Can Limmud Be Replicated Outside the Jewish Community?
It is widely recognised that Limmud has had a major impact in the British and other Jewish communities. Now well into its fourth decade, Limmud continues to expand and bring in new generations of attendees, presenters and volunteers. It has raised expectations dramatically of what can be achieved in the field of Jewish arts, culture, education and community-building.
But might Limmud have a role to play outside Jewish communities? Certainly, education and community-building are not activities only of interest to Jews. Limmud seems to be able to raise standards, enthuse individuals and build networks—and it’s not just Jews who need to do these things.
Non-Jews have attended Limmud over the years. They have principally been members of other religious communities who have been invited for interfaith purposes. But I myself have also tried at Limmud 2011 and 2013 to bring non-Jewish educators and social entrepreneurs with the specific aim of them learning from Limmud and Limmud learning from them.
In the following, I have challenged six people who have attended or been involved in Limmud to consider the question of whether the Limmud model can work outside the Jewish community. There are no simple answers, but at the very least the debate helps us understand the Limmud model better, together with its boundaries.
The 6 contributors are:
- Uri Berkowitz (Former chair, Limmud International)
- Kevin Sefton (Chair, Limmud)
- Fred Garnett
- Alex Fradera
- Dilwar Hussain
- Deborah Sheridan
A few years ago I asked a non-Jewish friend to come along with me to Limmud Conference, the Jewish festival of learning. “Why would a non-Jew want to go to Limmud?”, he puzzled. “It’s Jews, talking to other Jews about being Jewish; what would I get out of it?”. Even as a seasoned Limmudnik, aware of the conference’s far-reaching potential, I had to pause and consider: can a non-Jew enjoy Limmud?
I’ve also pondered more widely about Limmud’s applicability as a model. Is it possible for Limmud to work outside of its British-Jewish context? Can it speak to a non-Jewish audience and become an example for communities and events in the wider world? Could it inspire spaces for other religious groups to address their own issues? What about interfaith groups or even non-religious groups?
Limmud started in the UK over thirty years ago and amongst other activities it runs an annual, week long, residential conference for anyone interested in Jewish learning. On average, 2,500+ people attend Conference each year, with 350+ people volunteering to give 1000+ sessions over the course of a week. Participants come from the UK and abroad, many from the 60+ communities that have been inspired to start their own Limmuds around the world. Limmud is a highly diverse space in terms of age, background and Jewish affiliation.
To determine ways in which Limmud could be used as a model beyond itself prompts discussion of the key elements that make it work and about how these may or may not be transferable, essentially: why Limmud exists, what it does and how it does it.
The Why: Overcoming Division
People are diverse and divided, at an individual and institutional level. There are ongoing divisions amongst Jews and few positive opportunities to overcome these. Limmud talks of having no agenda and promises that “Wherever you find yourself, Limmud will take you one step further along your Jewish journey”. This is essentially about the individual and helping them in their own development as Jews. Whilst Limmud may talk to the individual, I would argue that Limmud’s crucial agenda addresses the collective, by bringing divided Jews together and giving them a taste of optimistic solidarity—even if it is only occasional.
Limmud is by no means entirely successful at overcoming division. There are plenty of people who will never come to Limmud or who object in principle. But for those who participate, it can change the way they feel about Jewish peoplehood in a very real and positive way. Limmud is a space where the barriers across divisions are lowered in order to allow individuals to come together with a meaningful sense of what it is to be part of a whole.
Any group wishing to use the Limmud model must examine their own divisions. The desire to heal those divisions has to be greater than the reasons to maintain them.
The What: Learning
It is not enough to simply want to reconcile divisions. People need a compelling reason to collaborate with each other. Learning is a central religious and cultural Jewish value and it is what the participants at Limmud come to do. People learn in different ways and learning enables people to share their differences, whether in texts, discussions, dance or drama and contribute to their self-improvement.
In 1980, when Limmud was founded, it was said that the quality of religious and educational life for the Jewish community in Britain was exceptionally shallow. Limmud has delivered a way of learning that has helped shift the culture of mainstream Jewish activities towards more choice and diversity. Projects like JW3, Jewish Book Week, the Jewish Film festival and JCoSS are all natural extensions of that progress.
Identifying the right content is essential to any communal gathering that seeks to bridge difference.
For Limmud it is learning, but for a group emulating Limmud it could be anything of their choosing, such as social action, neighbourhood improvement, sport or politics. Whatever content is agreed on, it must garner passion and enthusiasm to encourage participation.
The How: Neutrality
The list of Limmud values is considerable, including: making connections, having mutual responsibility, diversity, participation, empowerment and voluntarism. Some are purposefully stated, others part of an accepted culture. Although diverse and layered, these values are bound by a single thread: to simply enable divided people to learn together.
Divisions happen for genuine reasons but they are rarely overcome by one side winning and the other side losing. Limmud’s values bring a sense of neutrality within a safe space in order for everyone to succeed either personally or collectively.
Limmud is a constant process and the values that maintain that process are in flux and need to be discussed and adjusted for every culture that uses them, to achieve its own bigger goal.
Limmud is ultimately a Jewish conversation that is designed to appeal to people on a Jewish journey. It can’t expand out of its own mission but it can inspire other people, groups or organisations to start their own ‘Limmud’ process in which they choose a platform and set of values that works for them, encouraging diversity and respecting individuals. These events must have compelling content and endeavour to heal divisions, creating unity without uniformity.
Four years later my friend came along to Limmud for a day and found there was plenty for him to choose from in the programme and the atmosphere felt welcoming to all. Yes, there were Jews talking about being Jewish, but its values were open to all.
Uri Berkowitz lives in London and is a partner at Maven Design. He is the former chair of Limmud International.
I remember my first Limmud taste seventeen years ago. I was facilitating an accountancy summer vacation programme at a training centre in Surrey. I was the only Jewish person there. And I didn’t know what Limmud was.
Then Bruce Kent came by and I saw something I liked. Bruce Kent introduced me to Limmud. Bruce Kent from CND, War on Want, the Palestine Solidarity Campaign. I’d seen him on TV. Bruce Kent was there for a conference.
What I liked was that Bruce Kent was carrying boxes. A stacked wedding cake of cardboard, with polystyrene cups poking out the top. Bruce Kent wasn’t just a figurehead, a spokesman, a macher. He was a doer, a shlepper. At that moment, and whatever I thought of Bruce Kent as a person, I saw that sense of everyone contributing rather than simply consuming.
The next time I saw this spirit was when I came to my first Limmud conference six months later.
But Limmud is about much more than that. There are volunteer organisers across society, other faith events such as Greenbelt and Living Islam, conferences including TED, the Edinburgh Festival, Hay on Wye and Intelligence Squared. Ideas come and go. Yet Limmud still has something unique, it is expanding and it endures in communities where it has been set up.
To understand this better, Keith Kahn Harris invited a group of educationalists and innovators to view Limmud Conference for themselves and to give feedback on what they saw. Did Limmud’s Jewish identity have something to do with its success or was there a translatable educational model?
The view through external eyes was enlightening and revealing. They saw clearly that Limmud is a community. Someone remarked that there are meta conversations that emerge organically – one session on Israel informs another one on Talmud. Parallels are drawn because of proximity in time and space rather than proximity of subject matter. Visually, Limmud would be a Pollock or perhaps a Rorschach inkblot test.
Perhaps that starts to answer the question of why it works so well. The Jewish community is very well networked. Looking at my LinkedIn connections, approximately half are from the Jewish community, and half from other parts of my life – university, work colleagues, political groups etc. It can be shown visually using a Labs tool called InMaps … and this is my result. In simple terms, I am in the centre (LinkedIn’s choice, not mine). The Jewish community is on the right, densely packed with phenomenal numbers of pathways and interconnectedness. Everyone else is on the left … small pockets with a few lines where somebody has multiple circles of interest and influence
I believe that this is something that makes Limmud a particularly Jewish phenomenon. It allows us to take what is initially a small encounter – with a person, with knowledge. And to make something more of it.
At Limmud events, individual sessions aren’t assembled as a curriculum. People happily join session 3 of 4 without being at 1 and 2. There’s no obvious follow up to direct you to learn more. And yet people do. Inspired, they buy books, they go home and sign up to courses, they lay down another layer of their personal knowledge.
Each person gets something out of being there. And each community too – Limmud groups are independent, sharing values and supported by our project Limmud International.
Limmud is not just a product though, it is also a process and the people who get the most out of it are the volunteers who organise the events, exchanging hundreds, thousands of emails during the course of the year.
There are two or three distinctive features here: first, in encouraging people to act as co-chairs; second, in developing them through roles that may not be their immediate areas of knowledge; and third, in changing leadership from event to event, and even organisationally every three to four years. It is counter-intuitive at times. We lose organisational memory but achieve remarkable resilience and depth.
I mentioned this to someone a couple of years ago in another voluntary sector organisation who agreed wholeheartedly saying ‘for the twenty years I ran my group I made sure that everyone underneath me rotated roles frequently.’ Perhaps the fact that it was so hard for him to understand what I was saying, reflects how unique Limmud really is.
Limmud is now in 85 communities worldwide. It works.
The model has given thousands of people the opportunity to be involved and hundreds have chaired events. Limmud and its volunteers have had an impact on the British and international Jewish experience. Many of the most exciting new initiatives in this community, and revitalisations of established institutions, have come from those who have brought a shared Limmud philosophy or network into their projects.
Yet looking further afield, while the visiting educationalists could see the power of Limmud and would take something back, it was not obvious that it would succeed so well in other circumstances. They recognised – perhaps more than I had done – that this is a product of the community as much as the community is a product of Limmud. And in that sense it requires a special set of circumstances to be transferable.
It seems that while the ingredients of choice, diversity of participants, respect and volunteerism can be replicated, there are others that are harder to bring to a new domain. That needs passion, high levels of connectedness and acceptance of the diversity of output – allowing people to present who want to do so, putting the agenda in the hands of each participant rather than in the hands of those doing the programming. How do you get the connection between the passion and the diversity of what happens?
There are germinating ideas testing this. An interfaith initiative called People Like Us (PLUS) was launched last year, synthesising elements of Limmud and other faith programmes. A pilot was run pilot in Cambridge last April. And interestingly a volunteer was trying to see if it would work in the social change movement and burgeoning political group she was associated with in Poland.
The educationalists also brought something to us. While recognising the particularly Jewish elements of Limmud, we can learn from the wider community and adopt ideas to evolve – forms of learning, formats, technology, social change, integration of learning, community models.
Limmud is now in its fourth decade. It is remarkable how many of those involved over the years are still part of the Limmud community, while allowing the current volunteers and teams the flexibility and space to fulfil their own vision. This connectedness really is special
Maybe we’ll invite Bruce Kent this year.
Kevin Sefton chairs the board of Limmud, which includes Limmud in the UK, Limmud International supporting Limmud groups around the world, and Limmud University which is a new training and development project for everyone involved with Limmud. Professionally, Kevin has been a management consultant and is the founder and owner of luxury men’s footwear brand Govan Originals.
I’ve been operating on the principles of being a “Public Intellectual 2.0” since 2008 and through this open engagement with 21st century public debate had met Keith Kahn-Harris at something called the University Project in 2011, before his invitation to attend Limmud in December 2013. My lifelong response to invitations has been “yeah sure”, even though Limmud was an odd one for me as I tend to sympathise with Palestinians, having been in Beirut when it was bombed in 1972.
Limmud however was a delight, very open and completely friendly. I felt at ease there too, having worked on Warwick University Science Park for eight years. I was with two others, both of whom I knew a little, which helped, and we decided to go to different sessions to improve our shared understanding of Limmud. Our outsider’s view of Limmud was relaxed and rewarding. I made friends with Tal Grunspan from Tel Aviv, having a lot in common on government and policy 2.0, and met him in London subsequently.
I was bowled over by the “never mind the width, feel the wit” quality of Clive Lawton’s “50 Words” session, and the respectful seriousness and thoughtfulness of the feminist, political and historical sessions I went to. The people, the friendliness and the natural expression of a shared curiosity created as good a conference atmosphere as any I have ever experienced, and the social safety net of the event was a fruitfully enabling one. I use curated conversations and Open Space methodologies (see below) to try and balance high seriousness of discussion with more populist sentiments in conferences and I was impressed with how easily Limmud seem to achieve this difficult balance.
This open curiosity caused me to reflect on why Jews are often seen as pariahs when Middle Eastern politics arise. I recalled that as a kid in the early sixties many of us thought that the coolest thing to do was to go and work on a kibbutz for 6-12 months, but after the Six-Day War in 1967 we mostly dropped that idea. It seemed to me that Israel had won that war but lost the power of moral suasion that it’s social organisation and everyday life had previously held out to young English people.
Ultimately only two of my friends went to work on a kibbutz, and they were both Jewish. I eventually visited a kibbutz in 1992 and was hugely impressed; although we didn’t actually work there we were made very welcome. I also took the opportunity to visit the River Jordan and was finally baptised with my longstanding nickname “Fred” by my wife.
So on reflection it seems to me that Limmud has now developed a wonderful, open, rolling and discursive quality which is both respectful of people’s knowledge and efforts in the world, whilst being comfortable in challenging any lack of clarity, or bluster, or long-windedness. It seems to meld the best qualities of a well-prepared academic conference with the rolling chatter of a loving family.
If kibbutz means a gathering or a clustering, then to an outsider Limmud might perhaps be construed as a kibbutz of conversation and debate. Philip Agre has talked of how individual “thought leaders” shape the future but perhaps Limmud can be a model for how a broad collective “thought community” might help shape our social futures in a time of turbulent change. A human social network counter-balancing the emerging virtual social networks that society is increasingly being shaped by, maybe even holding the inspirational place in the popular imagination that the kibbutz once held in the sixties.
However that won’t happen incidentally and will need some positive developmental actions, such as a bursary programme to support outside attendees, and recruitment of volunteers from other communities, perhaps through open, mini-Limmuds at those universities where Limmud already has some presence.
Might the Limmud model even be transferable, perhaps like the Open Space conference approach which achieves a similar mix of high seriousness and populist sentiments? Open Space can be expressed with a few simple rules: There is no prior agenda, attendees propose workshops and vote some into being. Workshops then run for an hour and propose post-event actions. These actions are voted upon and, say, the three most popular actions are adopted by the conference. Narrowly-focussed, but more practical than Limmud, Open Space generates community through shared actions. The accepting breadth of Limmud, however, is informed by the culture from which it emerges. The open, welcoming curiosity, tempered with some elderly grumpiness, is very forgiving and community building requires much forgiveness. Changing, or transferring, cultural values is tricky, but can be achieved with patience over time. It can be done, as Limmud itself has shown.
Fred Garnett is a Visiting Research Associate at the London Knowledge Lab, where he advises on Digital Literacies and works on post-Web 2.0 models of learning, such as the Ambient Learning Cities project and WikiQuals (shared with CROS the Romanian “alternative university.”) He also works with the Transition Towns Network which use Open Space.
Where in the world could you attend workshops on ecstatic meditation, debates on geopolitics, talks on cooking and comedy, investigations into the nature of God, and examinations of language all under one roof? The answer, as I have recently learnt, is at the Jewish conference Limmud. Invited along as a non-Jewish observer, I arrived for my first experience of the conference with few preconceptions. I’ve spent much of my life around Jewish people: attending a North London independent school, working in TGI Fridays in Hendon, and being invited into the homes of various Jewish friends. Heck, my stepmum and my little brother are Jewish. But, aside from the odd ersatz Passover get-together, I hadn’t formally engaged with Jewishness qua Jewishness, which is what it thought Limmud would be all about. What I discovered was a little more complicated. And it was also, in a way, simpler.
In addition to the events mentioned above, I had a few standout experiences. I attended a Chavruta or paired textual study session. This was an entirely new activity for me, and although my readings of the text must have been clumsy and lacking in texture, I found it rewarding to explore the various possible interpretations of the text. For instance, the practice of ‘permission blessings’ for activities frames the default state of the world as sacredness and afterwards return it to its ineffable state. For some reason this reminded me a little of using the web design package Sharepoint. (I said it would be clumsy!)
It dismayed me a little that I couldn’t, and still can’t, think of a text weighty enough to merit this kind of close study within the other academic circles I walk in. That said, the Chevrutah approach feels like it could help come to terms with art, examine schematics for new community infrastructure, and other wide-ranging purposes.
Another highlight was an illuminating talk from Clive Lawton on Jewish words, which deepened my understanding of Jewish law. I was struck by the fact that, over the ages, Jewish law was able to cope with innovation and change by devolving decisions to the local level: Montevideo and Manchester having different ways of ruling on whether electric bulbs can be used on the Sabbath being a good example of this.
As I understand it, eventually higher-order parts of the system of Jewish law take more authoritative decisions that cascade down to the localities, but these are of course influenced by the judgments made at the ground level. A nested hierarchy with a clear top-down final say but with elbow-room for the lowest level to act autonomously? This is powerful tech, of benefit to hacktivists and community networks alike. However, Clive warned that the era of quick – now near instantaneous – communication swallows up that freedom, as discrepancies can instantly be challenged and pressured, leading to a culture of ‘best not’: an important implication that needs to be taken into account more broadly.
More generally, I learned that the abiding principles of Limmud are less about Judaism but Jewishness, which includes whatever the attendees and session-hosts feel it does, in ‘a glorious lack of gatekeeping’. Limmud has been replicated worldwide, where sometimes the attendee background tilts towards a non-negligible quota of non-Jews, but still manages to remain dedicated to the principles of Jewish thought and dialogue.
In another session, Clive Lawton mentioned that Limmud was ‘a repair of our world’. This resonated with another project movement that I am involved in, namely the Dark Mountain Project. Dark Mountain is a call to recognise the multiple crises facing the natural world, and our attendant crisis of what it is to be human. The Project challenges the grand narrative, the synecdoche, the parts mistaken for the whole. The project provides a space for conversation and new stories, and that can mean wildly different viewpoints being thrown together in surprising ways – the carbon-counting technologists sit cross-legged next to anarcho-primitivists.
In the case of the Dark Mountain Project, with no way to ‘agree’, we have to see each other as we are and share this space because our differences do not eclipse our commonality. My experience of Limmud had the same taste. Not a conference so much as a gathering. Perhaps these existential challenges – to a people, to a world, to a species, but above all, to meaning – that can allow dissensus to work so well.
To close, the following is an exchange from one of the sessions.:
‘The trouble with all these comments is that they lead us into tangents… maybe we’ll get there, maybe not, but we’ll learn along the way.’
Welcome to Limmud!
Alex Fradera is a scientist and artist, immersed in psychology and improvisation. He combines insights from these different fields through writing, teaching, advising and play. alexfradera.net
I have been to Limmud a number of times over the last ten years and have found it to be a fascinating experience every time. The first time was perhaps the most eye-opening: I had never experienced anything like it. Indeed, despite having been active in various Muslim networks, communities and events for over 20 years, I have still not come across anything quite like Limmud. There are of course summer camps and many conferences, some that I have even helped to organise (such as the Living Islam Festival) but these are quite different from Limmud. I also often go to Greenbelt, a Christian Summer Festival that attracts over twenty thousand people and, while I love that, Limmud is something else.
The most recent UK Limmud was attended by over 2,600 participants and had 1,102 sessions offered by 451 presenters from around the world. Haaretz described it as ‘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’. From the very first time that I attended I thought to myself, ‘I wonder if this can be done with Muslims?’
I believe it can be done and, in fact, strategically it is important for Muslims to have such an event in the calendar if they are to progress their thoughts and have an intra-faith dialogue about that perennial (and yes, rather tiresome) question of ‘what does it mean to be a British Muslim.’ The fatigue of answering the question doesn’t detract from its relevance and importance.
In fact, I have tried for a number of years to arrange an event of this nature along with others, but didn’t feel the mood to be right, or couldn’t raise sufficient backing. However, this year, this is a glimmer of hope – so watch this space! A ‘Muslim Limmud’ – when it comes into being, rather than if – would probably take inspiration from the original but not produce a carbon copy. There are important reasons that explain why such an initiative hasn’t already happened, that cannot be ignored. And they hint at how such a venture may be different within the context of Muslim communities.
One key reason relates to socio-economic and educational factors – the disparity between Jewish and Muslim Britons remains significant, even if that gap is narrowing slowly. And the much longer presence of Jewish communities in Britain explains some of that. While both communities have significant theological diversity (and schisms) within, the sheer extent of ethnic, cultural and even linguistic diversity of Muslims has often rendered internal dialogue very difficult. Furthermore, Jewish Rabbis and intellectuals seem to have actively nurtured a confident culture of debate, dissent and argumentation around religious matters, whereas the recent experience of Muslims (over the last century) is often a pursuit of trying to preserve ‘unity’ and ‘consensus’ amidst a strong feeling of loss of cultural and political power. In short, Muslims need to move out of a defensive position of victimhood and regain their sense of confidence and intellectual vibrancy if they are to open up vistas of internal debate and discussion, as Limmud provides, and to address them honestly. Confidence here is not to be confused with what we may often see displayed as assertiveness (but is in fact the expression of an identity politics that is struggling to find its place). This misplaced ‘assertiveness’ is not only of concern to Muslims; one can see some Jewish groups boycott Limmud because they feel it is ‘heretical’ or too diverse.
But there is a ‘chicken and egg’ situation here, for how does one develop confidence and intellectual vibrancy without a non-judgmental space for internal debate, discussion and argumentation? The notion of a ‘community of learning’ that wants to expand its own horizons is a profound one: it is what Limmud embodies and it is what British Muslim communities sorely need.
Dilwar Hussain is Chair of New Horizons in British Islam, a charity that works for reform in Muslim thought and practice. His research interests include: social policy, Muslim identity and Islamic reform in the modern world. Dilwar blogs at: https://dilwarh.wordpress.com
Every December for the past ten years I have come away from Limmud wondering how this exciting and addictive experience could be imported into my own community. As an Anglican priest involved in running courses and workshops for people exploring the possibility of ordination, my first question must ask which elements of Limmud are uniquely Jewish and not transferable, and which could be enriching for any community.
Limmud is a celebration of community. Its essence is the Jewish community coming together to be itself and to celebrate itself, without having to apologise, tone-down or explain its culture. For a week it is a closed world. Of course this is emphasised by Limmud taking place over Christmas. (It is a strangely disorientating experience at Warwick University to walk through the Arts faculty on your way to a session and encounter dozens of excited toddlers coming out of a Christmas pantomime). Clearly this is a unique part of the special atmosphere of Limmud. But the success of Limmud also relies on key elements which are potentially transferable to other situations. I specifically want to emphasise democracy and choice.
Limmud models the democratisation of education. It draws its participants from a wide spectrum of society, age, education, social class, and religious commitment. Rabbis, scholars and ordinary lay people learn together and the speakers themselves become learners as they attend the next session – ‘Everyone can be a teacher and everyone should be a student’. There is an expectation and acceptance of interaction between lecturer and audience.
This democratisation is also facilitated by the conference’s open platform. While some of the invited speakers are well known in their own fields, a considerable proportion of the sessions are offered by people who just have some particular expertise or interest to share. It is this eclectic mix of subjects which holds the key to the excitement of Limmud. It invites the risk of exploring new topics and being open to new experiences. There may be a relationship here with the concept of Torah Lishma – studying the Torah for its own sake. There is no other goal than to be challenged, excited, to have your horizons widened and ultimately to learn, just for the sake of learning. It can all take you ‘one step further on your Jewish journey’.
Democratisation is also part of the whole culture of Limmud and is evidenced by the role of volunteers in organising and running the conference. Volunteers are also participants.
Following on from this, Limmud is about choice. Despite the hundreds of sessions offered, it is fine to spend the whole of the conference in the social areas which are available all the time, not just for timetabled coffee-breaks. (Overheard in the bar: ‘I am not going to any sessions on religion, politics or music’). Limmud is actually not just about learning.
Limmud also models a remarkable tolerance within the conference. This does not mean that there is a bland neutrality or an avoidance of difficult issues: some sessions provoke passionate argument. But Limmud seems to have been successful in providing a forum for many different viewpoints within the community.
The Limmud model is not one which would be appropriate in all educational environments. But perhaps Limmud’s greatest gift to the wider community is to demonstrate that it is possible to take the risk of building a successful educational environment on the basis of empowerment and participation.
Deborah Sheridan is an Anglican priest from Lichfield in Staffordshire who has been addicted to Limmud since being introduced to it 13 years ago by her husband and daughter.