Limmud: The conference that wants to become a movement

Our Jewish world reporter's first installment from Britain's premier Jewish educational gathering.

London great 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
London great 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
England is enveloped in fog this holiday season. It sticks to the ground in the cold night air, so thick you can't see 50 meters ahead on a 150-kilometer drive northward from London's Heathrow Airport to the outskirts of Coventry. Along the way, appearing out of the fog like carefully orchestrated cinematic hints, road signs offer up town names that are unabashedly lyrical to an American-Israeli ear: Abingdon, Weston-on-the-Green, Oxford, Banbury, Little Chesterton and Stratford-Upon-Avon. The pervasive quaintness of all things English has been drilled into the American mind at every opportunity. But whimsical notions of "Englishness" on this, my first visit to the British Isles, are misleading, if only because everything I am here to see is new. Limmud Conference 2007 is the latest incarnation of a quarter-century-old annual tradition of British Jewry. Begun as a program for upgrading the level of Jewish educators in a country that has lost almost 40 percent of its Jews to assimilation since the 1960s, Limmud is becoming the non-hierarchical battle cry of a generation of British Jewry. It is now an annual conference of over 2,000 participants that has spun out many smaller conferences during the year, and has launched worldwide copycat conferences in New York, Sydney, the Galilee, Boulder, Toronto, Hungary and, most recently, Moscow. It is a conference that wants to become a movement. The Limmud method - a free-for-all of Jewish teaching and study (hundreds of sessions addressing a seemingly endless array of topics run concurrently over several days) has become a "best practice" of Jewish communal life, transferable to nearly every community. In Israel, while a small Limmud is part of the fledgling localized spirituality, it has yet to become the sought-after sea change in Israel's polarized religious world. It is a vehicle pushing forward a phenomenon that is already taking place. In America, Limmud so obviously connects to the American way of conducting religion that it seems strange that the model came from outside the US. In Russia, while the content is more academic and the scale much smaller, the method, organization and youth-attracting informality are the same. Worldwide, there is hardly a question as to the usefulness and appropriateness of Limmud. But back home in England, where Limmud may be developing into a real communal force, it faces its most difficult challenges. A culture war within English Jewry has meant that the nation's chief rabbi, whose son-in-law chairs Limmud, must refuse to attend the conference. Reporting from this year's Limmud, I hope to sketch Limmud's remarkable position in the UK and the Jewish world, a community that, despite sharing the lingua franca of world Jewry, remains fairly unknown to American and Israeli Jews. Here, it will air its problems, its uniqueness in the strange array of the world's Jewish communities and its hopes for the future. Is it significant that Liberal Jews, who marry homosexuals and accept patrilineal descent, are here along with Orthodox rabbis from overseas, that Avrum Burg and Jewish Agency executives are in attendance, that Americans and Israelis and British expats are all present, too? Are Limmud's 700 volunteers the face of a changing, younger English Jewry, or the last vestige of a spiritual community dividing into haredi-oriented Orthodoxy and "English" traditionalism? Wherever it's going, this is the cutting edge of English Jewry.