By Joe Millis

The only way to prevent assimilation among non-Orthodox Jews abroad is through a deepened connection with Israel, Natan Sharansky told packed Limmud audience.

Natan Sharansky, former Soviet dissident and Israeli politician, made his Limmud debut at this year's conference.

Natan Sharansky, former Soviet dissident and Israeli politician, made his Limmud debut at this year’s conference.

The former Soviet dissident and now Jewish Agency chairman was making his debut appearance at the annual five-day University of Warwick event. This year Limmud conference broke all records of attendance, with more than 2,700 attending over 1,000 sessions by about 400 presenters.

He said: “In every Jewish community around the world you have, on one hand, a movement towards ultra-orthodoxy, while on the other, assimilation. So people who are not strengthened by the religious tradition become assimilated.

“The only tool which exists to prevent assimilation [among the secular] is connection to Israel.”

To that end, Mr Sharansky said, he had persuaded the Israeli government to spend $100 million to enhance programmes that connect young people o Israel. This would be backed up by an additional $100 million from world Jewish organisations.

Mr Sharansky’s talk was so oversubscribed that it had to be live screened to another packed hall on campus, as well as to the outside world. Other star draws whose talks needed live screening elsewhere were United Synagogue chief rabbi Ephraim Mirvis – also making his Limmud debut – and Israeli ambassador Daniel Taub. While Rabbi Mirvis spoke about the weekly portion (Shemot) and conflict resolution in Jewish tradition, Ambassador Taub addressed the characterisation of Israel and the Jews in British literature.

In another session, led by American-born Rabbi Dov Lipman of the mainly secular Yesh Atid party, urged Jews to raise their children to “move to Israel. Can you imagine what would happen to Israel is 200,000 or 300,000 English-speaking immigrants arrived in Israel and made an impact?”

Elsewhere throughout the five days of learning, participants – some of whom had to be accommodated off campus for the first time in the conference’s almost 35-year history – were spoilt for choice. There were sessions on Jewish historians and Jewish words that every Jew must know, as well as talks about how neurobiology meets rabbinic wisdom and the future of Jewish philanthropy.

Away from the heavy stuff – and the gamut of Israel-related talks – there was also time for more “frivolous” activities, such as a session on Reggae and Zion – where middle-aged men and women tried to relive their youth by skanking to Black Uhuru, Junior Murvin, the Specials and Bob Marley.

Every evening on Planet Limmud conference-goers could get their fill of concerts or just hang around the bars and schmooze.