The cross-communal must continue to innovate if it is to remain true to its spirit
Ben Crowne, Jewish Chronicle, 1 January 2021
Limmud Festival 2020 was by far our largest event ever, transformed into an online experience by a volunteer team who never met in person.
In a year which paralysed so much, Limmud ran more UK events than ever before, alongside dozens of teams around the world. At the height of the first lockdown, in the worried weeks around the chagim, and now in tier 4, we were able to bring people together to learn, entertain, collaborate and share connections despite our isolation. Our experience was not unique and is a testament to the resilience and goodwill we have seen displayed throughout the pandemic.
But as we cautiously plan for 2021, the temptation to revert back to established patterns can be overwhelming. Our anniversary activities – panels, an archive project and on-going academic research – have emphasised how little some things have changed in decades.
Limmud Festival 2019 was perhaps a little better catered, had more efficient logistics and hewed slightly closer to the communal mainstream than Limmud Conference 2000, but its essential features were the same – and most of them transitioned into our online event this year.
The same is probably true for much of our Jewish lives and for many institutions – yet in the same time our professional and domestic lives have been transformed by new technologies, structures and social trends. The recovery from Covid-19 offers the opportunity to ask ourselves: what truly needs to go back to the way it was? Where are we confusing familiarity with quality? These are questions we are asking ourselves as we start thinking about Festival 2021 but they are concerns which the whole community should consider.
For Limmud, one fresh perspective comes from the remarkable ways that a distinctively British event has evolved to the needs of other communities. There are nations where Limmud is a central fixture in Jewish life, with events drawing ten or 20 per cent of the Jewish population.
A UK event of similar proportions might look something like Rosh Hashana Urbano, a vast street festival run by Limmud Buenos Aires. What would a 25,000-person gathering in Golders Green, or on Hampstead Heath, look like? And aren’t we the poorer that it seems unrealistic to even ask?
Another approach would be to consider the generations of Limmud volunteers who have helped transform the wider Jewish landscape. An impact study in 2018 found that involvement in Limmud led almost 20 per cent of UK volunteers to set up a new Jewish initiative or organisation.
Although inspiring, many of these projects should challenge us – what is it about our community that pushes people to found something from scratch, rather than work with established organisations? What would it look like if more organisations gave volunteers the autonomy and resources that Limmud gives its Festival teams?
And how could Limmud transform our own events and ideas, if some of that energy for change was redirected inside our own structures?
Even as a virtual event, Limmud succeeds when it gathers a cross-section of our community into a single setting, and acknowledges all that we share. As an online event, we have seen hundreds of first-time participants – Charedim dialing into Zoom from landlines, students who would never go to Jsoc, Jews from towns with no synagogue or communal life.
Their presence this year is uplifting, but also a reminder that there remains much work to be done for us to be truly accessible and inclusive. What barriers have we temporarily lowered, and how can we ensure that they are not re-erected in a return to the status quo?
For years we have aspired to have “a Limmud in every country where there are Jews” – and we are most of the way there. But we have only been able to accomplish that via local teams of volunteers who saw a set of ideas that they liked, and wanted to use that to create something new and impactful in their own communities.
After 40 years of expansion and growth, that impulse to see change remains at the heart of Limmud’s success and needs to be embraced as we look to the next 40.
Ben Crowne is a trustee of Limmud