By Jack Mendel
As a first time Limmuder, a preconceived idea about the conference as being Jewish cliques obsessively talking about their relationship with Israel whilst drinking, has been somewhat dismantled.
My view of Limmud, is now shaped more by the mature and friendly atmosphere that I found it to have, and the opportunity to break down binary issues through open and expert led sessions.
There was also a lot of celebration of Jewish expression, which blends in with debate well, not allowing the confrontational nature of some sessions to descend into fraught relations. After a session on human rights, you can listen to an ensemble, or watch a movie.
So, let’s get a few things straight.
It is certainly not an Israel dominated forum. Speakers from groups like Yachad, numerous Youth Groups like RSY and LJY Netzer, Rabbis for Human Rights, and numerous Palestinian, Arab and Muslim activists, all allow for the debate to be lively.
And no, contrary to popular belief, not every session is about Israel. Many participants don’t even go to any Israel related sessions.
As for its image of being a festival for rowdy cliquey drinking; the Muslim participants, the Families, members of Young Limmud, daily guests and the older and more experienced Limmudnicks that refrain from drinking a little more, are all a testament to the claim that you don’t need to consume alcohol to have fun at Limmud.
The first thing one notices is the sheer number of people, which offers a sample of the thirst to learn and engage (over 2000 attended this year).
The second thing you notice is that there is seemingly representation for every age group and many nationalities. Every profession, religion and level of observance; all of whom offer a unique contribution.
It is a melting pot of characters, and there are events to correspond to the range of views and interests.
It is hard to really consider such a diverse polarity of people being so content with each other, which really showcases the desire to engage and be civil.
One of those participants was Chief Rabbi Mirvis,who attended for the second year in a row.
With many sessions engaging with sensitive issues, it was refreshing to see the Chief Rabbi embrace the conference and outreach to people, again; to breakdown misunderstandings when dealing with these issues.
The Chief Rabbi delivered two sessions over two days; ‘Lessons from the Parsha’ and ‘What is the most important verse in the Torah?’ Both talks were jam-packed in the largest theatres.
On the one hand, for many, it is a week where you can indulge in the most contemporary and edgy takes on progressive Judaism, through discussion and film and cultural angles. But, after seeing how popular the Chief’s sessions were, it is also very apparent that there is also a relevant and popular space for the fundamentals.
He maintained the attention of the audience for the duration, offering a fresh and relevant approach to Jewish text, including plenty of jokes, and an unwavering fervour.
The motivation of his talks were to further Jewish experience and not be afraid to think about identity as a British Jew. The resounding message taken from his address on the most important verse, was the need for education, which breeds dedication, and waS arrived at through analysing five key pieces of text.
As well as various meetings with Limmud staff, volunteers and community leaders, offering an opportunity to build bridges within the community; the Chief Rabbi’s attendance reaffirms that Limmud is an environment for everyone.
There are sessions on intellectual and topical issues, such as human rights, evolution and media bias, in addition to more unorthodox topics, such as the relationship between Judaism and Hip-Hop of America, the role of technology, Jews and tomatoes, or Jews in First Class Cricket.
It is a truly unique opportunity.
With the prominence of social media and online participation, during sessions there is constant live tweeting not to mention live streaming for those at home.
There is an underlying feeling of freedom of discussion and openness to express views, which is facilitated even more with twitter especially. Discussion and debate is historically seen as a very Jewish value, helping people to learn.
As the conference rages, you become more conscious of the fact that are professors of Physics and Maths to Social Sciences and Religion, to directors of human rights and technology organisations. This adds a certain authenticity to what they have to say.
Although It certainly isn’t for everyone, because it is pretty big and can be very overwhelming, especially if you don’t know a lot of people; there is no denying that Limmud must be doing something right to draw well over 2000 from around the UK, and indeed from across the world.
There is plenty of range and choice in the people and discussion, and there is a mutual feeling amongst attendees, that It is an experience that mixes the traditional with the contemporary, the familiar and the foreign, the young and the frail; even Jew and non-Jew, in an atmosphere of tolerance, friendliness and learning new things.
The spirit in which Limmud is held, is one of upmost respect for the diverse range of views. The polarity is vast, and there is plenty of disagreement, but respect for that is what makes Jewish debate a character we can all be proud of.