When Britain’s next chief rabbi was announced last month in the British Jewish press, a surprising litmus testwas proposed to gauge his willingness to reach out to the non-Orthodox: Would he attend Limmud?
I read the Dec. 21 London Jewish Chronicle editorial again, just to make sure. There it was: Along with best wishes to Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, who will take over from Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks in August, came the hope that he would set about repairing the “fractured relations” between the U.K. Orthodox movement he will head (called United Synagogue) and his country’s Progressive Jews. “Allowing United Synagogue rabbis to attend Limmud would be a start — attending himself, even better,” the paper wrote.
Now, readers of this column know I love Limmud. I have even called myself a Limmud junkie (www.bit.ly/z9R3Zu). But how could a once-a-year, grassroots-led, volunteer-driven Jewish learning extravaganza over five days be considered a litmus test for anything, much less the outreach proclivities of Britain’s next chief rabbi?
Yet the JC editorial wasn’t the only place the suggestion appeared. London’s Reform Rabbi Jonathan Romain had it in his column about Mirvis that same week. So did the Jewish News, the JC’s main rival. How has Limmud, in its 32 years, become such a threat and, at the same time, such a beacon to British Jewry?
First, you have to understand how unusual the concept of non-hierarchical, grassroots-led anything is in Britain, explained the Limmud organizers I sat down with last month at the sprawling campus of the University of Warwick, a two-hour drive from North London, where most of the country’s 263,000 Jews seem to be concentrated.
Now, I’d been to three Limmuds before that: Philadelphia, Los Angeles and last-year’s inaugural Bay Area gathering in Pacific Grove. They were all terrific, I’ve drunk the Kool-Aid, I get it — anyone can teach, everyone should learn. A teenager can present a session on his trip to Israel next door to a world-famous rabbi’s Talmud lecture. They both get equal billing.
But that’s all very strange and titillating to the Brits, in a country where even the Jews have their lords and baronesses. “It goes against the grain” of what British Jewry is like, program chair Daniel Anderson told me over lunch one day. “We’re so staid, in so many ways, and once a year we have this thing called Limmud where we have this very strange, vibrant Judaism. I still can’t get my head around it. It’s like going away for a naughty weekend, then we pack up and go back to our shuls.”
That can be good, or it can be dangerous. To the country’s Jewish establishment, Limmud smacks of liberal, or, rather, Liberal Judaism, which along with Reform forms the two branches of Progressive Judaism in Britain. And unlike the United States, where just 10 percent of Jews declare themselves Orthodox, in Britain the Jewish default position — the United Synagogue — is Orthodox, and liberals are in a distinct minority.
So what’s happened in Britain is that Limmud is considered a bastion of liberal Judaism by the United Synagogue leadership — despite the numerous black yarmulkes proudly worn by participants, including Anderson, and the number of Orthodox rabbis who sneak in every year disregarding their movement’s disapproval.
Here’s another odd thing about Limmud U.K.: Jews come to it to escape Christmas. I heard that over and over from people. One woman sniffed, “Well, it’s not our holiday, is it?” and said Christmas made her “uncomfortable.”
In the United States, few Jewish organizations would hold a conference over Christmas. Our high intermarriage rate means that many American Jews have someone in their extended family that celebrates the holiday. That is not true in Britain, where very few Jews are intermarried. For them, Christmas is a time to get away — and to do so Jewishly makes it even better.
So … Limmud is a liberal free-for-all, a threat to Judaism, yet it’s where 2,500 British Jews go to escape Christmas and deepen their Jewish identity. And it’s growing. From that first gathering in London in 1980, it has spread to 60 cities, including the second Bay Area Limmud Feb. 17-18 (www.limmudbayarea.org). Mirvis didn’t attend in England, but you owe it to yourself to try.
Sue Fishkoff is the editor of j., and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.