First Person: Limmud Conference - The sacred and the profane

Limmud – the annual Jewish learning event, run by volunteers – is about contrasts.

JEWISH AGENCY CHAIRMAN Natan Sharansky faces off against comedian Avi Liberman at the Limmud Conference in Coventry, England. (photo credit: COURTESY AVI LIBERMAN)
JEWISH AGENCY CHAIRMAN Natan Sharansky faces off against comedian Avi Liberman at the Limmud Conference in Coventry, England.
Limmud – the annual Jewish learning event, run by volunteers – is about contrasts. From Talmudic text to the state of Holocaust denial; from the peace process to Ethiopian dance; from stand-up comedy to a kosher sushi workshop – there is something for every desire, every need.
And when it is over, it’s a letdown for “Limmudaholics” like me.
I really feel for the guy who lamented on the Limmudniks Anonymous Facebook group that he hadn’t been able to do anything except lie in bed and sleep for two days. “Does anyone else know how I feel,” he pined? I do.
After being surrounded by some 2,500 Limmud participants from 28 countries at the University of Warwick from December 28, 2014 – January 1, 2015, and after being offered more than 1,200 sessions, it seems awfully quiet here in my adopted home city of Berlin. So, I check Facebook.
“At Limmud, one can study Talmud by day, then dance with one’s teachers by night at the Rebbetzins’ Disco!” posted Rebecca Lillian, with photos of DJ Jacqueline Nichols spinning the discs on Tuesday night.
“I thought I’d got it under control,” admitted a Limmudaholic who has it so bad, he’s already planning to volunteer again.
Then there are the invitations to a post-event Shabbaton at a synagogue and a potluck meal for “Wandering Jews” to keep the spirit going.
It’s addictive indeed – I even know a little boy here in Berlin who proudly wore his Limmud badge for two entire weeks after our festival in Germany. As “second nature” to him as his kippa.
But why do I need Limmud? And why do so many others apparently need it, as well? The British model, entering its 35th year, has spawned dozens of Limmud events internationally – from Mexico to Moscow, from South Africa to the Galilee, from China to Sweden.
According to the organizers, some 28,500 people attended Limmud events in 2014.
It’s not that we don’t have Jewish schools and educational programs at home where we can learn throughout the year. This is about a real sense of “klal yisroel,” community in the global sense of the word. It’s not about erasing boundaries or merging identities between Jews of different stripes, about converting or convincing each other, but rather about listening to and demystifying the other, accepting for a few days that we might have something in common with those Jews who aren’t “like us” – that we all have stories to tell and that Jewish learning can take many forms.
It’s also a “safe” place to discuss all aspects of Jewish life and issues that touch us, whether political, social or religious. This is why one hears the gamut of opinions on the peace process, meets LGBT Jews and sees women in kippot. Deal with it, if you dare.
This year, Limmud featured stars like historian Deborah Lipstadt; Jewish Agency Chair Natan Sharansky; the creator of Israeli TV hit “Arab Labor” Udi Lion; and Hollywood comic Avi Liberman.
The Jewish Agency also sponsored Palestinian human rights activist Bassem Eid, whose session on “The Palestinians: Between the Fatah Hammer and the Hamas Anvil” was so packed the Limmud volunteer fire marshal had to order the overflow crowd to leave.
But Limmud was not only about stars. There were sessions on making bagels and sushi and “He-brew cocktails.” Not to mention a “talmudic” analysis of MAD magazine.
An impressive session I spontaneously attended was about Mavar, a new organization in London that helps young Jews who want to leave the haredi Orthodox world and need to learn to read, write and speak in English so they can attend college and get jobs.
A more “profane” – and very brief – highlight was the chess game between Liberman and Sharansky.
They set up a board at the reception for Limmud International. A crowd surrounded them, alternating between cheering and silence.
“Cross one off the bucket list,” Liberman posted on Facebook afterwards. “He moved, I moved, he moved, it was over.”
Other presenters included the Jewish-Muslim slam poet duo Hannah Halpern and Amina Iro, Israeli author Ari Shavit, and BBC religion correspondent Caroline Wyatt. The conference was co-chaired by Shana Boltin and Jonathan Robinson.
The Limmud chairman is Kevin Sefton.
Each time I attend or help create a Limmud event I learn something more about the balance and discipline I require to make the most of it.
This year, I managed a good mix of the sacred and the profane.
I religiously attended all four Talmud sessions with Gila Fine, editor in chief of Jerusalem-based Maggid Books; I boldly talked to many strangers, including one who went to school with a very mischievous little John Lennon; I’ve got invitations to visit Paris and Switzerland; I got just enough sleep; and came back to Berlin thirsty for more learning.
Rumor has it a favorite rabbi of mine is rekindling his Torah study group here later this month.
Hair of the dog that bit me.