We have begun to prepare our home for the celebration of Passover with a big gathering of our clan from all over the world. Although this is a time-consuming task, I took a day off to attend the annual Limmud festival here in Ottawa. I went to events and had conversations that left me contemplating the Jewish past, present and future.
Limmud is a manifestation of the richness and diversity of Jewish life in Ottawa, and in over 40 other locations around the world. It includes many fascinating opportunities to learn about various aspects of Jewish history, art, politics and society.
I started my day with a lecture by Fred Litwin on the importance of building connections with the peaceful mainstream of Canada’s Muslim community and of resisting those who seek to promote conflict between Jews and Muslims. Litwin demonstrated that false stories intended to promote suspicion and hatred are circulated and given credibility by a number of Canadian websites. It is important that we are aware that these sites, which pretend to be sharing news, are in fact dedicated to promoting conflict, and that they frequently circulate false stories.
My next stop was at a lecture by Sigal Barkai about the impact of the Holocaust on three generations of Israeli artists and the way the artistic response to the Holocaust has evolved over time. She showed us a number of moving works of art and we learned about some of the gifted and creative Israelis whose response to one of the great calamities of Jewish history enrich and enlighten us today.
Michael Shkolnick presented a particularly interesting lecture on the complex situation in Syria, after seven years of devastating civil war, and how it has affected Israeli security. Iran has established dozens of permanent bases throughout Syria and Israel is struggling to limit its presence close to the border with Israel. The U.S., under President Donald Trump, has quietly abandoned the Free Syrian Army in the south and Israel has stepped in to fill the gap and help it keep the Iranian and Syrian forces from overrunning the territory along the border. This represents a new level of involvement by Israel in the conflict (previously, its role was limited to providing medical help in Israeli hospitals).
I finished my day by attending a presentation by Shimon Fogel on the state of Israel-Diaspora relations. Fogel invited the audience to consider why we invest our time and resources in supporting the State of Israel. What do Jews in Canada seek from this relationship? Why do we continue to engage, in spite of sometimes feeling like the government of Israel does not care about our concerns?
Fogel pointed out that Israel has become central to our contemporary Jewish identity. For that reason, the various movements that make up the Jewish Diaspora seek to ensure that their particular expression of Judaism is accommodated and treated as valid by the Israeli state. Those of us who practice Judaism in ways that are different from the version promoted by the Chief Rabbinate of Israel have to contend with the impact that religious politics have on Israeli policy. On the other hand, he pointed out that alternative ways of expressing the Jewish religion, which were once confined to the Diaspora, are growing rapidly among Israelis. This development bodes well for their increasing acceptance in Israel, as part of the larger Jewish mosaic.
The conversations between sessions are also an enriching part of a day at Limmud. Everyone is welcome there, including people with whom I personally disagree profoundly. It is important to keep the channels of communication open with those whose views we would denounce, in order to understand and effectively answer those views, as well as to maintain the human connection with all members of the community.