Rabbi Shmuley Boteach - Limmud - 04012012
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach speaking at the Limmud conference late last month. Photo by Limmud
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In their typically self-deprecating way, British Jews describe Limmud as "our best and only product." The annual Jewish-learning festival takes place every Christmas on a wind-swept university campus somewhere in England and, regardless of whether the British community has any other products to be proud of, Limmud has proved itself a remarkably resilient brand.

What began 31 years ago as a small conference for Jewish educators has since become a global phenomena throughout the Jewish world. It has spawned popular gatherings in 60 communities across the globe, in 24 countries (with Shanghai soon to be added to the list), where Jews of all religious strands and colors, and from all walks of life, attend a wide range of sessions, lectures, workshops and performances.

The yearly British conference remains the largest though, last week attracting over 2,300 participants who spent their Christmas break at Warwick University attending 900-plus sessions, eating, sleeping and endlessly socializing on campus. But this isn't just an alternative way for Jews to spend their time during the holiday period. Aside from trudging from session to session, Limmud necessitates a certain type of dedication. The food, in the words of one surprised and disappointed American presenter, "combines all the stereotypes of British cuisine and Kosher cooking"; the accommodation, while adequate, is still rather spartan. And for this, the participants have to fork out an average of 350 pounds (some NIS 2,100), which for families with children - and many turn up with full families - totals a tidy sum.

It is not surprising, therefore, that Limmud also engenders an esprit de corps among those attending, many of them regular attendees. Newcomers to Limmud are first swamped by the sheer variety of events to choose from, dealing with basically every Jewish-related subject and discipline. Over 20 sessions take place simultaneously, encompassing everything from lectures on the connection between Spinoza and the Kotzker Rebbe to Scottish-Jewish folk dancing workshops.

The next thing to strike them is the combination of mainstream intellectual fare with the edgiest entertainment on the Judeosphere. "I was shocked, and fascinated, by the level of profanity at one of the stand-up performances," said an Israeli entertainer, no stranger to lewdness himself. The willingness of the Limmud schedulers to push the envelope, putting atheists and Orthodox rabbis on the same program, a fair sprinkling of Muslim and Christian lecturers and basically placing nothing out of bounds, certainly promotes the good feeling of many participants, congratulating themselves on the inclusiveness and pluralism of British Jewry. But is this event really representative of the community as a whole?

Some presenters indeed feel a bit self-conscious. A member of a left-wing Jewish organization says: "I'm used to a very rough reception from most Jewish groups I talk to, but at Limmud I never get heckled. It's nice, like playing on my home ground, but it makes me ask myself, Are these the only liberal Jews left, within a community that has drifted steadily to the right?"

Many of the male participants at Limmud roam the grounds wearing kippot, though they wouldn't wear these back home or at work. "It's just a Limmud thing for me," one says about his headgear. As in almost every Jewish community around the world, the ultra-Orthodox are the fastest growing demographic sector in Britain. At Limmud there are extremely few black-hats, though everything is done to make the event mitzvah-friendly, including strict kashrut and an eruv on Shabbat.

Where was Rabbi Sacks?

A constant reminder of the splits within the community is the absence of Britain's most visible Jewish intellectual, Lord Jonathan Sacks, the Chief Rabbi of the United synagogues. Once upon a time he was an eager participant but over the last 20 years, since becoming chief rabbi, he's stayed away. Rabbi Sacks has bowed to the dictate of his hardline Beth Din (rabbinical court), who ruled that attending Limmud is tantamount to legitimizing the rabbis of the Reform movement speaking at the conference.

Limmud organizers are quick to stress that while Sacks is forced to stay in London, his closest family members have not only taken part in Limmud for many years but were also active as central volunteers (Limmud is the result of the work of hundreds of nonpaid organizers ). But the de facto boycott by the country's premier religious body is one of the main reasons that some talk of the "Limmud bubble" - an isolated island of Jewish enlightenment and openness in a deepening swamp of religious and political intolerance.

Limmud's executive director, Raymond Simonson, acknowledges the talk of a bubble-mentality, but claims that the numbers don't bear this out. "About 60 percent of affiliated Jews in Britain identify themselves as Orthodox and they are also the largest group of participants here - about 45 percent - so it's not that different. Also, if you look at the rabbis presenting here, this year we have 12 rabbis with British Orthodox semikah, and an equal number of Reform and Liberal rabbis, so it's well-balanced. We get criticized by the left and the right wing, so I think we're doing OK."

Simonson balks at the description of Limmud as pluralistic. "That word is often misused regarding us. Pluralism is an ideology and I don't want us to be saying to an Orthodox person: 'You have to accept someone you don't agree with.' What you do have to do is to be here in the same place, because Limmud is the community in all its parts."

Andrew Gilbert, who chairs the informal education committee of the United Jewish Israel Appeal (UJIA) and is a former Limmud chairman, says the tolerance and variety of Limmud doesn't mean it isn't representative of the community's mainstream. "There are right-wing people here, but not the far-right, and not the far-left," he says. "Some people may feel it's a bubble but actually Limmud is simply British Jewry letting its hair down."