The Jewish Journey Called Limmud

by Clive Lawton

I was one of the four that started Limmud in 1980 in Britain. British Jewry in that time was neither a dynamic, educated nor exciting community. It was nearly impossible to find learning for adults and the community was deeply divided between the different denominations, between different age groups and even geographically. The vast majority of Jews in Britain did not know and did not want to know that there were Jews anywhere else – or if they knew it they were pretty sure they couldn’t learn anything from them.

So Limmud was born. From the beginning it was committed to treating adults like adults, allowing them to make their own choices as to what they learnt, facilitating encounters between Jews across whatever divides existing. We sought to demonstrate different ways of learning and to get adults to take seriously their responsibility to educate themselves.

33 years later Limmud is a global phenomenon. There are Limmud groups from the Far East to the far west. (Forgive me for continuing to see Britain as the centre of the world!) There are Limmud groups in Sweden and Winnipeg in the north and in Buenos Aires, Durban, and New Zealand in the south. Thousands of Jews are annually fired up to make Limmud events happen, and tens of thousands of Jews participate in Limmud events each year round the world.

Many claim that Limmud was originally for educators but this is only sort of true. The statement is very misleading. We were inspired by CAJE in America – the Coalition for Alternatives in Jewish Education. Alastair Falk, certainly the leader of the four of us, and Michael May another of the four, had attended CAJE and loved what they experienced. They brought back the idea that there were many different ways to learn and that Jewish learning does not belong only to those people with certain qualifications. In a post-hippy insistence (I can feel my founding colleagues squirming at that phrase!) we wanted power to the people and, in the Jewish world, power is, not least, held by those who know. So the educators we were concerned about were, by our definition then, everyone who felt they had a responsibility to pass something Jewish to someone else. And in case that wasn’t clear enough we then spelt out who these people might be – parents, synagogue secretaries, hazanim, youth workers, teachers, rabbis and, if my memory serves me correctly, we said something like ‘ indeed, every Jew.’

In those days, we knew that if we simply tried to teach Jewish stuff to Jewish people, the Jewish establishment would say we had no right to do it, so we claimed that we were only running sessions designed to teach about how to teach stuff, not about the stuff itself. A glance at the first programme will demonstrate that this is not true. And if it wasn’t true in the first programme, by the third even the pretence had been abandoned.

Revolutionary at that time was the provision of childcare so that every adult could attend the programme. The childcare in those days was, let’s say, basic but, nevertheless, for the first time in any Jewish communal event, things had been planned in such a manner that both parents could participate without having to miss something. Equally revolutionary was the presence on the same site of people holding different ideological views and not having to avoid talking about them. As far as I remember, this was the first time in the Jewish world that Orthodox Jews could hear what Reform Jews really thought and vice versa. I know that it was the first time that I realised that the word ‘religious’ was not synonymous with ‘Orthodox’ but that it was possible for a Liberal Jew to be ‘religious’ too. 30 years later, it is my impression that this is still a difficult concept for many Jews around the world.

Volunteering was a necessity. Had we had the money – we had none – we would probably have employed somebody to run things for us. But we couldn’t. This participatory and voluntary ethos slowly grew to be something that people enjoyed and valued and it was Andrew Gilbert in the 1990s who wisely finally enshrined voluntarism as an essential Limmud value.

Exposure to wonderful people from other Jewish communities – in the early days particularly people from the USA – served also to make Limmud one of the places where Jews could get a breath of fresh air from outside the closed house of British Jewry. Discovering that things were done differently elsewhere was a tremendous prompt to intensified activity within our own community. Limmud started to create new activists who made new demands. And it didn’t stop there. Limmud also created new educators. As people came forward, offering to run their own sessions, some of these discovered in themselves a talent for communicating, and a few have gone on to become educators of international note.

We did not spend Shabbat together until the third year because, to be frank, we couldn’t imagine how to do it, given the diversity of people present. But once again, Limmud blazed a trail as to how to require of grown-up Jews that they behave like grown-ups, without expecting anybody to pretend that they held to practices that they did not. We worked out a modus vivendi which is largely sustained to this day. It is only after Limmud had shown people how Shabbat could be lived together despite diversity that, for example, the Board of Deputies of British Jews decided to have a weekend away, utilising all the insights gained by its members who had attended Limmud which would enable the representatives of a wide diversity of synagogues to attend and feel comfortable. Similarly the Union of Jewish Students. Many organisations now say that they are doing something ‘Limmud style’ by which they mean giving choice and respecting diversity.

And so Limmud grew year by year, from the 70 souls of the first event to several hundred in its bar mitzvah year to more than a thousand by 1995. By this time, many of the leading Jewish voices from around the world had attended Limmud and many Jews in Britain knew that the limited fodder being provided to them by their own community was just a fraction of what was available. In the late 1990s some of those coming from overseas started to say that their own community should have a Limmud too. And within a few years there were Limmuds in the Galil, Toronto, Holland, Sydney and New York. In an ever-growing stream and then a torrent, more and more communities round the world decided that they wanted their own Limmud.

In every place, Limmud is bound to have its own distinctive character but must be bound by Limmud’s values and principles. No one would expect Limmud New Orleans to feel the same as Limmud China, but the common values matter, not least because of Limmud tourism. A lovely phenomenon has developed in which more and more people are visiting other Limmuds elsewhere when they happen to find themselves in the area on the right day. Indeed, I’ve been told that some people have even organised their holidays around it.

But how do these values apply in each place? Limmud FSU is an excellent example. This is a network of Limmuds, founded by the unstoppable Chaim Chesler and Sandy Cahn, developing Limmud events for Russian speaking and other Russian heritage Jews, both in the former Soviet Union and in New York State and Israel. Just like those Limmuds so long ago in the UK, these are understandably focused on the needs of their evident clientele. Why should they provide kosher food when hardly anybody cares about kashrut? How far should they go in accommodating Shabbat practice when nearly nobody keeps Shabbat? In Limmud New York, on the other hand, where issues of personal rights are perhaps far more centre stage than they are in Europe, individual Jews might feel resentment if they were not allowed to watch a film on Shabbat because of the general desire to maintain a collective norm. These and other such challenges are the very stuff of Limmud volunteer training and development and for this reason in the last few years the subset of the Limmud organisation, Limmud International, has been providing training and development opportunities for Limmud volunteers all around the world, and most extensively at the Limmud Conference itself, where over a hundred Limmud volunteers from dozens of countries gather each year.

It has been one of my greatest joys to be able to participate in such training in so many diverse places. Not much can beat taking a break on Shabbat afternoon with the Chinese team only to have them suggest that we might go for a walk. Out of the room, along a path, up some stairs and we were on the Great Wall of China! Or… in Auckland, looking out of the window of the room where we were working together to be told that the small mountain behind was actually a dormant (I hope extinct!) volcano.

So what have I learned? Where has Limmud taken me on my Jewish journey? First of all, without doubt, I have learnt far greater respect for diverse Jewish views than my previous narrow Jewish world allowed. I’m not sure that I have much changed my own position and in some ways the learning that I’ve done may have intensified the convictions I brought with me to that first Limmud in 1980. But I have definitely also learnt a lot.

I was not unfamiliar with text study before but I have come across so many more texts and so many more ideas than otherwise would have been possible.

I have witnessed debates on the hot issues of the day which have really made me rethink my positions, not least and especially on issues of gay rights and how the community must – and doesn’t yet – accommodate gay and lesbian people in a decent manner of which we could be proud.

I have been gratified to discover that I’m not alone in some of the things that I thought I was. The big labels that we use to divide one Jew from another have been shown to me to be insufficient time and again, allowing me to realise that, whatever general label someone may carry or have had placed upon them, there is room for common ground and rich debate and even clarifying dispute in the most unexpected places.

As someone who comes out of the Orthodox community Limmud has been a source of huge relief and gratification to discover that Orthodoxy is a richer and more diverse grouping than my own national community seems to want to suggest. I have met some fabulous Orthodox rabbis. But I have also met some fabulous non-Orthodox rabbis, sincerely, intelligently and inspiringly grappling with the implications and consequences of their own positions.

Despite, though, the 60 Limmuds around the world, thousands of sessions and presenters, the never-ending flow of volunteers, young and old, each one adding their own non-material brick to this non-material temple of Jewish growth, I still can’t improve on the brief but abiding snapshot in my mind’s eye, from the very first Limmud back then in snowy Berkshire in the south of England in December 1980.

The coach bringing people from London had just driven up, Alastair and I had gone to greet the arrivals. The door opened and out of the darkness of the coach stepped a tall slim statuesque woman with short purple (or was it green?) hair, dressed all in black. I think it must be true to say that her like had not been seen in any Jewish learning environment in the UK ever. (She turned out to be a magnificent performance poet who had been prompted to come to Limmud by the fact that we had advertised – again a first – in the non-Jewish press.) But before she fully stepped out of the coach she turned to help down the steps a short elderly man who I immediately recognised as Prof Lipman, the grand old man of Anglo Jewish history, who wanted to be wherever there might be the chance of some learning (I think that in itself must demonstrate what a learning desert we were all living in!)

That picture, framed in the doorway of the coach – a new young creative outsider, holding hands with and helping one of the pillars of the British Jewish intellectual establishment said then what I had hoped for and still says for me now what I still want. Limmud must try to accommodate everyone and it must constantly be scanning for who is missing. It must design itself not only for those who do come but also for those who might yet come. In short, it must embrace and welcome everyone who wants to take one step further on their Jewish journey.

Clive Lawton is Senior Consultant to Limmud.