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

The Jewish Chronicle - - Judaism -

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.

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