February 26, 2004
Learning Reshaped at Europe’s Limmud
Two Jews, three opinions. That old adage may explain a lot about communal strife, but for a precious few days in the English Midlands, a multitude of Jewish opinions were welcomed at an educational conference that is a paragon of communal harmony.
Now in its 23rd year, the Limmud Conference is Europe's largest and perhaps the Jewish world's most influential educational event, attracting over 2,300 participants and 370 speakers from across the globe.
Remarkably, for an international residential conference of such scale and depth, all but one of its organizers are volunteers.
Limmud, which means learning in Hebrew, is a name that for many in the Jewish and non-Jewish educational world has become synonymous with an inclusive, bottom-up approach to education.
"It's all about the grass roots. Hierarchies just don't exist," explained Clive Lawton, Limmud's executive director and co-founder.
A highly respected educator and occasionally controversial community spokesman, Lawton volunteers for Limmud both at the conference and throughout the year, when the group organizes smaller educational and social events.
Lawton says Jewish educators in North America can learn from Limmud as a model for a "Festival of Learning."
"For once, I think Europe is taking the lead in Jewish education, and North America has a lot of catching up to do to adapt from a top-heavy structure of learning," Lawton said. "We let the participants decide what they want to do. We have no ideological or political position, apart from 'It's good for Jews to learn.'"
Over four days in late December at Nottingham University's campus -- which Limmudniks take over, dormitories, classrooms and all -- singles, couples and families were given the opportunity to explore diverse facets of Jewish life.
The approach of "learning for the people by the people" results in a dizzying array of sessions and speakers, ranging from bull sessions about passages from the Zohar to the rabbinical response to the Internet.
Agenda appears to be a dirty word at Limmud.
With more than 900 sessions -- on topics ranging from Jewish law's perspective on organ donation to Israeli politics -- the conference caters even to the most esoteric interests.
Listening to the excited chatter at the kibbutz-style meals, where participants, speakers and organizers sit, gossip and debate together, many seemed to be getting caught up in the buzz.
"Just went to a fascinating shiur [lecture] on God's covenant with Abraham -- but have got to rush, want to get a good seat for the Sephardi cooking workshop," one participant said hurriedly to another in a typical mealtime exchange.
Such is the range of age, nationality and denomination at the conference that it's nearly impossible to define the typical Limmudnik.
"That's the key to Limmud's success: It's determinedly pluralistic," said Daniel Silverstein, a conference participant, performer and volunteer.
Silverstein, director of Culanu Center, a cultural and social center at Cambridge University, sings the praises of the conference's philosophy -- literally.
After spending much of the day helping to look after the many young children at to the conference, Silverstein rapped about Jewish pride with Emunah, a group that plays hip-hop and drum-and-bass music for Limmud's late-night audiences.
"What's really amazing is that friends of mine who are not religious came to the conference, and they got as much out of it as my Orthodox friends," Silverstein said. "I challenge anybody not to find some Jewish inspiration here."
So confident are Limmud's volunteers that participants will gain from the conference that the organization promises in its mission statement, "Wherever you find yourself, Limmud will take you one step further on your Jewish journey."
More than half of those who attend the conference or other Limmud events -- held in the United Kingdom, Holland and Israel, and soon in Toronto and New York -- end up returning.
The speakers range from thinkers such as Rabbi Norman Lamm, the Torah scholar and chancellor of New York's Yeshiva University, and Rabbi Natan Lopes Cardozo, to Nimrod Barkan, the senior policy adviser of Israel's Foreign Ministry, and Jennifer Bleyer, founder of the alternative Jewish magazine Heeb.
The conference also offered an entire day focused on the Jewish community's relations with the Islamic world.
Prominent European Muslim figures came to debate and share jokes with Jewish members of panel discussions and seminars. Even controversial views -- such as the Muslim perception of Israel -- were treated with respect.
For the Muslim speakers, many of whom brought young families, the opportunity to meet and eat together left a lasting impression.
"We feel welcomed and know we are among good friends," said Fuad Nahdi, editor of Q-News, an influential London-based Muslim magazine.
Bused from one campus building to another, conference participants said they felt as if they were in a high-energy cocoon.
"You know, I have no idea what's happening in the outside world," an Israeli professor told an American colleague on the way to one session. "And frankly, I don't want to."
No one seemed to mind that there was not a television or a newspaper -- apart from the London Jewish Chronicle -- to be found on campus.
By the end of the conference, which fell on New Year's Day, participants exuded a sense of achievement, both as individuals and a community.
"I've never been so excited to be Jewish," said Wendy Bergman, a grandmother from the tiny Jewish community of Newcastle in northern England. "I'm somewhere between the higher ground and the clouds."