Lessons From Limmud: The Empire Is Growing, Both in Size and Substance

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Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz

COVENTRY, ENGLAND – Clive Lawton, a member of the self-described “gang of four” that founded Limmud in 1980, clearly felt a sense of vindication as the big event of the year for British Jewry drew to a close several days ago.

"The most astonishing collection of interested Jews - who are also interesting Jews - who have come together and dropped all pretensions for a week,” is how he describes the annual Limmud Conference, which, this year, not only drew a record number of more than 2,600 participants, but was attended for the first time by a sitting chief rabbi of the United Kingdom.

Were these two achievements connected? Quite probably, yes, says Lawton.

“Many people are saying that now they can attend at last without getting involved in the politics,” said Lawton, who serves today as senior consultant for the organization, along with being a scholar in residence at the London Jewish Cultural Centre. “It released many of them from their previous frustrations, and the fact is that a number of rabbis I know for many years who felt they wanted to come but couldn’t have come this year.”

Ephraim Mirvis, the South African-born, newly instated chief rabbi of the United Kingdom, spent two days at the annual retreat, held this year again on the University of Warwick campus, where he delivered two talks on Torah-related issues. By contrast, not once did his predecessor, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, attend the event during his 22-year tenure as chief rabbi. The ultra-Orthodox, who oppose the participation of Orthodox rabbis at the conference because it promotes alternative Jewish voices and ideas, had pressured the former chief rabbi to stay away.

Mervis' decision to attend was “an act of recognition by an intelligent man,” said Lawton. “It’s very interesting to me that he didn’t come to present a chief rabbi session or to speak to the nation on issues facing British Jewry. Rather, what he did is he came as a rabbi to teach some Torah. But really, where else is he going to be able to address 500 people plus 300 on close circuit television and have them feel the light? From his point of view, it was a no-brainer, and the fact that the sky didn’t fall in and neither did 100 people rush off and become Orthodox or 100 people rush off and become Reform, nor as far as I know is Ephraim Mirvis rethinking his views on Torah as a result of having been in this space, it just demonstrates - and I use the term not pejoratively but descriptively - the pre-modern view of those who opposed this.”

This year’s Limmud Conference included a record number of 1,102 sessions delivered by 451 presenters. Since its establishment 33 years ago, Limmud has become a global movement, sponsoring events in 65 communities in 34 countries on six continents. In the past year, Hong Kong, India, Peru and Montenegro held Limmud events for the first time.

About 100 Israelis, in Lawton’s estimation, were among this year’s participants. Some were presenters who flew in, while others were part of the growing number of Israelis residing in the United Kingdom who have begun attending the annual event. “These are Israelis who have not found the thing in the British world that talks to them, and rumor has reached them that this place is non-judgmental, that it doesn’t tell you how to be a Jew but tells you that you ought to be,” he said over breakfast on the final morning of the five-day festival of Jewish learning and culture. “So that, I think, is starting to bring Israelis out.”

Lawton, whose 12, standing-room only sessions were among the most popular at the conference, said that over the next year, first-time Limmud events were slated to be held in Barcelona, Prague, Miami and Vancouver. “Even though we’re British, we don’t sit around with a map on the wall directing where the empire should grow next,” he joked, noting that the goal wasn’t to expand simply for the sake of expansion.

Lawton addressed the controversial decision taken by Limmud Conference organizers to bow to pressure to ban a representative of the Kabbalah Center from participating in this year’s event. “I think Limmud leadership took the view that we could probably only cope with one controversial issue at a time, and they contacted the guy and told him it would probably help a lot if he didn’t come this year. He understood.”

British Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis addresses children at the Limmud Conference, U.K., Dec. 23, 2013.Credit: Flix'n'Pics
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Jewish Agency Chairman Nathan Sharansky addresses the Limmud Conference, U.K., Dec. 25, 2013.Credit: Flix'n'Pics
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Limmud Conference, U.K., Dec. 23, 2013.Credit: Flix'n'Pics
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Limmud Conference, U.K., Dec. 23, 2013.Credit: Flix'n'Pics