COVENTRY – Fighting their way through the steady British drizzle, nearly 2,500 participants at Limmud Conference 2012 have spent the last few days crisscrossing this large university campus to catch any of over 1,000 sessions and 433 presenters, spanning Torah and Talmud to pickle- and sushimaking, current affairs and culture. There were even philosophy sessions for four-, five- and six-year-olds.

The Conference, now in its 32nd year, brought together Jews from the four corners of the UK, as well as Bulgaria, China, France, Israel, Mexico, Singapore and the US, to say nothing of the South African and Australian Limmudniks. All told 40 Limmud communities around the globe were represented.

The jam-packed schedule saw sessions running from the crack of dawn through the early hours of the morning.

The program was devised and executed by Limmud’s team of volunteers – or “volunticipants” as they call themselves.

Volunticipation, as the word suggests, encourages everyone – 17 or 70 – to be both a participant and a volunteer to help things run smoothly.

Having joined the organizing steering committee for the first time this year, this is what strikes me as one of the most powerful things about Limmud.

The growing crowds of people willing to volunteer their time to create what goes on at the conference are what continues to sustain Limmud and allows for constant innovation.

This year was no different and saw a variety of new formats. International reggae superstar Matisyahu wowed an audience of almost 1,000 with his acoustic set featuring a selection of his own hits and well-known covers. His mash-up of “One Day” and Bob Marley’s “No Woman No Cry” brought the house down. And, like everyone else, he wore a name-tag on a blue lanyard with his first name in bold capitals.

The Interdisciplinary Center for the Broader Application of Genizah Research at the University of Haifa offered the first Cairo Genizah exhibit to feature newly plumbed discoveries in medicine and midrash as reflected in the everyday lives of 11th, 12th and 13th century Jews in the Middle East and North Africa. One medical nugget we gleaned was that 11th century prescriptions reveal that sugar was one of the top 10 contemporary medications in Fustat, or Old Cairo. The exhibition also showed that fragments of midrash in Arabic attest to better days in the encounter between Judaism and Islam.

Relationships between faiths and cultures formed a large part of the program, with sessions featuring non-Jewish presenters drawing large crowds.

What’s interesting about Limmud Conference 2012 is that it is popular among non-Jewish participants too, eager to see the Jewish community’s flagship educational and cultural jamboree.

A partnership with London’s Jewish Museum saw an entire exhibition transported 100 miles up the motorway to Limmud Conference. The display featured acclaimed photographer Judah Passow’s portraits of contemporary Jewish life in the UK, exploring what it means to be British and Jewish in the 21st century.

What has always impressed me is the efforts Limmud make to be truly inclusive.

Limmud L’Am, a specially-created program for adults with learning disabilities came back for a second year. Some even presented.

In a world where there is a growing divide between young and old, Limmud Conference brings together the generations, with special programs for children and teenagers, as well as a babysitting service. In addition, the conference is strictly kosher and offers an eruv for Shabbat observance.

Although Limmud Conference seems to run like clockwork offering a professional conference and great value for money, it also celebrates the amateur.

One of Limmud’s core values is that every participant is a student and every participant has the opportunity to be a teacher. Alongside experienced presenters are many first-timers.

This does mean that while there were no Brussels sprouts on the menu, we did occasionally get the odd turkey. But that’s the whole point of Limmud: as well as offering a high quality product overall, Limmud seeks to transform the Jewish community to one of endless questioning and tolerance for those with views different to our own. And that’s a gift for life, not just for Christmas.

Richard Verber will co-chair Limmud Conference 2013 with Oliver Marcus.

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