Limmud does it again
TV producer Dan Patterson said that this year’s conference was ‘as good as it gets outside Israel’ for British Jews. Simon Rocker reflects on the enduring popularity of the annual educational showpiece
In a recent interview, Dustin Hoffman recalled how he used to walk past a local church and hear the clapping and singing and wish he could find the same in synagogue. The veteran actor should have been at last month’s Limmud winter conference in Nottingham, where he might have got a glimpse of the synagogue of the future. He would have found hundreds of Jews of all ages in a crowded auditorium, standing in their seats, clapping raised hands and joining in with gospel-style singalongs of Shabbat classics.
The moment Joshua Nelson strode on to the stage, hit the keyboard with a soulful wail and launched into his anthemic “Give Me That Old-Time Judaism (Lord, It’s Good Enough for Me)”, the audience responded instantly to his joyous rhythms. “Hallelujah is our word,” he reminded them. The early Chasidim, who in their day shook up stuffy synagogue services with their freewheeling melodies, would have been impressed.
“When I was a young boy, growing up black and Jewish, it wasn’t easy,” he explained. “We tried to make it as cool as possible. It should be a religion for our young people.”
The kosher gospel singer — and New Jersey cheder teacher — produced one of the highlights of Limmud 2006, encapsulating the spirit of an event that is all about sharing enthusiasms. “It was just amazing,” said Nicky Goldman, director of leadership development at the United Jewish Israel Appeal. “Everybody was completely uplifted.” In particular, his performance came as a much-needed tonic after the gloomy diagnoses of sessions on Israel’s misadventures in Lebanon.
Before this year’s event, it was easy to wonder whether the annual Limmud conference had peaked a couple of years ago and that attendances would begin to wane. After all, there are more educational courses than ever on offer throughout the year, some inspired by Limmud: the one-day Encounter conference, conceived as an Orthodox alternative to Limmud, bit the dust last year.
But the 2,200 participants proved that there is no let-up in demand for the five-day festival with its escapefrom-Christmas atmosphere. Anyone prone to fretting about Jewish continuity would have been heartened by the hundreds of under-30s, even if some, vampire-like, appeared to surface only after dark.
Limmud enjoys continuing success because it speaks to a world of multiple-choice Judaism. Its programme is the Jewish educational equivalent of digital TV, compared to the limited terrestrial options of yesteryear. You are free to build your own portfolio of Jewish interests from close on 1,000 sessions spanning politics, social issues, history, spirituality, Torah study and the arts. But whereas growing diversity risks growing fragmentation — where our Jewish contact might be confined to just those with common tastes — Limmud preserves an over-arching, collective framework.
“It is the smorgasbord of Jewish experience,” said Harold Walt, from Los Angeles, back in Nottingham for his third conference. “There is a lot of Jewish energy over here that you don’t normally find.”
Limmud’s other great strength is its volunteer ethos, which involves hundreds of people in the preparations for its winter set-piece and other events through the year. Karen Radkowsky, founding president of New York Limmud, about to celebrate its third conference next week, said that Limmud was helping to “create a new volunteer model” for the United States, where Jewish volunteering had long been synonymous with fundraising.
“In Limmud, it is not about the size of the gift you can give, but the amount of time you can give,” she said.
Limmud is also an exchange-and-mart for Jewish ideas. It has helped to carry the centrality of text study from the Orthodox beit hamidrash to wider British Jewish circles: while, conversely, the Progressive emphasis on social action — evoked in that buzzword of contemporary Judaism, tikkun olam — has percolated into the Orthodox world.
Jewish studies academics who might previously have been known to only a relatively small field of fellowspecialists can become conference superstars — scholars such as Rachel Elior, head of Jewish thought at the Hebrew University and author of 10 books on mysticism, who returned for a second Limmud. One admirer marvelled at her ability to lecture fluently without notes for an hour. “And that’s in English. Imagine what’s she like in Hebrew,” he said.
There were fights for a spot of floor-space at the front of a packed final session from archaeologist Richard Freund, of Hartford University, Connecticut. A consummate performer, with the timing of a stand-up, he took his audience on a voyage of discovery. He identified some brass artefacts from a Dead Sea excavation — which had been dismissed as Roman leftovers when unearthed 40 years ago — as vessels from the Second Temple, destroyed in 70 CE.
Since the sacred objects — “buried under six feet of poop” in a cave — displayed scenes from Greek mythology, some scholars doubted that they could be of Jewish origin. But, he pointed out, the Second Temple had been built up by Herod the Great — “who wasn’t exactly the Lubavitcher Rebbe”.
As in Limmuds past, Orthodox rabbis were under-represented. But one Orthodox teacher who came was the Dutch-born Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo, from Jerusalem — back for a second Limmud — the lone figure at conference in a suit, who drew full houses with his authoratitive discourses on Jewish thought. Arguing that doubt can be a stimulus to deepening faith, he said: “To be a Jew is to be on a journey and living constantly in a world of struggle.” People had lost the art of asking the right questions. “I would like to write a guide to make people perplexed,” he said.
The rapid spread of Limmud-style events across the Jewish world — on all five continents — is tribute enough to the popularity of the British prototype. For Professor Elior, Limmud recalls the ancient ideal of pilgrimage to Jerusalem, “suspending time for holy convocation” of the people. “It is like rescuing the idea of pilgrimage without a Temple,” she said. “Certainly it is one of the most moving experiences that any community can offer.”
Elly Stanton, of Birmingham Progressive Synagogue, went even further. “I think some people would like to have this as their afterlife,” she said.