My always-astute colleague Anshel Pfeffer wrote an article recently about the Limmud Conference in the UK and cited critical claims that it was “a ‘Limmud bubble’ - an isolated island of Jewish enlightenment and openness in a deepening swamp of religious and political intolerance.”
I do not consider myself an expert on Limmud, but I recently spent a day at Limmud New York and am a veteran of several Australian Limmuds, known as LimmudOz. And there is no doubt in my mind that Limmud gatherings are indeed a bubble, a mirage, an illusion, a meeting of Jewish minds that is utterly unrepresentative of the reality of many Jewish communities today.
Limmud offers bright-eyed and bushy-tailed enthusiasm, rather than humdrum establishment routine; it celebrates an insatiable Jewish thirst for knowledge at a time of reality-induced, mind-numbing mediocrity; it features original ideas and outside-the-box thinking against the backdrop of increasing uniformity and spreading dogma; it gathers Jews of widely disparate backgrounds while isolation and sectarianism abound all around; and it allows free and open debate of the most controversial topics in a long-forgotten atmosphere of curiosity and mutual respect.
Which is why I suggest that what the Jewish world really needs – and I don’t just mean the Diaspora, but Israel as well – is for this bubble to be inflated a hundred times over, for this fata morgana to be made into a permanent feature of Jewish life, for Jewish communities to be Limmudized, in effect, as much as is humanly possible.
Limmud retreats, it should be said, do not come cheaply, they attract people who are inordinately interested in seminars, speeches, lessons and debates and they are attended, by definition, by Jews who are curiously eager to mingle with other Jews that they’ve never met before. “It is the only Jewish event that is intergenerational, multi-day, cross-denominational and not affiliated with any movement”, according to Karen Radkowsky, founder and past president of Limmud New York.
But it is an exhilarating Jewish experience, worthy of being spread wider and farther than the 60 locales in which Limmuds are currently held. Exquisitely organized, in most cases, by scores of enthusiastic volunteer; attended by an eclectic collection of presenters and lecturers, including arm-chair philosophers, dedicated New-Agers, rigorous intellectuals, radical reformers and rabbis from every denomination you can imagine (at least those who are not strictly forbidden from mingling with people of differing points of view); and offering an incredibly varied and free-spirited cocktail of lectures and discussion from politics to philosophy to art to cooking, or - just picking at random here from a day’s worth of topics at the New York Limmud - from “Googling God”, “Jewish Tai Chi”, “Jewish Culinary History since 1492”, “Israeli Folk-Dancing”, “Hip Hop Kaballah” through “Moral Ambiguity in the Book of Genesis” and “Dealing with Obstacles through the texts of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov”, all the way to the more conventional “NGO’s and the new anti-Semitism” “Israel and her Neighbors” and “The Jewish vote in the 2012 elections”; and not forgetting the truly inspiring film “Carrying the Light” that I was privileged to see, on British Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg’s hike from his grandfather’s synagogue in Frankfurt to his own shul in London.
And all in civilized discussion, in which the wolf lives with the lamb, the leopard with the goat, the Reconstructionist with the Modern Orthodox, the New Israel Funder with the Judea and Samaria settler and the J-Streeter with the Israel-is-always-right defender.
“People are very respectful and even when they disagree they disagree respectfully” Radkowsky says, unaware, perhaps, of how incongruous such a statement sounds against the backdrop of today’s polarized discourse. “Limmud is trying to change the conversation in the communities, not only the topics that are discussed but also the tone of the discussion” according to Limmud New York’s impressive and impossibly young executive director, David Wolkin.
As author and pundit Jacky Levy rapturously wrote in the Israeli daily Israel Hayom after returning from December’s UK Limmud, where the enterprise originated: “They spend less time picking at anxieties and more time in constructive activity: Building bridges and building new worlds, weaving new possibilities, and a future. Not another fence, another wall or another Halachic stringency.”
So, to get to the punch line of this childishly uncritical article, I propose that “the Jewish people”, whatever that means, consider coopting Limmuds as their own. That instead of devoting so many scores of millions of dollars to Jewish organizations, many of which have lost track of their original purpose and exist mainly for their own sake, Jews should consider diverting some of their funds to an enterprise with endless promise and a proven track record. That Limmud conferences be multiplied many times over and made accessible and affordable to tens of thousands of Jews worldwide, at the very least; and that their formats be made more flexible to include, for example, half-day Limmuds, topic-oriented Limmuds or conferences directed at certain professions. And that a special emphasis be put on Israel, which needs the learning-loving, pluralism-cherishing principles of Limmud most of all.
Of course it is an immense challenge to expand Limmud without endangering the spontaneous free-for-all atmosphere and sense of community that turned it into such a grand success in the first place. The only solution is a cruel one: limit Jewish professionals to fundraising, prevent them from interfering with organization and content and fork over the money to people who have proven their ability to maintain this Jewish gem. To put it another way: just leave the job to the amateurs.
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