At the end of last week, I returned, with my wife Amy, from seven exhilarating, enlightening, enervating and entertaining days at the fabulous, friendly and fun-loving annual conference of Limmud which was held this year in Birmingham, England. It was a sensational, substantive and sensitive Jewish educational, cultural, religious, spiritual and social experience, probably unparalleled anywhere in the contemporary Jewish world. For me, It was a distinct privilege and pleasure to be both a teacher and a learner for a full week in this uniquely open, pluralistic, and congenial atmosphere, in which mutual respect and civil discourse were the method and the message in this unusual gathering of Jews from forty countries around the world.

In case you don’t about the Limmud phenomenon, I can refer you to their website, which will tell you the whole story.

In brief, Limmud (Hebrew for “Learning”), based in the UK, is a global leader in innovative inclusive Jewish learning. Founded more than 30 years ago, it provides high quality Jewish learning events for thousands of Jews from all walks of life, religious backgrounds, lifestyles, and ages, and it is organized by an impressive and enthusiastic community of over 700 volunteers, most of whom are in their twenties and thirties.

The Jewish Chronicle (of the U.K.) in its weekly edition, which came out on Wednesday, December 30th on the penultimate day of the Limmud conference, referred to the year’s conference as “bigger and better.” This was confirmed at the gala closing ceremony, at which the organizers announced that 2,900 participants attended this year’s conference, 300 more than the record-breaking number of 2600 from last year! This was partially due to the move to a hotel conference center venue rather than a university campus, but more likely the growth of the positive reputation of the Limmud brand name, which now sponsors similar (but smaller) conferences in 43 countries around the world, including Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

But numbers do not tell the whole story, not by a long shot. It is the rich quality and diversity of sessions with terrific teachers and learners from all over the Jewish world that made this conference so fascinating.

I attended Torah study sessions as well as poetry/liturgy sessions with rabbis and professors from Israel (Dalia Marx of the Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem, Ed Greenstein of Bar Ilan University, Mordechai and Pnina Beck of Jerusalem) and from England, especially Jonathan Wittenberg of the Masorti moment, and a group of British men and women who read their wonderful contemporary Jewish poems in a lovely session that was combined with a young Jewish jazz band with a superb vocalist (by the way, I mention names in this blog post without titles as is the custom at Limmud).

I also represented the Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel, which is now a department of Rabbis for Human Rights at this conference, and taught at 3 sessions:

  • “The Other Peace Process — Interreligious Dialogue as a Form of Peacebuilding
  • “Is Arab-Coexistence within the State of Israel Still Possible?” which attracted a large crowd of more than 100 people on Saturday night
  • “Jewish-Christian Relations Today,” which I co-led with my wife Amy, based on the award winning film called, “I am Joseph Your Brother,” which Amy co-directed and co-scripted 15 years ago, following the visit of Pope John Paul II to Israel in March 2000.

In my teaching sessions, I encountered a very high level of Jewish literacy among the participants in this conference, clearly a reflection of their accumulated knowledge and experience of learning at Limmud conferences for the past 28 years, representing huge strides forward in adult Jewish education in recent decades.

  • I also moderated a fascinating panel discussion on “Innovation, Complication and Diversification — Judaisms in Israel today,” which featured 3 excellent educators from Israel: Aryeh Ben David, Elliot Vaisrub Glassenberg and Beverly Gribetz. At this session, I met two fellow Israeli Jews for the first time, and learned a great deal from each of the panelists about their effective educational experiments in Israel.

Unfortunately, the low points for me at this conference were the political sessions on Israel that I attended. The divisions between right- and left-wing views on Israel were blatantly obvious and there was very little genuine listening. Most of the panelists just tried to score points, rather than attempting to seek common ground or learn from each other. At two of these sessions on Israel — one on “Should more settlements be built?” and one on “Is the two state solution still feasible?” — right-wing participants from the audience violated the Limmud respectful code of conduct by shouting at the left wingers on the panels from the audience and calling them bad names (for a few moments I thought that I was back in Israel where this kind of bad behavior happens all too often). It was the only time that such a thing happened during the seven days of the conference (including Shabbat).

In contrast, more than 100 people, including myself, listened politely and mostly favorably to the representative of “Breaking the Silence,” who presented his case to this mostly Diaspora Jewish audience cogently, coherently and convincingly. Even people in the room who did not agree with him only winced, but did not shout epithets at him, even though some of them picked verbal fights with other participants after the session ended. It was quite clear that discussions about Israel’s policies in the occupied territories continue to divide Jews abroad just as much as they do among Jews in Israel.

In contrast, two of my favorite sessions at the conference had nothing to do with Israel. One was an historical lecture by Riv-Ellen Prell of the University of Minnesota on “Jewish 1968,” which traced the background and the history of the Jewish Student Movement, of which I was an active member for a long time during the 1960s in the USA when I was an undergraduate at Brandeis University (I am actually a member of the class of 1968!), and a graduate student at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York, and later at the Harvard Graduate School of Education in the 1970s. It brought back many memories and gave me rich historical background to help me understand better my own Jewish past.

The other session that I found fascinating was a lecture with film clips on “Agnon at the Movies” led by Jeffrey Saks. This too brought me back to my graduate student days when I read a lot of Hebrew literature, especially some of Agnon’s most famous novels and stories, and it whetted my appetite to go back to reading and learning about Agnon at the Agnon House, only a few blocks from where I live, in the Old Talpiyot neighborhood of southern Jerusalem.

My hats (and kippot!) go off to both the Jewish educational and entrepreneurial leadership in the UK which has not only pioneered this amazing renaissance in adult Jewish pluralistic learning and community-building, but has refined the ability to plan and implement such a large Jewish educational and cultural event not only with great expertise, skill and wisdom but also with love, learning and laughter. Kol hakavod!