My week at Limmud

January 4, 2011

Well, it’s been a few days since Limmud ended and I’ve just managed to get my digestive system back to normal.  Don’t get me wrong – the catering team did a fantastic job making sure we were all well fed, it’s just that, well, there’s a lot of bread isn’t there?  Athletes preparing for a major championship could have done a lot worse that to come to Limmud for some carbon loading.

Then again, carbon is what we all needed in order to fuel our way through the relentless programme of sessions.  If you’ve never been to Limmud you really must experience it.  Something like 2,500 Jews eagerly buzz around the university campus, moving between rooms, lecture theatres and studios, like bees in the height of summer desperately gathering knowledge nectar and cross-pollinating ideas as they wend their excitable way through the week.

Even an old cynic like me finds it difficult to poke fun, which is why that stuff about the food is probably the worst I’ll say about it (apart from my take on the final gala performance which I’ll come to presently).  Limmud is nothing but a great thing for and by Anglo Jewry, possibly our greatest export to the Jewish world, and certainly something to be proud of while our religious leaders are busy embarrassing us by spending fortunes trying to stop Jewish children go to Jewish schools, and our lay leaders are smashing each other over the head about the rights and wrongs of criticising Israel in public.

It’s interesting that it’s the young leaders of our community who put on Limmud.  Clive Lawton is the oldest person associated with the organisation (by about 50 years, I’d say) and, let’s face it,  he’s in denial; he still thinks it’s 1968.   What is truly remarkable about Limmud is that it’s only the bloke with the big sideburns who is paid.  Everyone else is a volunteer.  Everyone.  Given how complex and enormous the event is, this simply amazes me.  And it’s not just conference – there’s the summer hippy festival as well as several day Limmuds across the country throughout the year.  All of them completely volunteer driven. This culture of generously giving time and effort is, for me, what being Jewish is really about and we should be proud that we have brought up a generation of young people who appear to lack the selfishness that is all too prevalent in the wider society.

And let’s not forget Limmud International.  No, I’m not talking about all the countries now adopting the Limmud model and putting on their own magnificent events.  I’m talking about the number of foreigners coming over to the UK for our showpiece event.  Not only did we again enjoy the wisdom of speakers from around the world, I think there was an unprecedented number of overseas delegates this year.  Certainly it seemed impossible to attend a session without hearing the voice of at least one of our cousins from across the pond, and I’m not talking about the IRA, the Invasion of Rabbis from America, I’m talking about normal people.

With almost 1000 sessions there’s bound to be some poor ones – that’s only to be expected, especially as there is virtually no quality control at the organisational level.  People vote with their feet.  In general I was impressed; I only walked out of one session the whole week. The real problem is that of choice.  Which of the two or three in any time-slot that I’m really interested in (having whittled my selection down from as many as 30 altogether) do I go to?  This is where Limmud cleverly builds up the Jewish angst.  If I pick one and it’s no good, for how long will I blame myself for being stupid and not attending the other?

I mentioned that Limmud is driven by the young and it’s worth emphasising.  The average Limmud volunteer is in his or her early thirties and many are involved with Limmud pretty much full-on while managing to bring up young families and hold-down high powered jobs.  If these people are the future of our community then we have grounds for optimism.   This confidence is not simply based upon the cohort of bright and engaged people I see becoming senior community figures, it is also because what they will take with them into those positions is the Limmud ethos of tolerance and pluralism.  Something Anglo-Jewry is in desperate need of.  I can’t imagine the JFS debacle happening if the leaders of the United Synagogue were the same people who ran Limmud.

Which brings me to the closing gala.  Now I know the importance of these events, not least the appeal for desperately needed funds, but, well, how smaltzy does something need to be to get me to open my wallet?  I should pay them to stop it? The Israeli Scouts were terrifically accomplished, for sure, yet I thought I’d been transported back to a kibbutz in early 1960’s Israel.   The Instant Choir, which had learned its two songs in four sessions through the week, were a perfect example of what someone can achieve at Limmud, even if their pieces were slightly nauseating.  As for the jaunty piano pop song that seemed to be, at least in part, about the Holocaust, the less said the better.

Thankfully by that time I was so bunged up I was physically incapable of vomiting.

See you next year?

The shameful divisions within our community.

March 23, 2010

Today I’d like to talk about what is without doubt the most bitter conflict to have arisen within our community in living memory. I refer of course to the case of Tottenham v Arsenal.  This fundamental division has existed for almost as long as there have been Jews living in London although for much of that time the two managed to co-exist in an uneasy but stable truce.

This all changed recently, and I can reveal that my very own synagogue was in the eye of the storm.

Let me give you the background.  About two years ago a young lad known as child P (because his name is Pinchas, Pinchas Tucker to be precise), attempted to come into shul wearing a kippah emblazoned with the Tottenham badge.  The wardens, being Arsenal supporters to a man, objected and refused the boy admission.  I felt strongly about the case as I am someone who married out; I support Arsenal while my wife is from a Tottenham family. In subsequent discussions, therefore,  I have supported the boy and his family as an “interested party”.

Over several months the child appealed first to the Services Management Team, then to the synagogue governors.  Each time it was decided that the wardens, being the guardians of the 3,500 year old unchanged tradition of “how we do things when it comes to football”, should not be overturned.

All the while congregants became more and more outspoken. Graffiti exclaiming “Child P (Pinchas) is innocent” started appearing in the local streets; lifelong friends fell out as their allegiances were painfully tested; and letters debating the controversy were even published in the synagogue magazine.  Before long there was an Arsenal section on one side of the synagogue and a Spurs section on the other.  Seas of blue and red-badged kippot marked this unholy division with various members of the CST positioning themselves carefully in order to maintain the segregation.

The anger and frustration eventually had to blow and it did that one Shabbat morning.  An elderly gentleman wearing his Arsenal kippah, returning to his seat having being called to the Torah, was smote down by the outstretched leg of a rival supporter.

This led to a complete breakdown in relations.  Both sides refused to attend any further CCC (Campaign against Chelsea Cupples) meetings and the shul board was damned as a toothless and irrelevant body.

Eventually the issue was taken to the highest possible authority  – the Rabbi.  As if a Chabadnik from Minnesota is going to have the slightest understanding of such a problem.  His ruling was that anyone should be allowed a shul honour based on regularity of attendance. This has delighted the Gunners because Spurs have a lunchtime kick-off tomorrow.