At Limmud UK, Jewish Innovation And Insights Abound
Attending the 5-day long Limmud Festival in the U.K. was like being at a huge and diverse buffet banquet of anything and everything related to living a Jewish life. The challenge at any particularly large banquet is to choose a combination of foods that leave you feeling satisfied but not overstuffed. Even though I had tried to choose my dishes carefully, I felt somewhat bloated by the time the Festival ended. It is going to take me some time, probably months, to intellectually and emotionally digest and metabolize all that I had absorbed.
The number of people attending, about 2600, and the energy the gathering produced, was both glorious and exhausting. And that duality of feeling, from the pole of intense energy to the pole of being overwhelmed, continued for the entire five days of the Festival.
Because I knew that the last day of the Festival would be the Yartzeit of my father, I wanted to insure that there would be an egalitarian minyan for myself that day, so I started to attend the Conservative minyan each morning. Attending that minyan helped me to recognize faces as I went from session to session each day. It provided me with a more intimate community within the Festival bubble.
And the Festival was a bubble. Limmud, held December 24 until 28, 2017, took over the entire sprawling Hilton Metropole Hotel in Birmingham, and parts of several adjacent hotels. Since the weather was cold and overcast, staying inside for the bulk of five days was more tolerable than I usually find it. And I felt more insulated from Christmas than ever before, even compared to a stay in Jerusalem in 2010.
Limmud permits wide range of approaches to religious texts, including a sense of playfulness in some of the sessions. Usually I am so serious about text study as to be downright boring. Not so at Limmud Festival.
Whenever I study Torah or Talmud with commentaries, I am deeply moved when I learn something that gives me a new insight connecting a piece of me with the text. Yiscah Smith, teacher of spirituality and Hasidut at the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem, taught the story of creation with a wrinkle I had not focused on previously. All the creatures God made on the sixth day in the creation story: birds, fish, and land animals, were created in the plural. Adam was created last, and was created in the singular. Individually. Why? What do the sages say about this? The text values and celebrates the uniqueness of each person. The Baal Shem Tov interprets this verse in the light of a life journey, commenting that not only is each person unique, but the life path that each human follows is also unique and special to (our) individuality. Seeing the trials and tribulations of ordinary life as a unique and holy pathway is a new and refreshing perspective.
Since secular as well as biblical perspectives are important in Jewish life, and in the Limmud experience, I attended 4 sessions on the Kindertransport alone, never mind several other sessions on Holocaust rescuers or other Holocaust related topics. Since my mother died 8 years ago, I have become involved in Holocaust education, with emphasis on the Kindertransports, or children’s trains. My mother was one of approximately 10,000 Jewish children from Nazi occupied Europe saved by this program that allowed them to enter Great Britain. Did you know that in 1937, before Great Britain even considered admitting Jewish children to help them escape the Nazis, Britain admitted one shipload of 4,000 Basque children to help them escape the terror of the Spanish civil war? Isn’t that amazing? Most of the Basque children went home 2 years later when the Spanish war ended. The rescue of Basque children set a precedent for British rescue of children, important in the Jewish Kindertransport, developing about a year later.
One of the “Conversation for children of survivors” sessions I attended was a presentation by a woman who had been saved on the Kindertransport along with her adult daughter. Several young adults attending Limmud came to that session just to learn about the Kindertransport. The presenter explained how her non-Jewish mother was allowed to take her by train into England, all the way to the home of her adoptive parents. Then the non-Jewish mother needed to return to Germany, since she had no permission to remain in England. The Jewish father was already in prison at the time the girl left. The mother did survive the war and reunite with her daughter in 1946, In England.
I heard a talk by Barbara Winton, the daughter of Sir Nicholas Winton, who saved the lives of 669 Czech Jewish children by organizing a Kindertransport system from Prague. What I absolutely loved about Barbara’s presentation was her insistence that we continue to move forward in the rescue of refugees. The circumstances in refugee camps that had motivated her father to intervene in saving Czech Jewish children still (or again) exist now in camps in Greece and Turkey and even in France. Good people need to intervene again and again as long as persecuted and displaced people are forced to live in inhumane conditions.
All of the sessions on the Kindertransport motivated me to continue to learn about it and to teach about it, and to see it as a model for how one group of people can intervene in the politics of another country in a life saving way.
Much of my takeaway from the Limmud Festival came from conversations I had with other participants outside of scheduled sessions. Several local British participants mentioned to me that, in wake of Brexit, they were applying for citizenship in a country of ancestry that was remaining in the EU, such as Austria or the Czech Republic. I developed the sense that the British Jewish community was less than thrilled with Brexit. I also had conversations with people from other parts of Europe — the Netherlands, France, and Germany, who come regularly to Limmud UK for an annual infusion of Yiddishkeit. And yes, it is enough to last the entire year. I met a young man from Bulgaria who came to my session on story telling for children and grandchildren of Holocaust survivors. I didn’t know that Jews today lived in Bulgaria. And I met a few American women who had moved to London for love — be that love of a British partner, or love of the Limmud organization itself.
The slogan, or theme, of the Limmud Festival is “Moving you one step further on your Jewish Journey.” This is displayed on banners in several places throughout the Festival venue. I see myself as being on several different but related Jewish Journeys. Attending Limmud moved me further, taking one or more steps, on each of them.