The Jewish Report Editorial

Limmud - an event for all seasons

  • GeoffEditorial
A presenter at Limmud last weekend, Gidi Grinstein - president of Israel’s respected leadership think-tank, the Reut Institute - called Jews the “ever-dying people”. Jews possessed, he said, a sophisticated “architecture” of adaptability which ensured that if one part dies - as has happened many times in history through expulsion, persecution or otherwise - other parts adapt and thrive.
by GEOFF SIFRIN | Sep 03, 2014

Anyone attending the Limmud three-day sleep-over conference last weekend, would attest to how vigorously South African Jewry and world Jewry was thriving - 70 years after a-third of world Jewry died in the Holocaust.

Limmud – held at the Indaba Hotel near Johannesburg - has grown in stature since the first one in 2007 and secured a firm space in SA Jewry, attracting a broad spectrum from mainstream to fringe.

Kudos go to the organisers for ensuring an atmosphere in which all could feel comfortable, regardless of degree of religious observance, Orthodox or otherwise. Shabbat, for example, was fully observed in public spaces with all necessary decorum - although obviously in private people could do as they wished - and all food provided was kosher and certified by the Johannesburg Beth Din.

This approach paid off in the range of participants, which included a significant number of kippah-wearing men and their families.

This is in contrast to the perception of the first Limmud as a lightweight “lefty” happening. Limmud has “arrived” and become sufficiently mainstream for almost anybody to attend, while continuing to attract people from outside the mainstream looking for a Jewish home to feel comfortable in.

That first Limmud evoked blatant hostility from the mainstream Orthodox establishment, which saw it as a Reform function white-anting the pillars of serious Judaism. Sinai Indaba was subsequently started, representing the more conservative side of the Jewish world. Orthodox rabbis were urged not to attend Limmud.

It has become clear, though, that with its huge diversity of topics which anyone can cherry-pick, Limmud does not pose a threat to more conservative Judaism. Indeed, Sinai Indaba and Limmud have become fertile counterpoints to each other, with many people attending both.

The two models are different. Sinai Indaba has taken the route of mainly hosting Jewish high-flyers - such as former Chief Rabbi of the UK Lord Jonathan Sacks - with wide popular appeal, who essentially deliver a high-powered talk to a huge audience.

This model has successfully made Sinai Indaba a much-anticipated annual occasion.

Limmud, on the other hand, is more interactive and grassroots, organised and run by volunteers. It includes some high-flyers among its presenters - for example Israeli Supreme Court judge Elyakim Rubinstein this year - but also provides sessions by ordinary people with special interests and knowledge in a wide range of Jewish-related fields.

As some speakers said, we live in an era of confusion and flux. Old accepted  norms are being challenged - along the lines of Grinstein’s model - including the well-worn Jewish establishment.

New green shoots arise - like the fast-growing Limmud movement worldwide - helping Jews find new ways of expressing their Jewishness. One strength of Limmud is its continuing ability also to appeal to many people who are alienated or not part of the mainstream.

Still evident at Limmud is the absence of Orthodox rabbis, although their congregants are well represented. Will there come a time when Orthodox rabbis feel free to embrace Limmud? The new chief rabbi of the UK - Cape Town-born Ephraim Mirvis - made a point of showing his face at Limmud in the UK . Jonathan Sacks did not attend Limmud, but nor did he discourage others from doing so - indeed, his daughter was one of the stars at an early one in Johannesburg.

For a relatively small community of some 70 000 souls, SA Jewry is remarkable in being able to host three major, successful annual Jewish occasions - the Jewish Achiever Awards, Sinai Indaba and Limmud. Hopefully, this vibrant spirit will continue growing, to match the fascinating country we live in.


1 Comment

  1. 1 Bev Goldman 04 Sep
    This Limmud was the first time my husband and I stayed for the entire duration, and we have the highest praise for the organisers.  It was a stimulating, energising and very inspiring weekend; and we were extremely impressed by, as Geoff writes, the "significant number of kippah-wearing men and their families" who enjoyed the traditional Shabbat dinner, the choice of Shabbat services, the moving and beautiful Havdalah service and the non-stop food, food and food available almost 24 hours a day. 
    Speakers covered a range of topics, enabling everyone there to find his or her own niche of interest.  The excellent ones spoke more than once and there were scrabbles for seats in their rooms; the good ones spoke only once but also attracted good audiences.  Questions from the floor were discerning and relevant; and answers generally satisfactory.  One of my highlights was the Youth Session I attended - I was astounded and delighted with the standard of the young speakers, their passion and their commitment to Judaism, to their community and to their principles.  There's excellent hope for this community if that's the quality of our future leaders.  Kol Hakavod to all!


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