Coventry, England – One of the most impressive aspects of LimmudUK, which seeks to educate, inspire and entertain people on their Jewish journeys, is its open tent policy, accounting for more than 2,000 participants at this year’s five-day conference.
But not every element of British Jewry is represented at this grassroots, volunteer-driven event, and it’s curious to see who is not here.
Most glaringly, it is the haredi element of the Orthodox community whose absence is noted. In terms of individuals, it is a longstanding sore point that the Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, does not attend.
This seems counter-intuitive in that Lord Sacks, best described as Modern Orthodox, is highly respected not only for his scholarship and first-rate speaking skills but for his emphasis on Jewish education and interest in all segments of Jewry.
In fact, the Chief Rabbi’s son-in-law has been a leader of the LimmudUK conference.
But religious politics are not often about logic. Rabbi Sacks apparently does not want to antagonize those on his right, in the charedi world, by endorsing or participating in Limmud, which includes the full participation of women and welcomes attendees and speakers from all sides of Jewish life.
This seems a curious position for him to take because those on his religious right are among his biggest critics anyway.
Limmud is decidedly not about fostering controversy. Quite the opposite in that it goes out of its way to focus on providing experiences that strengthen and develop Jewish identity. Its handbook states that as a matter of principle, the group “has no part to say in the debates between/across denominations” and seeks “to avoid religious or political conflict.”
Kashrut is observed at the conference and that doesn’t seem to be an issue.
As for prayer services, the handbook states that should participants wish to hold them, “they may do so providing they supply all resources and are responsible for the session or prayer group in its entirety.”
But the fact is, Limmud is an annual celebration of Jewish learning, with dozens and dozens of sessions on Jewish text, from how to read Hebrew to advanced Talmud study, and there is an ongoing Beit Midrash program each day that lasts until well after midnight.
I’ve been here four days and still get a kick out of watching people after each session leafing through their Limmud Conference Handbook, more than 370 pages of descriptions of the hundreds of sessions, listed hour by hour, and bios of the presenters. Folks of all ages ask each other where they’re going next, which presenters have been the best, which sessions to avoid, etc.
Scurrying across the campus here of the University of Warwick in the fog and drizzle and cold, they take Limmud very seriously, and are proud of its international reputation, as well they should be.
Fortunately, New Yorkers will have a Limmud of their own to celebrate in a few weeks, over the Martin Luther King weekend in the Hudson Valley. (See www.limmudny.org for details and registration)
Some personal highlights for me in the last 24 hours:
* watching several segments of the Israeli hit comedy/drama, “Srugim,” depicting quite accurately the romantic lives of a group of Modern Orthodox singles in Jerusalem -- a kind of mix of “Friends” and “30 Something” meets Religious Zionism -- and listening to the show’s creator and director, “Laizy” Shapiro, describe the huge impact its had on Modern Orthodoxy and the rest of Israeli society.
* a glimpse into the remarkable biography and teachings of Rav Yehuda Amital, the beloved rosh yeshiva of Gush Har Etzion until his death last summer at 85. Yehuda Mirsky, a former student of Rav Amital and a fellow at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute, shared how the rabbi lost his family in the Holocaust but never his passion for learning. He helped found the hesder movement, combining yeshiva study and army service in Israel; became a political activist late in life and served briefly as a minister in the Peres government; and most importantly taught his students to make ethical choices and take responsibility for them, rather than relying on rabbis.
* a session run by Alex Dweck, the chair of the Union of Jewish Students in England, describing the benefits and challenges of Jewish life on campus. The UJS is active at a number of universities, where there are about 8,000 Jews all told. He and fellow student leaders maintained that the situation is not as dire as Americans and others may believe, and argued that responding to occasional incidents of anti-Israel behavior can galvanize Jewish students on campus.
A positive spin, indeed.