01/18/2011 10:17 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

What I Learned at Limmud

Coventry, England -- It's the day after Christmas and all of England is snug at home, admiring their holiday presents and eating leftover ham.

Except, of course, for the Jews. They are in Golders Green, schlepping suitcases through the foot-high snow to coaches that will take them north, to this year's Limmud conference -- a creative, collective learning experience that falls somewhere between Burning Man and yeshiva.

The five-day conference-cum-retreat, whose mission is to give Jews the opportunity to "take one step further on their Jewish journey," will feature more than 1,000 sessions given by some 400 presenters, and close to 2,500 participants/presenters in total -- from elderly gents in walkers arguing about Israel, to teenage girls playing tambourines and drinking "simcha on the beaches," the event's signature cocktail.

It's not particularly cheap (costing up to 685 pounds for the week per person) nor particularly comfortable (Limmud takes over Warwick University's campus, lodging participants in the empty dorm rooms of students away for the holiday) and the food is -- how shall I put it gently? -- terrible. But, for many in the British Jewish community, Limmud has become an un-missable yearly ritual.

"Think of it as a Seder experience," says Alastair Falk, who, together with three friends, started Limmud 30 years ago. "You meet up once a year, with people you don't always agree with or even necessarily like, but whom you consider family, and you share an experience -- complete with all its own traditions and significance."


My personal Limmud experience starts on the bus, where I sit myself down near two Israeli ladies -- Ulpan teachers for the Jewish agency, it turns out, who will be giving Hebrew lessons at the conference. Immediately, one of them suggests introducing me to her son, the banker. A man in thick glasses and a black kippa offers me some Bamba. Where does one even get Bamba in London?

The thought that I could have spent my weeklong holiday somewhere cooler then this crosses my mind, and not for the first, or last, time.


At the beginning, three decades ago, Limmud was intended as a conference for Jewish educators. The founders invited anyone who had anything to say about Judaism to teach a session, charged 15 pounds and bought some videos to stick into the VCR machine for the kids of participants who tagged along. "We figured people would like to get away for a few days and spend some time being Jewish," says Falk.

Turns out they were right. Some 80 people showed up that cold winter of 1980, and 40 sessions took place. The next year, they moved to a bigger venue and brought in kosher caterings -- and there has been no turning back since.

To date, some 22,000 Brits have attended Limmud, which is equivalent to about 10 percent of all British-Jewry, says Carolyn Bogush, Limmud's 39-year-old volunteer chair, a business psychologist and mother of three. And while the Christmas conference remains the flagship, today there are mini Limmud conferences, festivals and study events across Britain throughout the year, as well as in 50 communities around the world, from Moscow to Sydney to Rio and the Galil.

In 2010 alone, Bogush estimates, 35,000 people took part in a Limmud event somewhere in the world. Simply put, Limmud has become, she says, "British Jewry's greatest export."

"Limmud was born out of a frustration," explains Keith Kahn-Harris, a sociologist. "The idea of bypassing the ossified, traditional Jewish establishment and getting people from across communities together was radical. People who had no remote connection to organized Jewish life found themselves studying chevruta. Limmud provided a safe, non alienating space...and it caught on."


Upon arrival, I get my dorm room key, a 370-page catalogue filled with descriptions of the various sessions along with short bios of the lecturers and am directed to the cafeteria in the main building, called Rootes. I sit down for my lunch of potatoes with dry tuna fish --blissfully still unaware that this is pretty much all I will be eating every day -- and try and understand where to turn and what to do next.

"Choice is a fundamental principle here," explains Clive Lawton, another of the original founders. "Jews should learn here. That is our philosophy. But what, how and when to do it --we leave up to you. We always believed the market would rule."

"Even if God himself offered to show up and teach a session at 2 p.m.," he jokes, "...we would want to put on someone else at the same time, just in case someone was not interested."

The number of sessions, together with the variety of offerings and what Lawton calls a "glorious lack of quality control," make the whole experience slightly overwhelming: Am I interested in learning something about the book of Isaiah, or going to a session on the big "Broigesses" that shook and shaped Anglo-Jewry? I wonder. I am curious about what Judaism has to say about the death penalty, but "Eggplants: The Jewish culinary influence on Mediterranean Preparations," also looks tempting.

Should I try a session on Crusades and Medieval persecution or one on what do when halakha and ethics collide? Would it be valuable to go to a session on Modern Orthodoxy with Rabbi Shlomo Riskin from Efrat, or join the Limmud Choir, practicing for their performance at the final night gala. It's so exhausting, I sort of feel like taking a nap. Instead, I set out to decipher the cryptic names of classrooms where sessions are taking place.


The first class I choose -- on the late rabbinical thinker Abraham Isaac Kook -- is in a classroom called "RAM 5." Where is that? I wonder, and is it anywhere near "HUM 4" where another class I want to pop in on -- "Stress management for the modern Jew" -- is taking place?

En route to "SOC 7" where I was going to do some study on "The Kabbalah of Bob Dylan," I bump into Judith Ish-Horowitz, 57, a teacher from South London, on her way to a class in "SCI 6" on prayer in sign language.

Ish-Horowitz brought her husband, three children and parents to Limmud 20 years ago, and the whole clan has been coming together every winter since. "Nothing competes with Limmud. This is our big vacation of the year," she tells me. "...and also our best family time. We are always bumping into each other, and their friends have become our friends, and our's their's."

I stop by a class on Isaiah, and sit down in another one on whether Judaism can be a route to spirituality. The presenter talks about the Jewish calendar and how it frames our lives and sets our pace. I feel myself slowing down and listening carefully instead of constantly checking the catalogue to see what other classes I am missing. It is not bad at all, this Limmud, I think.


I start day two with a circuit training class on the second floor of Rootes, run by a personal trainer from London. It is comprised of seven other people, five of them wearing jeans and all huffing and puffing to her Giddy Gov music. This is not, I note, a very sporty crowd. The Shacharit prayers going on next door (Orthodox, Masorti, an egalitarian services each in adjacent rooms) and the chevruta project down the hall (where hundreds of participants in pairs have gathered to go over texts) are clearly where the action is.

I cram in a lot on this day. For example, I learn that in Medieval times the shiduch system suffered a crisis as Jewish kids stopped listening to their parent's dictums. I learn that you can interpret the Torah as advocating for vegetarianism. And that, others argue, it also allows for white lies. I discover how difficult it is to understand Pope Pius XII's attitude towards the Jews, and I am told, manna was a psychedelic drug. Is that true? Who knew? I walk into that class by mistake really, as it's right next to my other class on the Mishna Berura.

"And what happened when the Israelites ate too much manna?" asks the presenter, a bald New Yorker in thick glasses. "They lost their way and started worshipping a golden calf! Why a calf? Because mushrooms grow in cow shit! They were addicted!" How did I miss all this at my Masorati grade school in Jerusalem, I wonder. A young student puts his hand up: "Wasn't it too dry in the desert for mushrooms to keep?" So informed these Limmud folks, they don't miss anything.


I am so busy flitting from class to class that I almost forget I am here to write an article. I pull myself away from a session on "The workings of chevre kadishas," tip toe out of an interesting session on Gaza with John Ging, the UNRWA director, altogether skip the session on "How Matzah became square," and head out to do some interviews.

I start with some volunteers, which is not difficult, as they are everywhere. There are only four paid professionals in the whole organization. Practically everyone else, from the presenters to the technicians to the teen Limmud counselors are doing this for free. In fact, they are paying to do it. Eighty percent of the Limmud budget comes from participant fees, and while some 150 presenters get their expenses paid, all the rest, as well as all the organizers, most of whom are so busy working at the conference they barely have time to attend sessions, pay to come.

"It is about valuing what you are getting," says 37 year old Danielle Nagler, a senior executive at the BBC, a member of an orthodox synagogue and a mother of three, as well as being the co-chair of the conference, who estimates she put in about 15 Limmud hours a week over the last year. "Volunteering gives it a passion," she continues. "It sucks you in. ... And, it's an amazing feeling watching this pop up community, which starts in the abstract every year anew, be created."


Meir Adler, a 24 year old consultant, is volunteering at the information desk. The son of a Holocaust survivor and a Muslim convert to Judaism -- both of whom later became Bobover Hasidim -- Adler attends a charedi shtiebel in London where Yiddish is spoken, but also has a degree in philosophy and an increasingly secular outlook on life.

"I have moved away from my background but remember what's important. At Limmud, I feel part of something I am comfortable with," he says. "It's a buffet. There is every type of Judaism here. You can stay in your comfort zone or step out slightly and engage in dialogue. If you are very orthodox, it's unlikely you will come to a gay and lesbian event and decide it's the best thing on earth, but you might realize that it's right for others."

Are there atheists who come to Limmud too? I ask Adler and the others at the info desk. Sure, they respond and turn to the people standing in line: "Who is an atheist?" they cheerfully call out.

"I'm a borderline atheist," offers Deborah Freeman, a 65-year-old playwright from Manchester. She usually comes to Limmud for a day or two, gives a session on her plays and attends a few on the arts, or on Israel. "I find the Tanach to be an inspiration, but I don't see God in it, rather stories about God," she says. "Here, I can delve and learn, but remain the me I want to be."


Back at Rootes for some tuna and potatoes, the only thing more astonishing than the quality of the lunch is the incredible number of people standing in line for it. But why is everyone queuing in one line when there are actually three stations? I cut around to the second one, smug that I am so much more enterprising than these Brits, and ask if there is anything besides the little packets of kosher thousand island dressing to go with the gourmet meal.

"She must be Israeli," a handsome young father points out to his son: "She is doing the line back to front." Oh, the shame. The shame. I am a rude Israeli. What would my British grandparents say? Another guy who is cutting the line beside me -- a fellow Israeli, what a surprise -- gives me a sheepish look.


I slink away to "SOC 4," and a class about how the siddur came into being, and after head over to get some tea in the Arts center, where I bump into Silvia Nacamulli, a 39-year-old Italian chef. She is here with her husband Marc Iarchy, a Belgian banker, whom she met three years ago at Limmud when he walked into her class on making pumpkin risotto.

"I was standing in the hall and had 20 minutes to kill," 41-year-old Iarchy recounts, "...and a friend grabbed me, and said 'Hey, you like cooking ... come check this out.'" He spent the whole session, Iarchy admits, Googling the pretty presenter on his Blackberry -- and the rest, as they say, is history.

Limmud is, as one might imagine, the biggest Jewish pick up event this side of the Birthright program. Two of Ish-Horowitiz's kids met their partners here, as did Bogush, Kahn-Harris and countless of others.

"Who is going to be your girlfriend?" I ask Isaac Tendler, a 14-year-old Orthodox boy from Nottingham, who is the only Jew in his school of 1,500 pupils. He giggles, slumps into a bean bag and kicks off a sneaker. "Let's just say I would not marry someone not Jewish," he responds, gravely. "I guess you could say that is a good reason to he here ... even if some of the Torah stuff is boring."


It's the last morning of the conference, and I wake up early to go for a jog in the snow. Careful not to wipe out on the ice, and pulling my wool hat firmly down to protect me from the drizzle, I run past a long line of ugly concrete university buildings and daydream about the bikini I could have been wearing if I had taken these days and gone to the beach.

I slow down to read some yellow signs pinned to the makeshift eruv: they say something about a catchy virus and advise Limmudniks who find themselves throwing up on what to do.

I definitely could have been in more cool places this week.

I do a loop around RAM in the fog, and find myself near SOC, thinking back to the "Nazis in Oxford" class I sat in on yesterday. I dash past HUM, take a short cut around SCI, fondly reflecting on the Tuesday session there on Breslov and Chabad messianism. I slow down near the Arts center, and stop in front of Rootes, where, humming a Hasidic nigun as I stretch out my calves, I realize I am a little sad about leaving. A little nostalgic. A little bereft, even. I think of the bikini holiday. And I wonder where I sign up for Limmud next year.