Go and learn

Now in its 31st year, Limmud has become an international, inter-denominational festival of Jewish ideas.

Limmud conference 521 (photo credit: Courtesy )
Limmud conference 521
(photo credit: Courtesy )
Hundreds of excited participants are lining up, in perfect order, in front of tables arranged according to the first letter of their last name. Smiling volunteers, with seemingly unlimited patience, answer the registrants’ seemingly endless questions while offering them chocolates.
Each registrant puts down 20 pounds (about 120 shekels) as a guarantee for the room key and receives a blue satchel with the 328-page program booklet. The British weather is kind, and the sun is almost warm as they make their way to the simple, functional dormitory rooms where all the participants in Limmud, no matter how renowned or how august, are housed.
For five days in late December, some 2,500 participants from the UK, together with participants from another 20 countries, take over the University of Warwick campus, some 126 kilometers (78 miles) northwest of London. For the week, they will turn the dull, concrete campus into a boisterous Jewish-fest, a kind of post-modern Beit Midrash, where just about anything goes – from classic havruta study (in pairs, in the traditional yeshiva style) to “An Introduction to Psychosynthesis” to Hanukka Origami.
This is the 31st Limmud Conference in the UK, and the model has been replicated and adapted throughout the Jewish world. For these five days, the usually staid British Jews, together with activists and participants from some 20 additional countries, will eat infamously bad food (“What do you expect,” says an American participant – “it’s a combination of British and kosher”), drink really bad freeze-dried instant coffee, and take advantage of the more than 900 sessions in a proud, purposeful mutual celebration of Judaism in all its facets, complexities and differences.
Energetic young volunteers, sporting big pins with “Ask Me!” printed in large letters, solicitously offer their help. Wheeling her large suitcase, a winter hat tipped on her wig, a woman who appears to be in her midfifties asks where her dorm room is, and a much younger woman, dressed in skinny jeans and a midriff-revealing shirt, points her in the right direction.
The older woman won’t stop for an interview. “I have to hurry to my room to put my suitcase down,” she explains. “There’s a session on ‘Pirkei Avot’ [Ethics of the Fathers] beginning in a few minutes that I just must attend.”
Name tags, worn by all at all times for security and to permit entrance into meals and sessions, list the first name in large letters and the family name in much smaller letters.No honorifics, titles or affiliations – and certainly no “lords” or “ladies,” although some of the participants may be – are listed. All sessions are offered by “presenters,” a term that removes the usual academic hierarchies and democratizes the learning.
Most presenters not only don’t get paid for their efforts – they pay to attend. Five days at Limmud Conference 2011 (some come for only part of the time) costs £345 per person. Several dozen presenters (including this author) are guests of the conference and their expenses, including travel, are paid. According to organizers, some 80 percent of the budget comes from participant fees.
There are a few invited regulars, including Deborah Lipstadt, the American historian from Emory University, who successfully defended herself against a libel action brought by British historian David Irving in 2000 after she called him a Holocaust denier. Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo, founder and dean of the Beit Midrash Avraham Avinu in Jerusalem and Herzliya, is also a regular.
“Wherever you are going, Limmud will take you one step further along your Jewish journey,” is the local mantra, hanging from signs and posters throughout the campus. By design, that journey has no set destination. Jonathan Boyd, executive director of the UK-based Institute for Policy Research, tells The Jerusalem Report that “we understand Judaism to be dynamic, and we also understand that each Jew makes that journey in his or her own way. Limmud is a chance to become more Jewish, in whatever way you understand that phrase.”
The learning is intensive, from “Early Bird” studies beginning at 8 a.m. to latenight havruta and Israeli dance sessions that begin at midnight and continue into the early morning. There was also a session to try to break the dreidel-spinning world record (they failed), a shuk (market) for Judaica, jewelry and books, and latenight singalongs. Numerous presentations are part of an inclusive pilot project that is designed to integrate learning disabled presenters and adult participants.
And there’s almost no quality control – just about anyone can present just about anything, as long as it meets the Limmud Mission Statement, included in the program book, that lists “core values,” such as learning, expanding Jewish horizons, diversity, community and mutual responsibility, empowerment and commitment to respect.
The result is a riotous, intense five days, as participants rush from session to session, with campus science labs and auditoriums doubling as Torah study halls. Yet there’s a clear method to the chaos. Limmud is a response to the demand for a democratization of Jewish knowledge and teaching. Multigenerational and cross-communal, Limmud deliberately flies in the face of the accepted hierarchies in the world of Jewish adult education and challenges the power structures of the organized Jewish community. Reform and Orthodox rabbis share havruta; wellversed scholars listen to presentations by novices; and high-ranking, veteran community professionals sit on panels with young activists.
“Choice is a fundamental principle here,” Clive Lawton, one of the original founders has repeatedly told journalists. “Even if God himself offered to show up and teach a session at 2 p.m., we would want to put on someone else at the same time, just in case someone was not interested.”
The learning and the arguments, says the Mission Statement, are “for heaven’s sake… We recognize and appreciate that ‘arguments for the sake of heaven’ can make a positive contribution to furthering our education and understanding.”
“Judaism has courage,” Lopes Cardozo tells The Report after a provocative lecture entitled, “God is not Righteous and the Torah is not Moral.” He continues, “Judaism enjoys a good fight, because we know that a good fight is enriching. Judaism must never be small-minded. To be Jewish is to force yourself to remain flexible and to always question, to always be spiritually alert. At Limmud, I hear new things and I fall in love with my fellow Jews, even if I disagree with them, even if I think that some of what they say is silly.”
Limmud UK and Limmud International, the organization formed as a non-profit in 2006 to provide financial and logistical aid to new Limmud groups throughout the Jewish world, employ less than half a dozen professional workers. Voluntarism, the Mission Statement states, is a key feature of almost everything that happens at Limmud. The more than 200 dauntless volunteers not only work throughout the year to prepare the entire event, from international transportation for invitees to preparation of name tags.
They also run the event itself, producing color-coded flyers early every morning with updates and notifications, making sure that the food, such as it is, is ready on time, providing child care for families and ensuring that the required audio-visual equipment is ready for every presentation.
The idea of Limmud was exported from the UK about eight years ago, first to Israel and then to Australia, several locations in the US , and Holland. It has grown globally and exponentially since then. In 2010, according to Limmud’s promotional material, more than 35,000 people participated in a one-day or multiple-day Limmud event in more than 55 different Jewish communities, run by some 3,000 volunteers.
Limmud was started by a group of British Jews who had attended a conference run by the Conference of American Jewish Educators (CAJE) and decided to import the model of a summer camp-like conference.
Indeed, Limmud does have many of the qualities so familiar to graduates of Zionist youth camps. The experience of Limmud is what social psychologists refer to as a “hilltop experience:” an intense micro-society that runs according to its own set of norms and values, geographically and socially isolated from everyday life, with its own history, lore and culture.
Part of this experience can also be attributed to the timing of the conference. In the UK, Limmud is held over Christmas week. In contrast to the defensive position that many Jews feel as the mass appeal of Christmas encroaches on their identity, Limmud offers a time to be Jewish in an assertive, almost all-encompassing, yet natural and comfortable way.
Yet as self-celebratory as it is, Limmud has both its limits and its conflicts.
The British Jewish community is often thought of as conservative in its approach to Israel and, at the same time, as detailed in The Report (“UK Embraces the Boycott,” August 16, 2010), the UK has long been the international center of the boycott, divestment, sanctions (BDS ) movement, lawfare and universal jurisdiction and other virulently anti-Israel movements.
But there are no signs of either extreme right-wing or left-wing positions at Limmud, which straddles a broad – but clearly delineated – middle spectrum.
Conflicts within the British Jewish community also play out. According to data provided by the Institute for Policy Research, some 60 percent of affiliated Jews in Britain identify themselves as Orthodox. Limmud defines itself as “mitzva-friendly,” including strict observance of kashrut (the Warwick University kitchens are carefully and ritually adjusted for the conference) and even marking off a ritual “Shabbat area” for the observant participants who attend the pre-Limmud Shabbat. Yet to judge from their dress, almost no ultra-Orthodox Jews attend the conference.
And while Lord Jonathan Sacks, the Chief Rabbi of Britain’s United Synagogues and the community’s most prominent Jewish intellectual, did participate in Limmud over its first decade, for the last 20 years or so he has bowed to the hardline rabbinical court, who have ruled that attending Limmud is tantamount to legitimizing the rabbis of the Reform movement speaking at the conference.
Lopes Cardozo has had a similar experience. “Several Orthodox rabbis have indeed asked me to refrain from participating in Limmud, so that I will not be giving credit to other denominations,” he remarks. “But I think that Limmud is a marketplace. I do not refrain from going to the market just because it is selling things that I do not wish to purchase, or even things that repel me.”
To Israelis, Limmud presents a series of complex positions. Limmud regularly brings over a dozen or more Israelis, who represent various aspects of Israeli society, as presenters. Organizations such as the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI ) and Yad Vashem also sponsor participation of prominent Israelis; this year, JAFI , among its other presenters, brought over a group of Israeli Scouts, who entertained the teens.
Sessions on Israel – which cover hot topics such as the summer’s social demonstrations, women’s rights, Hebrew lessons, and the LGBT experience, as well as current films such as the celebrated “Footnote” – are well-attended and participants are often well-informed. The “lingua franca” of Limmud seems to include numerous Anglicized Hebrew expressions, while many of the younger set seem to be as familiar with hot night spots in Tel Aviv as they are with the pubs of Manchester. When Kerem A. Kiratli, Deputy Head of the Turkish Embassy to the UK, speaks to a packed crowd, the Limmud participants’ questions focus more on the Turkish-Israeli relationship than they do on issues ostensibly of greater interest to the UK, such as the Armenian genocide or Turkey’s strategic positioning vis-a-vis Europe and the West.
And yet, caught up in the challenging yet pluralistic environment of Limmud, the participants seem to regard the Israelis with a mixture of contempt and pity. When Daniel Taub, the Israeli Ambassador to Britain, addresses the conference, he tells the participants that they should “use their passions for social justice and equality as a bridge. Israel is a house of many doors and it has keys for everyone.” But the audience retorts with questions and criticisms about the anti-democratic legislation coming from the Knesset and the exclusion of women from public spaces, showing that they’re too up-to-date on the latest news from Israel to settle for old-fashioned hasbara (official information).
Limmudniks seem to care about Israel, but on the Warwick campus at least, they do not need Israel. Israelis are quickly disabused of any illusions they may have about the centrality of Israel’s Jewish experience for Diaspora Jewry. Limmud didn’t start in Israel and it doesn’t center on Israel. In fact, it is Israel that is attempting to copy Limmud-like events back home.
A recent study, commissioned by Limmud International and conducted by two leading researchers on Jewish life – Steve Cohen, professor of Jewish social policy at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and director of the Berman Jewish Policy Archive at New York University and Israeli-based sociologist Ezra Kopelowitz – reveals that educational events such as Limmud help to “counter assimilation and disengagement from Jewish involvement.” Based on a study of Limmud participants in 49 countries, Cohen and Kopelowitz write that past Limmud participants reported “unusually high participation rates in Jewish learning and in organized Jewish life, scoring far above levels reported in studies of the general Jewish population… The learning clearly serves both as an expression of and impetus to Jewish involvement, impacting positively on participants’ Jewish identity and leadership.”
The survey also demonstrates Limmud’s role in the renewal of Jewish life in Europe, the authors said. More than a third of European respondents said Limmud has “greatly affected” their sense of Jewish identity.
On the first day of Limmud, Nicole Warther, 36, from South Africa, mother of two young boys, tells The Report that she has been sent by a representative of her Jewish community to “learn about Limmud so that we can organize one back home.”
Married to a non-Jew, Warther says she “acknowledges the fact that she is Jewish but that doesn’t mean much in my life” and that she has almost no connection to the organized Jewish community. “I’m not even sure why they wanted me to come,” she says. “I don’t think that the fact that I’m Jewish can ever be very important to me, but I’m willing to give Limmud a try.”
By the end of the conference, on the chartered bus that brings some of the international participants to the airport, Warther says, “They [the community organizers who sent her to Limmud] were right. I know it was manipulative – they sent me here knowing I’d be ‘bitten by the Limmud bug.’ And I was. It’s not that suddenly I’m going to become totally Jewish or observant or anything like that. But I have experienced my Judaism in a new way. I found ideas that are relevant to my life.”
She smiles self-consciously and adds, “I think I’ll be willing to be on the organizing committee for Limmud back home.” •