Limmud UK: The Mother of All Conferences

by Adam Rattner

4222288798_0e252046e4_mSome 2,000 people checked into the halls of residence at Warwick University, West Midlands, yesterday morning, joining the 500 participants who had already spent the Christmas weekend away from festivities and in a Shabbat atmosphere instead. Long unsure about what to do with themselves as the rest the country celebrates Christmas, Britain’s Jews have found an unlikely answer – go to university for a week.

The Limmud conference, the world’s biggest Jewish educational get-together, offers the chance to sleep in university dorms and spend the day in lecture theaters listening to academics, rabbis and lay people presenting on just about every Jewish topic conceivable. Participants were still arriving on Sunday, weather conditions permitting, from all over the world.

Since its inception in 1981, as a small gathering in Oxford – where the present chief rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, was one of the first attendees – Limmud has grown into a vast international operation, with the UK Limmud conference being exported to almost 50 Jewish communities worldwide.

That international diversity has been represented in the lines for registration this year, which have been filled with almost as many Americans, Israelis, Canadians, French, Hungarians, Poles and other far-flung individuals, as by homegrown British Jews.

Presenters, too, have come from far and wide – often citing the diverse, inquisitive, lively Limmud audiences as a highlight of their conference seasons.

This year conference is looking forward to David Saperstein from the US and Israel’s Italian-born demographer Sergio DellaPergola among the highlights.

Designated in Newsweek‘s 2009 list as the most influential rabbi in the US and described in a Washington Post profile as “the quintessential religious lobbyist on Capitol Hill,” Saperstein represents the US Reform Movement to Congress. In 2009 he was appointed by President Barack Obama as a member of the first White House Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.

DellaPergola is the Shlomo Argov Professor of Israel-Diaspora Relations at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and an internationally known expert on Jewish demography.

Also participating from Israel are Teapacks’ former Eurovision star Kobi Oz and Yair Sheleg of the Israel Democracy Institute.

The conference itself is a rich program of nearly 900 seminars, workshops, gigs, debates, films and outings. Sessions start at 8 a.m. and finish at 2 a.m. – after which the bar stays open and there are plenty of opportunities to schmooze into the early hours.

The weekend saw some of the musicians take advantage of the lower key atmosphere at the start of the conference to test some more acoustic offerings. Naomi Less, performer and host of Jewish Chicks Rock, led a musical havdala service in the amphitheater outside. The session included dancing and lighting giant lanterns that were allowed to float off into the night sky to culminate the service. American songstress Michelle Citrin, who boasts an impressive YouTube following for such songs as “I Gotta Love Rosh Hashana” and “20 Things to Do with Matza,” performed acoustic versions of her more soulful tunes.

On Friday night, the New York-based hip hop duo Darshan hosted an oneg mixing original tunes with freestyle rap.

Despite all this late night revelling, the conference woke up early yesterday morning, with a full day of learning kicking in.

Presentations and workshops covered topics as varied as Political Cartooning in the Middle East, Reiki’s Role in Judaism, Talmudic Responses to Tyranny, and Adventures in Tikkun Olam. For the more artistic, there were also opportunities to try your hand at Jewish Origami and Henna Body Art.

Participants have come from all walks of life and all age groups. This is a family event, complete with an innovative program for children and parent-and-child study sessions. The final product is a mix of a serious seminar, holiday camp, film and music festival.

Organizers operate an “open lectern” policy, which means that anyone can speak about anything. The conference also has a democratic ethos: Everyone stays in dorms – there are no special rooms or even lounges for speakers – and everyone sits together in the cafeteria, fetches their food from the serving hatch and clears away their own tray. Everyone wears a name badge, but there are no titles – no “professor,” “rabbi,” “lord” or “lady.”

Typically the lunchtime conversations and corridor run-ins are as stimulating as the official sessions, as people from across all spectrums have a chance to meet and collide.

“Everyone is a teacher and everyone is a student,” says conference co-chairwoman Rebecca Lester. “That’s the charm of Limmud.”

Adam Rattner is the marketing chairman of Limmud Conference 2009.

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