By Dan Brown
While almost all of 2020 has been “different,” for myself and so many others it hit home this past Shabbat with Limmud Festival 2020, like every other in-person gathering around the global Jewish world, opening virtually.
Missing from the “Mother of all conferences,” was not just the camaraderie and the chance to reconnect with friends and colleagues from around the world, but the in-person intellectual stimulation that comes from sessions stretching from early morning into the wee hours of the next day, be it at the session itself, the lobby bar or unlimited walks around Pendigo Lake.
This year instead of the week-long event opening with a magnificent kosher Shabbat dinner, the slightly shorter event opened with a Havdalah ceremony remembering Debbie Friedman, singing her melodies, sharing both songs and stories.
Limmud is a grassroots undertaking run entirely by volunteers; this years Festival steering committee was comprised of 20 people and 50 activist helpers.
The culmination of 40 years of the power of volunteerism, innovation, and cross-communalism, Festival 2020 welcomed 5,000 people from 46 countries, and among the 300 presenters were historians Deborah Lipstadt and Jonathan Sarna, award-winning RBG documentary director Julie Cohen, UK Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, Joseph Dweck, Senior Rabbi of the S&P Sephardi Community of the UK, Sara Wolkenfeld, chief learning officer at Sefaria, and Rabbi Kenneth Brander, President and Rosh HaYeshiva of Israel’s Ohr Torah Stone network, among others.
And Festival being Festival where politicians are always present, UK Labour Party Leader Keir Starmer, who replaced Jeremy Corbyn in April, was the most senior Labour Party figure ever to join Festival.
Also, for the first time, Limmud heard from human rights activists fighting for Uyghur Muslim rights in China, where they are suffering government oppression while other presenters looked at refugee absorption in the UK, global climate change, interfaith initiatives, LGBTQ+ issues, and the joys and pitfalls of setting up a Jewish blind dating agency during a global pandemic.
Like all discussions at Festival, these sessions took place in a welcoming, non-judgmental and respect-filled environment.
“Limmud Festival 2020, the most accessible ever, is our life-affirming answer to Covid-19,” Limmud Festival Chair Robert Simmons, 25, a management consultant in his day job, told eJP. “As we celebrate 40 years of Limmud, we’re thrilled to be reaching new audiences. In a year when so many families couldn’t visit our oldest community members, we worked with staff and carers to involve the residents of Jewish care homes in their first Limmud.”
Dan attended his 1st Limmud program in Jerusalem in 2009. Since then he has participated in Limmud programs in Canada, Israel, Moldova, Russia, Ukraine, the U. K. and the U.S. He has been a regular attendee and presenter at Festival from 2012-2019.