Coventry, England — If you want to know why Limmud — the grassroots, all-volunteer, non-denominational organization that fosters Jewish religious study, culture, history and more — is now active in 55 communities around the world, come to LimmudUK, the granddaddy of them all.
The whole movement started here in England 30 years ago this week as an antidote for Jews who had little to do during Christmas week, when much of the country shuts down. Why not do Jewish together?
On this, the 30th anniversary of one of the great cultural successes of our generation, more than 2,000 people from England, Europe, Scandinavia, Israel and America have come to the rural University of Warwick campus to learn, discuss, debate, shmooze and celebrate the unique camaraderie that is LimmudUK.
I had long wanted to come and see first-hand what it’s all about and was fortunate to be invited this year as a presenter. In this cased that translates into having one’s travel provided in return for offering at least four talks (on four different subjects) over the course of the five days (seven days for the hundreds who came for Shabbat).
I barely made it here. My flight was from the U.S. last Saturday night, just after London’s Heathrow Airport returned to some semblance of normalcy after almost a full week of chaos (caused by a 5 inch snowfall), and just before Sunday’s blizzard hit New York and closed all the airports.
So far, it’s well worth the trek.
This is my first LimmudUK experience, and part of the joy is realizing that this whole complex operation, which includes programs and day care for children, and evening entertainment each night for the adults (films, theater pieces, comedy and concerts) is the work of more than 200 year-round volunteers, and hundreds more who pitch in during the event itself — and only three full-time staff. To date, despite the weather hazards, it has run quite smoothly, with a high degree of politeness and efficiency.
People are enthused to be part of the experience. I’ve seen no complaints about long lines in the dining areas, less than four-star cuisine and typically spare dormitory accommodations. Instead, it’s an endless discussion about which session to go to next – there are some 1,200 offerings, sometimes 20 or more concurrently – and who have been the most dynamic speakers.
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin of Efrat drew large crowds to his talks on Modern Orthodoxy, the conversion crisis, and Judaism and feminism.
David Aaronovitch, a regular columnist for The Times of London and commentator and broadcaster on culture, international affairs, politics and the media, found overflow crowds for his talk on “Voodoo Histories,” conspiracy theories, from “faked” moon landings to blaming Israeli nuclear testing for the 2004 tsunami.
And Ivor Dembina, a popular Jewish comedian in the UK, known for using humor to deal with difficult topics, would have been a sell-out if LimmudUK charged money.
From 8 a.m. to well after midnight, there is always way too much to do, and the range and quality of sessions is most impressive.
You can do serious Talmud study with a chavruta (study partner) at Limmud Bet Midrash, learn the connections between “Billy Elliot” and the Torah, or take lessons on Poker Night.
The attendees, mostly from England, represent the core of the community, from college students and lots of singles in their 20s to a large percentage of retirees, and just about everything in between. They share a thirst for learning and a sense of adventure, with even Londoners traveling two hours north to this campus.
(The one age group that seems under-represented to a casual observer is people in their 40s.)
One fellow New Yorker who has been to this annual event 11 times described LimmudUK as “LimmudNY on steroids.”
Stay tuned for more tomorrow.
For more on the conference, including live segments to watch, go to Limmud.org