Warwick Ben Smith

Warwick arts centre. Photo: Ben Smith.

A record number of Limmudniks – more than 2,600 – this week descended on the beautiful Midlands campus of the University of Warwick for the organisation’s annual conference. All eyes were on the two talks by Ephraim Mirvis, who defied members of his Beth Din to become the first United Synagogue Chief Rabbi to attend and give his blessing to other US rabbis to take part.

Shelley Marsh, Limmud executive director, told the Jewish News: “It’s great that Limmud has been growing year on year and is now representative of a wide cross-section of British Jewry. It absolutely reflects the diversity in our community.”

She noted that she was feeling “excited and in awe. It’s been a fantastic year of preparation, and now it’s finally here.”

Ms Marsh, formerly of UJIA and for whom it was her first Limmud as executive director, paid warm tribute to the army of volunteers  who had made this year’s conference possible. “It’s just incredible what these people do to get things done and encourage others to volunteer, too.”

Conference co-chairman Oliver Marcus – they change every year – added: “I think it’s fantastic and it shows we are getting the message across more and more. True, Limmud is more than 30 years old, but the fact that it just grows and grows makes it so special. It mean that even now, the word spreads and people who are new to conference come back year after year and bring others with them.”

Limmud is now almost 35 years old, is a regular feature on the communal calendar and its annual conference attracts more than 400 presenters giving in excess of 1000 sessions and participants from over 20 countries.

This year, because of the huge numbers involved, the organisers have for the first time had to find accommodation off campus, with regular shuttles ferrying hundreds to the campus and back.

Apart from Rabbi Mirvis’ two talks – on this week’s Torah portion, Shemot, and Conflict Resolution – former Soviet dissident and current Jewish Agency chief Natan Sharansky made his Limmud debut with a talk on “Israel Today: Our Shared Future”. He was also feted with a “This Is Your Life”-type session. Israeli Ambassador Daniel Taub made his annual pilgrimage to Warwick, and this year he agreed for the first time to face tough questioning from 15-, 16- and 17-year-olds, who have their own Teen Limmud programme.

Away from the serious and heavy stuff, Limmud’s programme chiefs came up with some esoteric sessions for all interests. For instance, a panel session was devoted to asking whether Dr Who was Jewish. Another, also dealing with Jews in Space took on the issue of “The Teshuvah of the Jedi: Timeless Jewish Themes in the Star Wars Saga”.

Sessions also dealt with how to declutter your life from both material and mental objects.

And as Limmudniks are known to be music-loving nightbirds, there was some psychedelic funk, Israeli dance, a rebbetzin’s disco – led by Jacqueline Nicholls,  the wife of Rabbi Rafi Zarum, the dean of the London School of Jewish Studies – and sessions by US musician Naomi Less and Israeli artist Roi Levi of Shotei Hanevua (The Fools of Prophecy).

One of the key themes of this year’s Limmud is promoting sustainability. Noting that until now, the organisation’s policy has been “inconsistent”, organisers this year decided to “redistribute any leftover food from events to food banks and local charities; make recycling the default setting for all events and not an optional extra; consider the ethical and environmental consequences of all purchase decisions; be transparent about resource purchase, use and waste; and to conduct a sustainability audit on current environmental activity within the next 12 months.”

Over its almost 35 years, Limmud has grown from a small operation for those who wanted to study Jewish texts through the Christmas holiday to what it is today – probably British Jewry’s greatest creation and export.

Beyond Britain, where there are several day Limmuds every year – from Manchester, to Harrow, to Brighton and South London – the organisation operates in several cities in the United States, the Former Soviet Union, France, Holland and Germany. There also Limmuds in Australia, New Zealand South Africa and even Hong Kong. Even Israel has imported this quintessentially British Jewish event and holds a number of days of fun and learning every year.

Just to put the Limmud figures into perspective, more than 30,000 kosher meals were prepared, with an even greater number of number of potatoes – mainly to be baked – sacrificing themselves for the cause.