Nov. 17, 2020
By DAN BROTMAN
One of the greatest Jewish innovations I came across during the decade I lived in South Africa is Limmud, which means “learning” in Hebrew. Limmud is an international Jewish educational festival, established in the UK in 1980. The Limmud concept is unique in that it brings together Jewish thought leaders and community members across social, denominational and political lines to learn from each other in a safe space on a wide range of topics. Since its inception, Limmud festivals have spread to 42 countries on six continents, with Toronto being home to the first-ever Limmud in North America.
Limmud Toronto is taking place this Sunday, Nov. 22, and for the first time, will be hosted virtually, enabling access to an even wider range of community members from Canada and beyond.
Some 60 presentations will explore topics ranging from opera in Israel, campus antisemitism, an introduction to “post-pandemic theology,” the Nuremberg trials, and Jewish roller derby.
The CJR spoke to Peter Sevitt, who brought the Limmud UK concept to Toronto 16 years ago, and this year’s chairperson, and to Mira Kates Rose, about how Limmud came to Canada, and what to expect from this year’s festival.
What motivated you to bring the Limmud UK concept to Canada back in 2004?
Peter: When I attended Limmud UK, it was incredible to see people of all ages and backgrounds come together to learn and discuss topics that are meaningful to them. The spirit and energy at Limmud UK were unforgettable, and I wanted to recreate that in Toronto. Limmud Canada’s inaugural day-long festival took place in November 2004 at York University’s Founder’s College in Toronto. It was the first Limmud in North America, and was promoted as a festival of Jewish learning, without a denominational or political agenda, that believes in the inherent value of Jewish education.
That first festival attracted close to 400 participants and over 60 presenters, including some of Canada’s top Jewish educators, community organizers, writers and rabbis. They spoke on topics including Jewish text, Israel, history, cooking, philosophy, contemporary issues, and the arts. Presentations included spiritual music, an improv workshop, Rambam, Kabbalah, healthy Jewish cooking, spiritual parenting, sexuality in biblical narrative, Trudeau and Canadian Jews, identifying media bias against Israel, and the history of Yiddish. The keynote speaker, Minister of Justice Irwin Cotler, spoke on Jewish values and public policy. A Young Limmud offered programming to children ages five to 12.
Limmud Canada is a registered Canadian charity, and Limmud International requests that each organization in the global Limmud family be represented by individual cities. There had previously been a Limmud in Montreal, and in addition to Toronto, there are currently annual Limmud festivals in Winnipeg, Vancouver, Ottawa and Kingston.”
What are some common misconceptions about Limmud?
Mira: Some people assume that Limmud is for those who have enormous background knowledge on Jewish history or law or culture, but in fact the very point of Limmud is to learn something new. Limmud is, at its heart, a celebration of the Jewish idea that everyone has something to teach, and everyone has something to learn. Regardless of your background education or Jewish affiliation, political leanings, religious or cultural practices, and regardless of whether or not you are presenting, you should feel that Limmud’s discussions are for you, and that they reflect you, and that you are part of the conversation. At Limmud, we don’t refer to “lectures” or “teachers,” and participants who happen to be Jewish professionals are asked to leave their titles at the door. Limmud’s success is the diversity of voices that take part.
For the first time, this year’s Limmud Toronto is going to be held virtually. What is this going to look like?
Mira: Every year, we try to increase the breadth, diversity and representativeness of Limmud. This year, we are setting a record for presenters making their first Limmud Toronto festival, and we are lucky to include some experienced presenters from other Limmuds from four different continents. We have a selection of speakers talking about Sephardi histories, identities, and perspectives; different types of responses to the COVID pandemic, including communal, social, psychological, and halachic; and our program will include a lot of multimedia tours of culturally fascinating places, such as the National Library of Israel and the history of Jewish Shanghai. We are honoured to be bringing together a really vibrant and unique roster of teachers, politicians, advocates, and artists. Our popular Marketplace is going virtual too: You will be able to visit presenters’ “booths” through the Sched platform. One important difference is that guests attending Limmud will need to choose sessions from the program and sign up for them in advance.
What excites you the most about Limmud Toronto 2020?
Mira: There is an instant spark of excitement and community amongst people who show up, and especially on a Sunday in November. They come to learn from each other, engage in conversation, wrestle with big ideas and seek inspiration. We have a stellar and far-reaching roster of program presenters, and I am already torn with indecision about having to choose sessions. But the full picture of Limmud only comes to light once all the presenters and all the participants are together. This year I will really miss the buzz of participants excitedly trading “who did you learn from?” recommendations in the hallways between sessions, but I hope that in our virtual format we can deliver some of that energy and inspiration to everyone at home.
To learn more, view the schedule and register, visit www.limmud.ca.
Dan Brotman is the Executive Director of the Windsor Jewish Federation & Community Centre. He will be co-presenting at this year’s Limmud Toronto on the future of smaller Jewish communities in Ontario.