Huge European conference focuses on getting Jews to learn

london | Two Jews, three opinions.

That adage may explain a lot about communal strife, but for a precious few days in the English Midlands, a multitude of Jewish opinions were welcomed at an annual December educational conference that is a paragon of communal harmony.

Now in its 23rd year, the Limmud Conference is Europe’s largest and perhaps the Jewish world’s most influential educational event, attracting more than 2,300 participants and 370 speakers from across the globe.

Remarkably, for an international residential conference of such scale and depth, all but one of its organizers are volunteers.

Limmud, which means learning in Hebrew, is a name that for many in the Jewish and non-Jewish educational world has become synonymous with an inclusive, bottom-up approach to education.

“It’s all about the grassroots. Hierarchies just don’t exist,” explained Clive Lawton, Limmud’s executive director and co-founder.

Lawton says Jewish educators in North America can learn from Limmud as a model for a “Festival of Learning.”

“For once, I think Europe is taking the lead in Jewish education, and North America has a lot of catching up to do to adapt from a top-heavy structure of learning,” Lawton said. “We let the participants decide what they want to do. We have no ideological or political position, apart from ‘It’s good for Jews to learn.'”

Over four days in late December at Nottingham University’s campus — which Limmudniks take over, dormitories, classrooms and all — singles, couples and families were given the opportunity to explore diverse facets of Jewish life.

The approach of “learning for the people by the people” results in a dizzying array of sessions and speakers, ranging from bull sessions about passages from the Zohar to the rabbinical response to the Internet.

With more than 900 sessions — on topics ranging from Jewish law’s perspective on organ donation to Israeli politics — the conference caters even to the most esoteric interests.

Such is the range of age, nationality and denomination at the conference that it’s nearly impossible to define the typical Limmudnik.

“That’s the key to Limmud’s success: It’s determinedly pluralistic,” said Daniel Silverstein, a conference participant, performer and volunteer.

Silverstein, director of Culanu Center, a cultural and social center at Cambridge University, sings the praises of the conference’s philosophy — literally.

After spending much of the day helping to look after the many young children at to the conference, Silverstein rapped about Jewish pride with Emunah, a group that plays hip-hop and drum-and-bass music.

“What’s really amazing is that friends of mine who are not religious came to the conference, and they got as much out of it as my Orthodox friends,” Silverstein said. “I challenge anybody not to find some Jewish inspiration here.”

More than half of those who attend the conference or other Limmud events end up returning.

The speakers range from thinkers such as Rabbi Norman Lamm, the Torah scholar and chancellor of New York’s Yeshiva University, to Jennifer Bleyer, founder of the alternative Jewish magazine Heeb.