I said farewell to 2014 surrounded by 2,500 new friends. They hailed from 28 countries, to be precise, but in reality spanned (almost) the entire universe of Jewish thought and practise. They ranged from babies to bubbies and they packed the University of Warwick for four days of utterly nonstop learning, questioning, socializing, and yearning (for a better world, peace in the Middle East, and…hot water for English breakfast tea before the urns ran out). This was the final Limmud Conference held at Warwick — sold out, yet again. Evidently the UK branch of this now global movement remains in an expansionary phase. Next year in Birmingham!
After the awe-inspiring experience of attending the conference on behalf of Limmud Ottawa last year, I was thrilled to be able to join once again, this time perhaps less shell-shocked but even busier, as I signed up to give three of my own sessions whose focus — from Jewish identity in contemporary musical theatre to foreign fighters in Iraq and Syria — reflects the spirit of the conference itself. A key principle of Limmud is that everyone has something to teach and something to learn, and the UK conference — with more than 500 presenters (of all ages and levels of expertise) leading over 1,200 sessions — takes this idea to heart.
As a representative of Limmud Ottawa, I was required to take part in numerous workshops each day with my fellow delegates from Limmud groups across the world, from South Africa to Bulgaria. These sessions brought together both experienced Limmudniks who dedicate hundreds of hours each year to their local organizations as well as those just getting started. I was struck once again by the rigour of these discussions — there was hardly any semblance of resting on laurels or patting each other on the back. Instead, what shines through is an unrelenting drive to find what Limmud co-founder Clive Lawton refers to as the ethical core of Limmud and the quest to build it and affirm it and live it together. I do not believe I have ever been part of an initiative in which this spirit of striving and introspection is so integral.
Chaired this year by Shana Boltin and Jonathan Robinson, Limmud UK’s conference is a marathon unlike any other Limmud around the world — made much more pleasurable thanks to a new caterer this year. But why exactly was this year’s four-day whirlwind/smorgasbord so memorable for me personally? Here are a few possible reasons:
1. Limmud’s more well-known speakers addressed fresh and surprising topics
There is, let us be honest, a ‘circuit’ of Jewish conferences at which one is bound to run into a certain set of speakers. Limmud has a circuit all to itself, and Limmud UK’s programming team works hard to identify and invite a wide spectrum of voices attendees most likely have not yet heard. Rabbi Asher Lopatin is well known to folks in the progressive Orthodox sphere in the United States, but perhaps not to European Jewish audiences. Married couple Chaim and Doreen Seidler-Feller — Rabbi and sex therapist, respectively — are positively inspirational, but not yet household names. Aziz Abu Sarah is a unique voice at a time of enduring and escalating conflict between Israel and her neighbours, but you will not find him at the AIPAC conference. And then of course there are the hundreds of presenters who submit applications to deliver sessions, further adding to the diversity and freshness of the programme.
So then what do you do with a legend like Natan Sharansky? The Soviet dissident turned Israeli cabinet minister and Chairman of the Jewish Agency — extremely topical given the increased number of European Jews making aliyah to Israel in the face of rising anti-Semitism — is among the biggest names in world Jewry. His is a voice my generation and my parents’ generation know well. (They chanted his name at rallies, after all). What might he talk about at Limmud? How about…How Chess Helped the Jews Survive in the Soviet Union? Sharansky’s passion for the game and his anecdotes about its impact on his life and that of other Soviet Jewish refuseniks were illuminating. (The talk will be posted on JDOV). And then there was last year’s hit: Israeli Ambassador to the UK Daniel Taub, who packed the largest room at the conference for a session on…no, not the Iranian threat to Israeli and international security, but rather on the image of Israel in centuries of English literature. Refreshing indeed.
2. Limmud UK is raising the bar for inclusion of community members with special needs
At Limmud it can be difficult to track people down for a proper conversation — everyone has five places they want (or need — for those juggling volunteer shifts) to be at the same time (and that is without eating breaks). Yet two of the busiest people I met at this year’s conference were Etan Smallman, Inclusion co-chair for the conference, as well as Shoshana Bloom. Bloom co-chaired the conference twice — a huge undertaking — but all the while had a dream of making the Limmud experience available to participants with learning disabilities. Thus, Limmud L’Am (“Limmud for the people”) was born.
As a board member of the Tamir Foundation of Ottawa, which provides quality of life in a caring Jewish environment for individuals with development disabilities — and having helped facilitate Tamir’s Bar/Bat Mitzvah program in 2011 — I understand how inclusion and integration not only allow those with specific needs to advance one step further on their Jewish journeys — to borrow Limmud’s motto — but also how such initiatives help build a more responsive and vibrant Jewish community across denominations. It was similarly inspiring to learn of the work of the Judith Trust on making synagogues more accessible, in every sense, to those with learning disabilities.
3. New Year’s Eve
For the first time in several years, the Limmud UK conference overlapped with something known as “New Year’s Eve.” Had the organizing team not added a special tab in the nifty conference app called “New Year’s Eve,” I probably would not have noticed. After all, sessions continued right up until just a few minutes before the countdown, and I certainly was not going to miss Deborah Lipstadt’s talk on the Eichmann Trial. No way — and apparently I was not the only one. I listened intently as Professor Lipstadt discussed her efforts to obtain Eichmann’s journal for use as evidence in the former’s own famous trial — a libel suit brought by Holocaust denier David Irving. (Lipstadt won). The talk reminded me why I still want to go to law school — to fulfill the obligation, as inscribed directly in the Torah, Tzedek Tzedek Tirdof (Justice, justice, you shall pursue).
As the talk ended, I ran into a friend I had met earlier that day. “Adam, it’s almost midnight!” “Oh…right!” We ran to the main building where most of the attendees had gathered. We met some other friends and entered a club-like room just in time for the ear-splitting countdown and confetti cannons. Then we quickly escaped to the wine bar Limmud had set up, while other friends went to check out the water tank filled with plastic balls (hey, nothing wrong with being young at heart). I turned around and lo and behold I see a young, acclaimed doctor I had met earlier in the week at a session on humanitarian fieldwork, and amidst all the revelry we resumed our conversation about tikkun olam, the Jewish obligation to “repair the world.” While of course I missed my friends and family back home, I could not have been more thrilled to say hello to a new goyishe year surrounded by such endlessly inspiring and unique individuals.
On the bus ride from the University of Warwick back to Heathrow Airport, surrounded by the energetic delegation from Limmud South Africa, I began to wonder, “what can I do to get my community to embrace Limmud to the extent I have witnessed here?” Cynics anywhere and everywhere like to point out, “well, it works in the UK, but our community is different.” Yet Lawton is quick to remind them that, prior to Limmud, organized Jewish life in the UK was about as dry as toast. And indeed this thing is catching on — but what is the tipping point and when might it be visible, or has it already been reached? As I write this I see that one of the hotels booked for France’s upcoming conference has reached capacity. This is colossal, multigenerational Jewish engagement — and in a country that has seen 1% of its Jewish population move to Israel in 2014 (and several thousand moving elsewhere).
I then boarded a plane to Geneva (where I have just begun an internship) and could not put down, even for a moment, the 2014 Limmud International annual report. I was captivated by the descriptions of successful Limmud events over the past year — from India to Belarus, and from Modi’in to Paris. If Limmud continues on this path — remaining committed to freshness and inclusivity, and never losing that drive to find and retain its ethical core — then I have no doubt that Limmud will permanently alter the course of Jewish history. Indeed it probably already has.