A Limmud Journey
By Alex Kats:
It has now been five months since I had the privilege of participating in the Limmud Conference in the UK. The branding for Limmud UK – which was plastered on posters and all marketing paraphernalia in every room at the University of Warwick where the conference took place – and the line that has also been adopted by Limmud Oz this year is: Taking you one step further on your Jewish journey. Since I first read this line, it resonated with me and it still in some way affects me today.
My first experience of Limmud was in 1999 when I lived in Sydney and heard about this new Jewish learning concept that was coming to Australia. Ever curious about Jewish learning and about different streams of Judaism, I went along to the first Limmud Oz gathering, and was so impressed that I volunteered because that meant I could get into some sessions that were completely full otherwise.
Since then I have been to a total of 12 Limmud events in Australia, from Limmud Oz, to Limmud Fest to Yom Limmud. I mention this only to show that my passion for Limmud runs deep, and my experience with Limmud is long and varied. At all of these events I have volunteered and/or presented so that I could maximise my experience, and the last two Limmud Fest’s in Melbourne I even helped co-organise. It was on the back of that that I got the opportunity to go to the UK in December to attend the original and biggest Limmud Conference in the world.
Though Limmud has been in Australia for 15 years, it was started in the UK in 1980 with about 80 attendees, mostly Jewish educators. The original founders – who were all Jewish studies teachers – decided that they wanted to expand their own Jewish knowledge in varied ways, and invited some of their colleagues and friends to join them over the Christmas break. They chose the name ‘Limmud’, which is the origin in Hebrew for words meaning both learning and teaching. From the very beginning, that was a signature of the concept – that everyone is both a learner and a teacher in some way.
Since those early days, the Limmud phenomenon has gone on to become British Jewry’s greatest export, as the UK Jewish press often refers to it as. This is because as of 2013, there are now Jewish education gatherings under the Limmud banner in 54 communities in 21 countries. Like many things in the Jewish world, the concept has been in Australia for 15 years, longer than in almost any other place outside the UK.
The Limmud Conference in the UK has now become one of the world’s largest Jewish annual gatherings, with nearly 3,000 participants this past December. (There are actually other annual gatherings that attract more people, but they are all Charedi gatherings, like the annual Chabad Shlichus conference in New York). What makes Limmud unique, and for me such a delight, is that it attracts Jews from all backgrounds, all religious affiliations and all ages. In the UK in December the youngest participant was just a few months old (who spent most of his time in a specially provided crèche) whilst the oldest was well in her 90s. There were some participants whose only affiliation to Judaism is their annual attendance at Limmud, and others who go to shule and Jewish classes every day of the week. Each of them felt comfortable because for each of them, Limmud took them one step further on their Jewish journey. There were also participants from at least 30 countries, from every continent bar Antarctica, including more than a dozen from Australia. Some like me were there for the first time because of their involvement in Limmud gatherings in their home communities, whilst many were there as part of an annual pilgrimage to participate in a learning bonanza like no other.
And that’s the thing about Limmud. When you tell people that you’ve been to a Jewish learning conference, it really doesn’t sound so appealing. Its real magnetism, and the reason why people keep coming back each year, is that it is so much more than just a learning conference, though learning for everyone is at the crux of their experience. For one thing, because of the democratic nature of the learning, where everyone can sign up in advance to present a session, some of the classes are as unique as you’ll ever see. All of them have to have some link to something Jewish, but in some cases that link is tenuous. In other cases, some of the presenters are professional teachers, rabbis or public speakers, who know how to present and engage an audience.
Each hour there are many sessions running simultaneously, so the greatest dilemma each day is deciding which sessions to go to. Over the course of the week, I for example went to a session about soundtracks from movies and musicals written by Jews, a session about the Jewish connection to NASA, a session about how Judaism has shaped British political leaders, and a few performance sessions by various Jewish musicians. I also went to some very highbrow sessions, like a shiur about Jewish demonology, a Jewish moot court where participants were presented ethical scenarios to debate before being presented with the Jewish perspective, a parsha class that challenged everything I thought I knew about the Book of Exodus, and a class about a unique take on the story of Genesis. And then there were the standout sessions, the ones that were full to capacity, presented by high profile speakers and even simulcast in the room next door. These were talks by people like Natan Sharansky, the former dissident who is now head of the Jewish Agency; Ephraim Mirvis, Chief Rabbi of the Commonwealth and a controversial participant; The JDov Talks, presented in an exemplary manner by different speakers each day in the style of Ted Talks; and Daniel Taub, the current Israeli ambassador to the UK who happened to have been born in the UK. His first session about the depiction of Israel in British literature over the last 50 years was actually one of my favourite sessions of the conference.
With Limmud Oz coming up on the Queen’s birthday long weekend in Melbourne, I have been reflecting on this experience quite a bit recently as I prepare to volunteer and present again at another Limmud event, but this time with renewed vigour and even greater enthusiasm. I know that like in past years and like at the conference in the UK, some people will be coming to Limmud Oz for the first time, whilst others will be old hands, but each will be there because of at least a passing interest in Jewish learning and because, whether consciously or not, each will be on their own Jewish journey. At peak times this year, there will be 12 simultaneous sessions to choose from at Limmud Oz, with literally something for everyone, including a new stream just in Hebrew on one of the days, and a Little Limmud program for youngsters as well. There are also ticket options to satisfy everyone, with special prices for school students, under 30s, concession holders and shared ticket options. The ticket options, like the sessions and the diversity of presenters, are designed to cover all bases, so that like me, you too can take one step further on your Jewish journey. I look forward to seeing you at Limmud Oz! To book tickets or to view this year’s program, visit www.limmudoz.com.au.
Sydney readers, please note: Yom Limmud is also happening on Sunday 15 June @UNSW www.limmud-oz.com.au