Limmud Returns for Another Year Online
The full slate of programs features a mental health track, plus sessions on Yiddish and in Hebrew.
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Despite Another Year Online, Limmud Learns On
Limmud Seattle is entering its fifth year, and once again, the Jewish learning festival will be held online due to the neverending pandemic. In spite of another year behind screens, the annual program, held over Martin Luther King Jr Day weekend, will feature nearly 100 presenters on a range of subjects including a focus on mental health.
Limmud Seattle president Lior Caspi, immediate past president Robert Hovden, and the Limmud board came up with the idea to highlight mental health given due to the lasting impact of Covid. “It’s a nice way to give an idea for people to rally around,” Hovden says. “Especially in these times. Mental health is a big topic...and we need all the help we can get.”
Sessions range from addressing mental health in the Jewish community to managing grief, talking about suicide, parenting children with ADHD, looking to Jewish texts for insights into addiction and recovery, and considering teshuvah (repentance) as a tool for fighting depression. Representatives from local organizations, including JFS, Seattle Children’s, Harborview, synagogues, and independent coaching and consulting practices, are joined by leaders from around the country and the world.
“Mental health [was] a pandemic way before Covid,” says Caspi. Still, he and Hovden are happy that Limmud remains committed to the community-input model. The festival chairs overwhelmingly say yes to proposals. “I think we are carrying that theme of adding a track but not creating it as the center or only track. One of the values of Limmud is that we don’t highlight one person,” Caspi says. “It’s really about the community and by the community. There is no keynote speaker. There [are] always alternatives. I love that about the way we are carrying out.”
“It’s really about the community and by the community.”
An international festival, Limmud started in 1980 and draws in thousands of participants in more than 40 countries. Limmud Seattle launched in 2018, after several Seattleites attended the Vancouver, BC, festival. “Deb [Arnold, a Limmud Seattle founder] and I went up to Vancouver and said, ‘Why couldn’t we do that here?’” Hovden says. For Hovden, helping to launch it was a tribute to his mother, who had recently passed away. “She had terminal cancer, and I was trying to do something that was Torah, avodah, gemuliut chassidim.” The first event drew more than 500 attendees. The last in-person event was just before the pandemic started, when more than 600 people gathered in January 2020. “We’re incredibly grateful we didn’t become a super-spreader event,” Hovden says.
Caspi was introduced to Limmud by the local branch of the Israel American Council (IAC), which runs a program called IAC Gvanim to help Israelis become more involved in Jewish American leadership. With his help, Limmud has been able to add half a dozen sessions in Hebrew, including a talk on relocation from Israel to the Seattle area with former Israeli Seattleite and podcaster Maya Chen, and “The Metaphysical Tale of Covid 19” with Hebrew University of Jerusalem professor Shimon Azulay.
Another theme that emerged this year is Yiddish. “There’s such a variety,” Hovden says of the sessions. He’s particularly excited about a class about rare Yiddish player piano rolls from the height of Yiddish theater. Indicative of the renewed interest in Yiddish that’s emerged over the past few years, some half dozen sessions address basic language skills, opera, social justice songs, and gender through the lens of Yiddish history and thought.
While the sessions are wide-ranging, from virtual museum tours to “R-Rated Torah—the Stuff We Never Talk About in Shul,” one unofficial theme stands out: social justice. This was last year’s theme, but the number of sessions related to race and equity — like “Where do Mizrahim and Sephardim Fit into the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Work in the Jewish Community” and “Ethnic Studies, Critical Race Theory, and the Jews” — stand out as a primary area of grappling as well as activism.
The fact that many local Jews are deeply involved in social justice causes runs up against the fact that Limmud is held annually over MLK weekend, and this perceived conflict drew critique from community members who feel the weekend should be a time for Jews to de-center themselves and join efforts to support racial justice.
“I regret that Limmud has been scheduled for MLK weekend,” wrote one critic on Limmud’s Facebook page. “This is a missed opportunity for Jewish compadres to build our skills and allyships with our non-Jewish partners. It sends a really unfortunate message.”
Caspi and Hovden, along with the board, addressed these critiques by keeping programming limited to Saturday night and Sunday and by encouraging local Jews to get involved with MLK events on Monday. Caspi responded to the criticism on Facebook that the board had discussed the issue for an hour and consulted with black clergy and Jewish leaders before sticking with the same weekend.
“The major testament to that is last Limmud,” adds Caspi. “With the social justice track, we had strong participation with black ministers. [Rabbi] Jay Rosenbaum did a black study group. I feel we took the criticism too hard. We can never please everybody.”
The festival will be bookended with musical performances by local artist Chava Mirel, something Caspi and Hovden agree holds the festival together nicely. While the online format has its benefits — safety not the least of them — the energy of the in-person festival is a casualty of the times. “I do look forward to having people in real life again,” says Hovden.
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