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Naivety not Nativity: 40 Years of Limmud

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Alastair Falk looks back at four decades of Limmud.

For forty years, every Christmas, Jews have been wandering the wildernesses of deserted university and school campuses. This is because of Limmud, the energetic alternative to the traditional festivities in Britain. 

This year’s Limmud Festival ( even the name now hints at its seasonal feel) may need to be organised differently, but the energy and creativity of the Limmud family will undoubtedly produce something every bit as exciting and engaging as the 39 previous winter wonders. 

But if things had gone according to plan, Limmud would be an annual summer event. Holding it over Christmas was a result of inexperience and a certain sense of naivety, rather than a planned nativity.  

The Birth of Limmud 

In the summer of 1979, I returned from a sponsored trip to the gloriously named Conference for Alternatives in Jewish Education (CAJE). Was it really possible that so many Jews, from so many different religious denominations, could happily share time together? I davened with the Orthodox, prayed with the Reform and hugged with the Reconstructionists.  

It seemed a no-brainer to try and bring that sense of excitement, tolerance and creativity to the backwater that was then British Jewry. But even with the help of three very talented friends, putting it together in less than twelve months was unrealistic. So we opted for the winter, in Carmel College (the now-defunct Jewish boarding school) because I was teaching there at the time, and because its Head, Jeremy Rosen, was quite happy to encourage what today we would comfortably call disruption. Finally, in December 1980, unto us a new tradition was born.  

Limmud was, in many ways, a child of and for its time. The immediate trigger was the trip to CAJE, but the idea of Jewish alternatives was already in the air. I had first encountered it via the Jewish Catalog, which had been published some five years earlier and had made such an impression that I used part of my America trip to make a pilgrimage to the home of its authors.  

I was also teaching at Carmel College, where its international student body taught me how Jewish identity could be deep and powerful and yet only very lightly reference religion. One of my favourite Carmel moments was the day we all arrived at the dining hall to find, above the entrance, a huge sign that read ‘Yesterday was the day the Jewish world commemorated 6 million Jewish dead. Congratulations, Carmel College, you forgot.’ That the pupil responsible was later punished for this ‘ill-discipline’ was also an early lesson in how very badly Jewish schools can misread Jewish identity.  

The Four Wise Men 

As an organising group for that first Limmud, we also shared some characteristics. All four of us came from outlier communities rather than the Jewish heartlands. Raised in Berlin, Michael May brought a Jewish cosmopolitanism that was complemented by the gentle Englishness and cultural sophistication of one of the other organisers, the late and much-missed Jonathan Benjamin. Jonathan was an Indian Jew, Cambridge graduate and English teacher. Jonathan was also part of the small London community of Chingford while Clive Lawton, who would come to embody the spirit of the phenomenon Limmud was to grow into, was from the small but mighty Jewish community of Ealing. He carried a deep sense of his mother’s’ Gibraltarian identity and his father’s English army background. I, meanwhile, had grown up in Sheffield and then moved to a similar small, London community in Woodford. Moreover, Clive and I had become friends through the shared experience of that most Anglo Jewish of youth movements, Jewish Youth Study Groups. Above all, though, three of us had been shaped by an English liberal education that had taught us openness and tolerance, and this wedded to a cosmopolitan Jewish identity, was what we saw Limmud as fundamentally about.  

Bureaucracy, Managerialism and Imperialism 

While Carmel College, like the cheder system that educated most British Jewish children back in 1980, has now gone, Limmud has survived and flourished to become the international phenomenon we know today. 

Inevitably, as it grew, bureaucracy and managerialism began to creep in, as did a desire to chase communal respectability. There has also a temptation to swap liberalism for a little bit of imperialism, as the ‘Limmud international’ model developed.  

Along the way, too, it quietly abandoned what proved to be our least achievable aim back in 1980, and which has proven somewhat elusive ever since, namely professionalising and improving Jewish education. Forty years on, despite the numbers of Jewish children in Jewish schools, major issues over the quality and recruitment of teachers still remain in Jewish schools. Limmud sadly could never really begin to supply the answer.  

Today, the liberal values that underpinned Limmud’s beginnings are under attack across the world including, saddest of all, in the Jewish State itself. It’s a timely reminder that the complexity of arranging the Limmud programme, particularly in this difficult year, should not obscure or ignore Limmud’s values.  

Nor should Limmud become as predictable as the Christmas schedules. Whether in person or online, let’s hope that December once again provides that variety of Jewish experiences and identities unparalleled in any other communal setting, and that, forty years on, there is still more than enough there to justify turning up, zooming in and hanging out.  

You can hear some of the founders of Limmud discussing its origins at this year’s Limmud on Monday 27th December at 9 pm.  

Limmud Festival runs from December 27-29. Limmud Shabbat takes place before the main Festival from 25-26 December. You can book here.

All photos: Leivi Saltman Photography

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Alastair Falk has been a Head of three schools, Chief Executive of the Birmingham Education Partnership and founding Director of Partnerships for Jewish Schools. He now works as a consultant to a campaign for a longer-term approach to English education policy.
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Di Roberts
5 months ago

As another product of Sheffield Judaism, my input was limited to Study Group, Maccabi, and annual Ace Holiday Schools. I discovered the joys of Limmud only recently and can now add Alastair to my list of Influencers!

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