Adapted from the original French article by Faustine Goldberg-Sigal –
Once upon a time, the 1980s to be specific, a small group of Jewish teachers in England decided to spend a few days together learning from one another. At that time, professional development programs for these professionals were limited and unsatisfactory. They came up with the idea to capitalize on their collective knowledge and to raise themselves up together. Over the course of a few days everyone, some of whom came with their children, had the opportunity to teach their peers about a topic they were passionate about and that they could benefit from. Thus, Limmud was born. Since then, this small group has continued to grow, reaching 5,000 participants this year! Also, other groups in dozens of countries worldwide have been inspired to emulate their model, including our own “Limoud” in France.
Nevertheless, the original Limmud UK remains the flagship of this project. Every year, during the final week of December, ever-increasing numbers of participants, increasingly more diverse, converge to learn and celebrate together. Lessons on the text, debates, sporting events, cooking, parties and concerts are all a part of this wonderous festival. The English Limmud also now includes parallel programs for teenage participants and younger children. The spirit is that of radically shared and democratic Jewish learning: all participants may offer sessions, regardless of their age, CV, or religious observance. In return, once a session is over the organizer does not simply go their own way, but rejoins the festival as one of the thousands of learners. In a spirit of equality, not only is no one paid for teaching, but everyone pays their own participation fees.
Of course, this year was different, and it was impossible to meet in the usual hotel in Birmingham. Transitioning such a large festival into a virtual meeting required so much creativity, and actually spawned the most accessible Limmud festival to date. Limmud organizers have worked for years to ensure that the event is open and accessible, bringing together people all over the world, all age ranges, economic backgrounds and physical capabilities. This switch into virtual realms made this possible in an unprecedented manner. One would imagine that, after more than ten months of pandemic and virtual living, registration would have suffered. On the contrary, numbers were higher than normal! 5,000 people gathered for more than 300 sessions offered over the course of four days. The organizers reported that people who live in towns with almost no Jewish presence at all even joined. They even had Ultra-Orthodox participants, who had no access to a computer or the Internet, joining sessions through their landlines.
The ethics of Limmud are, for me personally, a model for Jewish education in Europe. Their slogan is “Taking You One Step Further On Your Jewish Journey.” By putting learning at the center, Limmud has concretely succeeded in replacing the notion of a fixed and innate Jewish identity with that of one that is a journey. To be a Jew is the adventure of a lifetime. It is a construction, an apprenticeship. It is not a trivial aspect that such a vision originated among educators. I even remember hearing Clive Lawton, one of the founders of Limmud, rejoice that there are non-Jewish participants in Limmud every year. He explained that Limmud’s goal is to accompany people on their own Jewish journey. Certainly, statistically, we are more likely to be on a Jewish journey if we identify as Jewish. However, there are many reasons why someone may be on this journey without this shared identity. Some are interested in Judaism from an academic viewpoint, others may have Jewish spouses and children, and there are also those who are considering becoming Jewish. These people too, through Limmud, can come and learn and teach.
I can’t help but feel that this radical openness towards learning, and even more so towards teaching, is a crucial promise for the future of Judaism. At any given moment, the head of the Biblical Archaeology Department at New York University may be presenting his most recent finds from the Qumran Scrolls, while, just next door, a Moishe House resident is recounting how they created an network to collect unsold food for people in need. If these sessions are not simultaneous, one of these two, seemingly radically different, presenters may be attending the other one’s session, learning from it, and engaging with one another. It’s possible that one is even the child or niece of the other!
There is, within Judaism, a powerful tradition of learning from parents, grandparents and teachers. Yet, at the same time, there is also a strong tradition of learning from one’s peers, and even from children. Limmud manifests this through an event experienced every year by thousands from across the world. Through its growth, Limmud has succeeded in articulating a vigorous alternative model based on the values of compassion, creativity and rigorous Jewish study.
The fear behind democratizing Jewish education is that it will cheapen it. If we let everyone teach, we run the risk of letting anyone teach. Limmud has proven that democratization can in fact pull everyone up. The example above is an excellent example of this. A Moishe House resident who knows he is presenting at the same as a renowned scholar will strive to improve their lesson so that it can hold up, and so that participants will benefit just as much from attending their session. At the same time, someone more senior (either professionally or in age) will wonder how they can attract a younger audience to their session, and how to use this informal context in order to generate new questions that are different from what they usually receive.
In a normal circumstance, all of these beautiful learners will meet for lunch, dance, sing, pray or even run together. They extend and energize the conversations from the study sessions through these informal components of Limmud. In Limmud, these informal moments are an integral part of the study program. This living learning experience is, in my opinion, an essential truth as much in the past as it will be in the future of Jewish education.