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Revolution in Jewish Life Called Limmud

Limmud Life: Events like the recent Limmud New York getaway are taking up space in the Jewish world that synagogues once exclusively occupied. Image by Jerrold Bennett

Where will we go once the synagogues are gone?

In a Jewish religious landscape dominated by denominations struggling to compete for dollars and daveners, the idea that the three big faith streams might fade into irrelevance, supplanted by a robust “just Jewish” identity, sounds like a fantasy.

But what if it turned out that the demise of synagogue-based life is actually just around the bend — that a new generation of Members of the Tribe, enervated by treacly litanies and tired Talmudic classification, may soon figure out that the greatest sources of Jewish spiritual inspiration, intellectual growth and artistic expression (I lump them together and so can you) might come not from pulpit-pounders and the familiar rituals they command, nor even from the plaque-plagued schools that teach the cantors to cant, the professors to profess and the rabbis to rab — but from somewhere else entirely?

What if something came along that threatened to permanently dislodge the federations and foundations, with their fetes and fiscal décolletage, as the bookends holding up our sense of collective self, and put the core of Jewish identity back where it was always meant to be — in direct engagement with content?

I’m talking about Limmud.

Before I take another step, a disclaimer: In exchange for my giving four talks and participating in two panels over the weeklong Limmud conference in Coventry, United Kingdom, this past December, the folks who ran it were kind enough to fly me there and give me a bed to sleep in. But I’ve had far more lucrative speaking engagements and never once wrote about them afterward. Indeed, I was on such a high when Limmud finished on December 29 that I decided to wait a bit before writing, just to make sure the Kool-Aid had passed through my system.

For those of you permanently stationed in Antarctica, Limmud is an annual multi-day conference of Jewish learning. Since it started in the U.K. three decades ago, it has spread to communities around the world. But the British Limmud Conference remains the original, the biggest and — in my view — the most threatening to established Jewish life.

A few numbers: more than 2,500 participants; 400 presenters, including some of the most influential scholars, journalists, rabbis, artists and institutional leaders in Israel and the Diaspora; 1,000 different sessions. As one of the organizers told me, you can meet someone the first day and literally not see that person again until the closing event. Every hour of every day, if you are not presenting, you’ll need to make the impossible choice among at least two or three simultaneous sessions (out of about 20) that you have defined as must-see, or spend an hour chatting with some extremely interesting people you’ve always wanted to meet. For someone who doesn’t boggle easy, it was boggling — and enchanting.

There are a few unstated principles that make Limmud glow. One is that the mind and the spirit, the body and the soul, are one. Social, religious and intellectual stimuli are mixed inseparably. In addition to the classes going on, there is a cavernous, cacophonous central commons filled with hundreds of chairs and tables and couches for the never-ending conversations that Limmud triggers. During the day, coffee and cookies and live jazz flow freely. At night, beer on tap and harder stuff transform it into an English pub. (Still later at night, they bring out the kosher burgers as, well, a kind of exclamation point on the whole day.) This rejection of the Platonic separation of mind, spirit and body applies to the sessions, as well, which range from panels to lectures to seminars to performances to workshops. You can attend a session on “Aikido and the Talmud,” on Israel’s “cottage cheese rebellion” or on heavier questions of prayer, Zionism, philosophy, demography, dance or poetry. Or just join some people hanging out with a guitar and lighting Hanukkah candles.

Second, your place of work does not appear on your nametag. Neither do markers of formal hierarchy of knowledge, like “professor” and “rabbi.” This is because Limmud’s conceivers have realized that by developing a deferential rather than a creative atmosphere, such titles can encourage other people to plead ignorance rather than cure it by taking their learning into their own hands. The suspicion at Limmud, in other words, is that titles and affiliations, when tossed into a bubbling cauldron of intellectual ferment, can often do more harm than good.

And the third, and perhaps most beguiling, principle: There are almost no professional Limmudniks. While the international Limmud body’s paid staff is minimal, the volunteers run the conference almost exclusively. Participation fees cover more than half of the conference’s budget. There is a glaring absence of freebies. Which means that Limmud is largely immune to the pressures of philanthropic organizations and professional-caste standards. It is open-source Judaism: People there can chart their course, thankfully ignorant of what is expected of them — making contacts, coming up with ideas, changing their lives. In the process, Limmud is developing a powerful, unique brand unlike anything seen in the Jewish world in a generation.

Which is why Limmud may end up overturning the apple cart of Jewish life.

It’s not just a nice getaway; it’s by far the most interesting thing happening in Jewish life. It is more spiritual than synagogue, more challenging than yeshiva, more fun than youth groups, more effective than day school, more creative than Jewish community centers, more intellectual than grad school. Or at least it has the potential to be all these things, depending on who is leading a session, who is in the audience and who is on the other side of your Guinness at any given moment. That potential is evident every moment of the conference, and it leaves you wondering where, exactly, all this energy and identity has been all your life.

The main challenges for Limmud, it seems, are now twofold. First, it must find a way to successfully replicate the experience I just witnessed in places other than England. Although “Limmud” conferences have popped up around the world, not all of them have re-created the magic of Limmud-U.K. or followed its set of principles. Keeping the brand meaningful will be hard.

But more important, Limmud will have to find the appropriate way to extend that experience into the rest of the year. Critics have likened the conferences to summer camp, where the shortness of the period and the unreality of the environment make fantasies come true, but is much harder to translate into real life.

The thing is, I went to summer camp. The best ones aren’t stand-alone but are connected with youth movements, where the whole point is not the summer experience as much as finding a way to carry the enthusiasm through the year — local club meetings, biannual conventions and more. What my own camp experience taught me was that it was anything but an unreal bubble. It was the highlight of a whole year of redoubled expectations. And eventually it became the engine that drove my identity. In the end, the camping experience contributed decisively to my decision to make aliyah. And I am far from alone.

But regardless of how Limmud evolves, its effects will soon be felt across the Diaspora and in Israel, as well. Limmud is not just a name, but also a style, an attitude and, at its best, a hope. This is what revolutions look like; if you find it hard to believe, it’s because Diaspora Jewry hasn’t seen one in a long time.

David Hazony is a contributing editor to the Forward, and the author of “The Ten Commandments: How Our Most Ancient Moral Text Can Renew Modern Life” (Scribner, 2010).

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