Jewish jamboree breaks attendance record in UK

Reporter's Notebook: 2,500 participants from around the world attend conference, but Limmud founder not happy just yet.

Limmud dreidle competition 311 (photo credit: Chaim Bacon)
Limmud dreidle competition 311
(photo credit: Chaim Bacon)
COVENTRY – Seen one Limmud, seen them all? Well, not if you ask the international Limmud volunteers who gathered at the Jewish educational confab at England’s Warwick University on Wednesday.
A group of 23 people came from places as far and wide as Shanghai and Cape Town, New York and Budapest to take part in talks, lectures and workshops on all things Jewish. On the day before last, they met to share their thoughts on the week that was.
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“I was amazed by the diversity of the people,” said Rehina Epstein of South Africa. “Not just the diverse ages but the nationalities too. It’s just not something you see this much elsewhere.”
All the others in the room nodded in agreement.
So what was there this year at the conference? It’s hard to cover the entire scope of issues and debates that took part in about 1,000 lectures, but here are some snippets.
Israeli activists Daphni Leef and Barak Segal brought their message of social protest to UK Jewry. They did not draw big crowds but those who did attend showed them their unequivocal support.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach came to plug his new book Kosher Jesus and test the grounds for a potential bid for the vacant position of UK’s chief rabbi, while Rabbi Jonathan Romain told gatherers why he thought the office should be abolished.
Activist Anat Hoffman spoke about “bad rabbis” and the ongoing campaign by some religious elements to segregate women in Israel.
Cartoonist Eli Valley gave participants a glimpse into his wacky, wild world, showing them his animations in a much talked about lecture.
Labor activist Valerie Shawcross had the unenviable task of trying to persuade Jewish voters to pick Ken Livingstone, the firebrand politician known for his anti-Israel politics, in London’s mayoral election next year.
Finally, over 300 children and adults got together to spin dreidels at the same time. Not a world record, but still no small feat.
Of course, one cannot write about Limmud without devoting a few words to co-chair and founder Clive Lawton.
Throughout the six-day conference, the Jewish educator – with his iconic wispy, white hair and Santa Claus beard – seemed everywhere. He moderated panels, greeted participants and packed classrooms with a series of lectures that breezed through thousands of years of Jewish history in five hours.
Lawton is to Limmud what Dumbledore is to Hogwarts: a visionary leader who always has the right answer. And like J.K. Rowling’s creation, his biggest want in life may be for a pair of socks, as the wizard reveals to apprentice Harry Potter. Otherwise, how else do you explain Lawton’s hippie habit of wearing sandals in December? But all niceties aside, Limmud UK is not without flaws.
The biggest is probably the food. Baked beans, jacket potatoes and thick, lumpy gravy; it’s a parody of standard British fare.
“When people at Limmud Hungary complain about the food, I’m going to show them a photo of the food here,” quipped Reka Eszter.
But perhaps there’s a reason behind the quality of the nosh, besides the need to balance a tight budget. If haute cuisine were served, you might miss the point. Limmud is about providing its participants with food for thought. Everything else is dressing.
This year, a record number of 2,500 people came to the conference but Lawton isn’t satisfied yet.
“I’m still struck by the number 3,000 from the time of the first Limmud,” he said, “and we’re not there yet.”