As this year’s largest ever Limmud Conference kicks off in Birmingham, Deborah Cicurel speaks to some of the volunteers about what inspires them to sustain and grow the biggest cultural event in the Jewish calendar 

Delegates sing with once voice during one of last year’s sessions

Limmud conference holds a special place in the community’s heart. Now one of the highlights of the Jewish calendar, it would never have achieved such phenomenal success were it not for the tireless dedication of a team of extraordinary volunteers.

Founded in 1980 when 75 Jewish educators gathered for a weekend in which anyone could teach and everyone was a student, today the event is a major global export, spanning six continents, with more than 80 Limmud communities in 43 countries.

The flagship event, Limmud Conference, sees more than 2,500 people congregate from disparate corners of the earth to hear from more than 500 presenters and attend more than 1,000 varied sessions, which could be anything from lectures to debates, concerts to film screenings and everything in between.

But what drives Limmud’s volunteers? What inspires them to sustain and grow the organisation?

According to husband and wife Gideon Smith and Carolyn Bogush, who met at Limmud 20 years ago, the organisation manages to sustain itself by motivating its audience to be part of it, rather than mere spectators.

“The events inspire people to get involved in their communities, in their own Jewish journeys, and in Limmud itself,” Smith says.

Bogush agrees: “Limmud relies entirely on the enthusiasm and commitment of its volunteers. There is no professional saying you must do this or don’t do that – ultimately, the volunteers own and drive what they do.”

Delegates sing with once voice during one of last year’s sessions

Delegates sing with once voice during one of last year’s sessions

Oliver Marcus, who volunteers with the communications team, says the great thing about Limmud is that it’s not individuals who have taken the organisation from strength to strength but the power of its many volunteers.

“It is the volunteers’ passion and commitment that has sustained Limmud for the last 35 years and spread it across the globe,” he says. “Giving individuals and teams responsibility ensures that they are invested in creating unique and engaging events that participants want to attend – and in turn become new volunteers themselves.”

Emma Breger, who has volunteered with Limmud for seven years, says the experience is “like chicken soup”.

She adds: “It’s your yearly dose of Jewish penicillin. It makes you feel energised and warm inside. Limmud Conference is the Jewish event of the year, and there is a strong feeling of FOMO (fear of missing out) if you’re not there.”

For Breger, it’s not just the educational aspect that makes Limmud special, but the social impact too.

Israeli politician Natan Sharansky playing chess at last year’s event

Israeli politician Natan Sharansky playing chess at last year’s event

“One of my favourite things about it is the opportunity to meet people from all walks of life,” she says. “Whether it’s chatting to someone while waiting for a session to begin or while standing in a queue for a jacket potato, you never know who you might meet next – and where that connection could lead to.”

It’s no coincidence that she, too, places the responsibility of Limmud’s continued success on the shoulders of its volunteers.

“Conference simply wouldn’t happen without its volunteers,” she says. “Whether it’s a large or small contribution, Limmud encourages all participants to take responsibility.

“The volunteers create Conference together. It’s this culture of empowerment which helps sustain Limmud and makes future leaders of the Jewish community.”

It’s clear that these volunteers don’t dedicate their time and energy to the organisation out of a sense of duty or obligation – they are as excited and inspired by Limmud as the day they joined.

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Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis was the star turn at Limmud 2014

Between them, in the last 20 years, Smith and Bogush have helped with running Conference, being Trustees, leading the family programme, chairing the organisation, making up part of the tech team, helping out with transport and mentoring fellow volunteers.

“Limmud is like a year at university, a festival, a rock concert and a joyful meeting with friends old and new all rolled into one,” is how Smith describes it, while Bogush calls it “a Jewish Edinburgh festival”, but with “even more diversity, interest and social elements”.

But it wasn’t always Bogush’s intention to become a volunteer. Like many, she was unsure at first, but was sucked in by the sheer encouragement and inspiration she experience at her first Limmud event.

“Gideon dragged me along when we were dating and I was a bit reluctant,” she admits. “The reason I got involved was because I was encouraged to do so from the moment we got there – it was really easy to get involved – a lot of our friends started volunteering – so actually Limmud became intertwined with our social life.DSCF0277

“Let’s also be really clear that it is all volunteering – and that is an essential principle. While we have a small number of highly committed professionals, the majority of what happens is produced by people in their spare time. “I was drawn into it, because truly it feels like there is a space for everyone – however much time you have, whatever your skills and interest, there is something that you can do to make a difference.”

Even if Limmud doesn’t sound like your cup of tea and you can’t envisage yourself ever becoming one of its crucial volunteers, Marcus is adamant that the there’s something for everyone at the event.

“Limmud allows everyone to get involved in volunteering and educational activities no matter what their level previously, interest areas or previous engagement,” he says. “It’s a festival of Jewish learning, culture and people. It only truly be understood by experiencing it first hand.

“Where else can you spend five intense days with more than 2,000 people who are equally as engaged and excited as you? Once you’ve had a taste it’s too addictive to stop.”

• Visit www.jewishnews.co.uk for the latest news and pictures from this year’s conference.