A Very English Institution
Last week some 600 Jews converged on the hamlet of Kerhonkson in upstate New York for Limmud NY, a three-day "marketplace of Jewish ideas." Now in its eighth year, the volunteer-run Limmud NY is open to professional teachers and amateurs alike. It is, according to its website, an "experience unlike any other." Except, of course, for the 60 other annual events (and counting) sponsored by the UK-based Limmud in countries from Turkey to New Zealand to Israel. In Jewish adult education, Limmud is now ubiquitous.
Limmud's flagship event, and the template for its other meetings, is the Limmud Conference, which recently celebrated its 31st anniversary at the University of Warwick in England. The conference, occupying five days between Christmas and New Year, is described by its organizers as a "carnival of Jewish learning." At any hour between 8 a.m. and midnight, participants can choose from among 20 different sessions. They range from yeshiva-style Talmud study to gospel concerts, though the majority are university-style lectures. When sessions end, there is a sudden flurry of activity as some 2300 Jews rush across campus to their next experience, stopping to glance at the bookshop, pick up a free magazine, or, more often, queue up for a cookie and a cup of tea.
Choice and openness underlie Limmud's appeal. Anyone can participate; anyone can teach, or "present." In fact, anyone can run the conference itself: Virtually all the organizing is done by volunteers. Limmud is especially open to families. "Young Limmud" provides programs for children, from toddlers to teenagers, all day. There are family sessions every evening. There is even night-time babysitting—again, courtesy of volunteers.
Where choice is restricted, the limitations are designed to foster an atmosphere in which everyone is on an equal footing. Name badges, obligatory at all times, don't include titles. Virtually everyone stays in the same standard college dorms. Everyone eats the same kosher but otherwise standard (at best) college food.
After 30 years, many still see Limmud's egalitarian vibe as radical. According to the Jerusalem Post, Limmud "deliberately flies in the face of the accepted hierarchies in the world of Jewish adult education and challenges the power structures of the organized Jewish community." Limmud encourages this characterization, placing "empowerment" and "diversity" among its "core values" and demonstrating its freedom from the oppressive power structure that is the English language with neologisms like "volunticipate."
Certainly, Limmud causes consternation in certain elements of Anglo Jewry. The conference attracts very few rabbis from the United Synagogue, the main UK Orthodox movement: The former head of the London Beth Din, Dayan Hannoch Ehrentreu, cautioned them against attending for fear that their presence would legitimize the Reform rabbis who are also present.
Yet Limmud did not originally set out to be anti-establishment. It took shape when three British teachers returned from the annual conference of the U.S.-based CAJE (Coalition for the Advancement of Jewish Education) and resolved to set up a similar event in the UK. Their modest goal was to encourage British Jews to talk about Jewish education. Of the 40 participants at the first Limmud Conference in 1980, most were United Synagogue members.
True, the Orthodox establishment initially disapproved of Limmud. Alastair Falk, Limmud's first chair, remembers being summoned to the office of the then-Chief Rabbi, the late Lord Jacobowitz, to be rebuked. But, unlike today, the Chief Rabbi's worry was less doctrinal than sociological. Falk recalls being told: "We don't want angry young men in our community." When Falk explained that all Limmud wanted to do was improve the quality of Jewish education, the confrontation was defused. Teaching in the same vicinity as Reform rabbis was fine as long as no one made a fuss about it.
Limmud was founded upon that same lackadaisical English tolerance which used to characterize the United Synagogue. Falk's vision of Limmud was influenced by the City of London School, which he attended as a teenager. The first school in the country to accept Jews (and dissenters) when it opened in1837, it embodied the non-conformist laissez-faire liberal streak in Victorian England. By the time Falk attended in the late 1960s, it was thoroughly cosmopolitan, with the strong presence of Jews and other ethnic minorities fostering a free-thinking, creative atmosphere. Many Limmud pioneers shared Falk's educational background. Limmud was, in part, an importer of English liberal education into Jewish education.
Moreover, with its family atmosphere and volunteer ethos, Limmud embodied the curiously English virtue that Falk describes as "glorious amateurism." Compared with the slick American professionalism of CAJE, Limmud was and remains, as Falk puts it, "shabbily genteel."
In spite of its Englishness, Limmud is seen as unrepresentative of English Jews, on account of the supposed lack of Orthodox participation. Haaretz, reporting on this year's conference, asked whether Limmud paints a "false picture of British Jewry." But United Synagogue congregants do attend the conference; it is the rabbis who are absent. This fact suggests that it is not Limmud but the rabbinate that is unrepresentative. Although the United Synagogue's leadership has moved to the right ideologically, its members have not followed. Limmud fills a vacuum in the center; that, in part, may account for its success.
Ironically, Limmud has never achieved its initial objective of revitalizing education in traditional UK Jewish institutions: Its influence in schools and synagogues has been negligible. Instead, no less ironically, Limmud, through its very openness and creativity, has become an institution in its own right, surpassing its U.S. progenitor, CAJE, to become the paradigm copied throughout the Diaspora and in Israel.
In that sense, Limmud is deeply conservative: While it has grown, its format has barely changed in 30 years. Then again, how radical can it be when its target clientele is the average middle-of-the-road Anglo-Jewish family? Limmud is not a revolution in Anglo Jewry but a reflection of it, successfully exported around the globe. For a supposedly fractured, beleaguered, moribund community, that is cause for optimism.
Simon Gordon is the Tikvah Fellow at Jewish Ideas Daily.