Where on earth do nearly 3000 Jews get together during their “winter vacation” (otherwise known in the West as “Christmas Vacation”) for an annual festival of intensive and inspirational pluralistic Jewish learning, culture and socializing in an atmosphere of mutual respect, friendship and fellowship that is virtually unparalleled in the Jewish world?
The answer: the Limmud (Hebrew for “Learning”) conference in England, which has taken place every winter for the past 37 years!
Together with my wife Amy, I attended the conference last week in the city of Birmingham, in the Midlands area of central England, two hours north of London. Last year we attended the conference and we caught the Limmud “bug” (their welcoming spirit is truly infectious) and we decided to come back again this year. We were both presenters and participants as were all of the 600 presenters at more than 1400 sessions this year. All of us came to teach and to learn in this amazing atmosphere of radical Jewish pluralism, where everyone goes by their first names and titles are not important (except of course if you are the Chief Rabbi of the UK, who showed up again this year, and gave two excellent talks).
Although the learning sessions varied greatly in content and quality, most were suburb and some were truly beautiful and buoyed my spirits.
My favorite one was a fabulous lecture and sing-along on the music and meanings of the poetry of some of the most famous Jewish poets and singers of the 20th and 21st century–Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen and Paul Simon. The session, presented by Maureen Kendler, a UK veteran at Limmud conferences who is a superb teacher, was entitled “Songs of protest, inspiration and prayer: if it be your will”, and it was all of that!
There was also some superior singing at the gala event of the closing session of Limmud on Wednesday night, December 28th. Among the best performers was the well-known American Jewish folksinger Jeff Klepper (whom I remember well from my summers at the NFTY national camp in Warwick, New York, in the early 1970’s, when he was a young song-leader and I was a young activist rabbinical student). When Klepper sang Lo Alecha hamelachah ligmor — “it is not incumbent upon you to finish the work” (of healing the world), from Pirkei Avot —The Ethics of the Fathers, (which he put to music more than 40 years ago), he helped me remember my youthful activism in the USA of 45 years ago as well as why I have retired (“transitioned”) in recent years, passing on the torch of Tikkun Olam to the next generation. And then when he sang the famous Arik Einstein song which I have not heard in Israel for many years – Ani v’atah neshaneh et ha-olam – “you and I will change the world”, tears of nostalgia overcame me for the good ol’ days of Israeli naïveté when we thought that it was incumbent upon us to help the young state of Israel become a “light unto the nations” (I still haven’t given up on this ideal but it gets harder all the time).
At this year’s Limmud conference, I also encountered other inspiring personal Jewish journeys that resonated deeply with me: Rabbi Susan Silverman (and family) of Jerusalem shared some poignant video footage of her (and her husband Yosef) adopting their first son from an orphanage in Ethiopia, as well as reading some moving passages from her new, meaningful memoir entitled Casting Lots: Creating a family in a Beautiful Broken World (which I have recently read and highly recommend); Yossi Abramowitz, also of Jerusalem and now a well-known solar energy entrepreneur, together with Ruth Messenger, of New York, a legendary leader of the American Jewish World Service, spoke personally and professionally about their own paths to involvement in global matters from their own deeply Jewish perspectives, recalling the influences of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King who were both major influences in my life as a young social justice Jew growing up in the USA in the 1960’s
Also inspiring to me was the opportunity to meet and hear Mutasim Ali, the first asylum seeker from Darfur (in South Sudan) to actually receive refugee status in Israel. Israel has done a terrible job in this area of accepting asylum seekers from Africa and treating them fairly and with dignity. My mother and father and their parents (who were immigrants to America) would have called this a “shanda” (a disgrace!). However, this young man has successfully navigated the convoluted and bureaucratic system in Israel, which mostly puts asylum seekers in detention camps and creates a bitter bureaucracy so that they have great difficulty becoming accepted into Israel society. He is now studying to be a lawyer and a human rights activist worker in Israel. In so doing, he will be helping to alleviate some of the trials and tribulations of others who are currently seeking asylum in our country.
My wife and I were also treated to an excellent session about Jewish Humor by Andy Silow-Carroll, editor in chief of JTA in the USA (and an old friend), which helped us laugh through one evening at Limmud. On the previous day, we also heard him present an excellent analysis of the Jewish vote in the recent American elections, which had been somewhat funny or laughable until the disastrous, dismal and depressing results came in on the night of November 8th, 2016. The opportunity to “laugh with tears” (a Yiddish expression that I learned from my mother) about “the Jewish condition” was warmly welcomed among all the very serious and sometimes quite depressing sessions about refugees, Israel and other contemporary issues.
On the last day, I attended an interfaith study tour — organized by the Board of Deputies of British Jewry, for whom good interfaith relations are part of their overall community relations strategy — during which we visited a Sikh temple, a major mosque and a Pentecostal church in poverty neighborhoods of central Birmingham where youth unemployment runs as high as 37% and immigrants from Pakistan, Bangladesh and the Caribbean are still trying to adjust to British Life after as much as 40-50 years in the country. Our hosts did their very best to put a good face upon a rather dismal situation by showing us the better side of their religions and describing some of the success stories of interfaith cooperation in their city.
One of the best stories was about how a local Orthodox rabbi had reached out to Muslims in distress after all the Islamophobia that afflicted Muslims in the West after the horrific attacks by Muslim extremists in the USA on September 11, 2001. This courageous rabbi actually walked to the mosque and joined local Muslims on the steps in amazing demonstration of interreligious solidarity. Would that many more rabbis from all denominations would make such positive gestures of reconciliation more often!
Speaking of Muslims, I was pleased to be on a panel about “How can Muslim and Jews coexist?” with two colleagues from Israel — Thabet Abu Rass, co-director of the Abraham Fund Initiatives and Mike Prashker of Merhavim — and a courageous Muslim woman from Toronto, Canada, Raheel Raza, who spoke passionately about her struggles for human rights and for creating a new reform movement for western Muslims “to bring them into the 21st century.” (Her words).
I could go on with many more stories about insights gained through study sessions and personal encounters at the Limmud conference in England last week. I also had some fascinating discussions in the two sessions that I facilitated: one on “is Arab-Jewish Coexistence in Israel still possible?” and another on “Interreligious Dialogue–Success Stories and Challenges”. In each session people shared special stories on excellent practice, as well as raising critical issues of concern. I was pleased to do this in my capacity as Senior Advisor of the Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel (ICCI), the Interreligious Department of Rabbis for Human Rights since January 1, 2015.
In sum, participating in “the mother Limmud” (there are now smaller Limmud conferences in more than 80 cities in more than 40 countries) was more like participating in a “festival” of learning and culture than merely an intellectual conference. After more than 37 years, Limmud remains one of the quintessential pluralistic and inclusive Jewish organizations in the world today, with young, dynamic and enthusiastic leaders who care deeply about this new international community of Jewish learning which unites so many Jews from the UK and from around the world in common cause and commitment. It continues to enlighten and inspire people from around the world. Kol Hakavod! Congratulations on another impressive conference.