited there as a speaker, or, as they call them, a “presenter,” but I was also very much a “learner” – including in the sessions that I led, with many of those in the audience knowing a great deal about the topics I spoke on.

I was warned beforehand that there was no telling how many – or how few – people could show up to my sessions, and that I shouldn’t take turnout personally. Sometimes one is counter programmed against a “star” speaker or another session similar to your topic. Sometimes one’s time slot conflicts with dinner hour, or is simply too early in the morning or too late at night to attract a huge crowd. But I soon discovered that a rich group conversation in a group of 10 or 11 could feel as fulfilling as a lecture to a packed room.

LimmudVan_085I also got some spontaneous education in unexpected settings – in the elevator, at the bar, and at the breakfast table, where I introduced myself to the the man sitting next to me and enjoyed an impromptu lesson in synagogue architecture of the Baroque period over my oatmeal (charmingly called “porridge” by the Brits.)

3. Learning is a high priority – but so is having fun

Limmud UK takes place during winter vacation, and is aware that people are doing this instead of heading to the ski slopes or exotic beaches. The program includes as many kinds of entertainment as it does forms of learning, everything from Benji Lovitt doing his Israel comedy bit, to the Ethiopian-Israeli rap group Cafe Shahor Hazak, flown in from Netanya by the Jewish Agency, to the late-night “Rebbetzin’s Disco” where Limmudniks shake their booty till the wee hours. Sessions include “Rock N Beigel – Sing along to the Songs of Jewish Rockers,” the self-explanatory “Stitch and Kvetch,” classes to do yoga, learn to make cocktails with Ashkenazi flavors like beets, dill and caraway, or the secrets of making pickles and gefilte fish from Brooklyn’s Gefilteria.
As a musical theater geek, I particularly enjoyed the sing-along screening of “Fiddler on the Roof” complete with the audience getting up and acting out the dancing at the wedding scene in sync with the on-screen characters, in what became a surreally Jewy “Rocky Horror Picture Show” scene.

After the screening, my friend, the Oxford scholar and Limmud presenter Sara Hirshhorn was sitting at the hotel bar with girlfriends complaining about the trials and tribulations of dating. A group of middle-aged women who had obviously been to the screening, next to them overheard and started nostalgically singing “Sunrise, Sunset” in response to the younger women’s kvetching. “I’m pretty sure it was the most Jewish thing that has ever happened in my life,” Hirshhorn said.
Since the kids are on vacation, there is volunteer babysitting and age-appropriate programming for all ages, and so Limmud becomes a family experience and for some a tradition, bringing them back year after year.

4. It has a great sense of humor about itself: experimentation is encouraged and failure is no big deal – merely fodder for amusement.

In the tradition of dry and deprecating British humor, one of the things I adored about Limmud was the spirit of amused self-awareness that infused the program, always seeming to kick in when things were getting just a little bit too earnest, hand-holding and kumbaya. A session called “Is Limmud Biased” had right-wingers arguing that Limmud’s orientation was too far left and left-wingers contending it was too stodgy. Another, called “Worst. Session. Ever … Limmud Presenters Reveal All” was dedicated to recounting “Limmud disasters” and presumably – learning from them.

Buffet for the mindFollowing the inspirational JDOV talks (Jewish versions of TED Talks – DOV stands for Dreams, Observations and Visions) which have become a part of Limmud over the past four years, some wicked minds decided to follow them with bitch-session lectures JNEB (Jewish Nightmares, Exasperations and Broiguses)

And after the final “gala” event with thank-yous and back patting came a session called “Not the Gala” where open-microphone comics made fun of the whole enchilada – including jokes about the new fancy Limmud conditions, bemoaning the fact that after years of legendarily terrible cuisine, the food has now improved to the point that they can no longer bond over complaining about how horribly inedible it is.

5. The volunteer spirit – no one is a service provider, no one is a customer – everyone pitches in and helps

For the many international participants in Limmud UK, the experience changes their view of the British permanently. Behaving in a completely opposite manner of their cold, frosty or snooty Downton Abbey stereotypes, the Brits of Limmud are there to help and makes everyone feels welcome, beginning with the multiple emails from “participant care” volunteers I received from the moment I signed up.
At the U.S. Reform Movement’s Biennial, I saw endless preaching of “audacious hospitality” and yet witnessed numerous displays of cliquishness and “in-group” and “out-group” behavior distinguishing between “leaders” and the masses. To see true “audacious hospitality” in action, all they have to do is check out the Limmud event, where people are paying to participate and volunteering time they could be spending sitting in sessions or relaxing at the bar or by the pool.

registration deskThe spirit of volunteerism was so all-encompassing, that I felt I wasn’t doing enough to help out beyond presenting my sessions. I was glad to be asked to participate in a panel that was part of a sub-conference called the Limmud Development and Connection Team – which was, essentially, training sessions for people running Limmud events worldwide. I felt I did my bit for Limmud by advising them on how to deal with cranky journalists like myself and strategies to maximize media coverage of their events.

The heavy reliance on volunteers, besides saving money, also seems to offer significant added value to Limmud far beyond the event. First and foremost, there seem to be many married couples who first encountered each other behind the “Help Desk” or over the lunch serving counter at Limmud. Others made lifelong friends who eventually became, essentially, their Jewish community. For others, their roles as volunteers in Limmud evolved into a professional career path in the Jewish community. But most of all, it seems to be a giant laboratory of Jewish innovation where new ideas are tested and tried, and the experiments that succeed can be developed and expanded, enriching Jewish life in the myriad of Jewish communities that the participants came from. Those that fail miserably, make for some terrifically funny stories.

Allison Kaplan Sommer
Haaretz Correspondent
read more: http://www.haaretz.com/opinion/.premium-1.695922

Photo of Sommer’s is from her Facebook page