The rise and rise of the 'Jewish Edinburgh Fringe'

Thirty years ago Limmud was called a ‘bonkers’ idea. Now thousands attend gatherings around the world


Limmud’s 7,000 UK particpants can take advantage of  an eclectic mix, including  debate, cookery sessions, yoga, dance classes and parties

Limmud’s 7,000 UK particpants can take advantage of an eclectic mix, including debate, cookery sessions, yoga, dance classes and parties

It began in 1980 when a group of 70 British Jews who did not have much on over the Christmas period decided they wanted to inject some excitement into the ailing world of Jewish adult education. Thirty years on, Limmud attracts more than 35,000 people per year across 55 communities around the Jewish world.

Limmud, which means "learning" in Hebrew, is one of British Jewry's biggest success stories. The organisation hosts a yearly conference at a UK university campus during the winter holidays, a summer festival under canvas and now "Day Limmuds" in various British towns. Participants can go to sessions on subjects as diverse as a talmudic discussion on how Abraham really did sacrifice Isaac; a talk on the history of Jewish settlement in Japan and a cookery session with Israeli TV chef Gil Hovav.

It draws big names like scientist Lord (Robert) Winston, writer Norman Lebrecht and actress Maureen Lipman as well as top Jewish educators like Doctors Raphael Zarum and Avivah Zornburg. And the 70 original participants have turned into 7,000 in the UK annually. It has also become a worldwide phenomenon with cities including Buenos Aires, Sydney and St Petersburg, hosting their own versions.

Anyone can present a session and with the slogan, 'What will you bring?' participants (or volunticipants as they can be known) are expected to take part during the conference whether that be manning the bar, picking up litter, or running a Shabbat service.

Some rabbis opposed Limmud on principle

"So often at Limmud Conference people think there's this huge team of staff - they think it's run by professionals," says Raymond Simonson, Limmud's executive director and one of three paid staff. "I'm the first full time executive director and we have a couple of admin staff but everyone else is a volunteer. There are definitely problems and challenges. We are not democratically run - people are chosen to be chairs. People have to balance their time with their families, jobs or studies. Some of them are giving hundreds of hours in the year. But it works.

"I have been to lots of professionally run Jewish programmes or events and I don't think that any of them are better or more effective or have a better impact than Limmud. I have definitely never been to one that has the range of presenters, ideas and conversations."

Primary school teacher Nikki Peipert, 27, is the families chair at Limmud Fest. She started off as a Yad – one of the younger members of Limmud who give three hours of their time a day in return for a subsidised fee. The former Hineni madricha (youth leader) from Australia worked an hour a night and three to four hours on Sundays from April onwards in the run up to the August event.

"Limmud is an amazing experience," she says. "You see how it comes together and then feel like you want to help and be part of giving the Jewish community this experience and education."

Clive Lawton, then working for the Board of Deputies, was one of four Jewish educators including Alastair Falk, Michael May and Jonathan Benjamin, who organised the first event in 1980. "When Alistair went to a Coalition for Alternatives in Jewish Education (CAJE) conference in America he came back thinking British Jewry was dull and that something like CAJE should happen in the UK," he says. "Together with Michael he conceived this idea and after several meetings at his home we planned what we were going to create. The fact that people were off work and were at a bit of a loose end meant it was more likely we would get people along. We had no powerful leaders to sponsor us. Everyone said it wouldn't work in the UK as British Jews don't do that sort of thing. They don't go away on residential camps, they don't choose what they want to study – they're told, and who would come to speak? Everyone thought it was bonkers. And so did we, which was why it was exciting."

During Limmud conference, dozens of sessions run concurrently throughout the day. More than 5,000 participants have the difficult task of choosing which one to attend which can result in lateness or even mass walk outs as people change their minds halfway through sessions. Back-to-back events leave little time for eating, let alone sleeping. The programme normally goes on late into the night, with the allure of the bar competing with a singing session or a poetry writing workshop. And there have been quite a few Limmud marriages.

"I love seeing 250 young Jewish people dancing in a disco at three in the morning just happy to be Jewish together," says Simonson. "When they wake up in the morning some of them are going to daven shacharit and some are going to do a biblio-yoga session. It doesn't matter, they're all Jewish."

But unlike at other festivals, there is no VIP area for some of the more accomplished presenters. Everyone rubs shoulders in the lunch queue. And everyone, with the exception of those flown in from abroad, will not only give talks for free but have to pay to attend. And the fee, which starts at £385 for five days, is not cheap.

"We believe that everyone should be a student and everyone can be a teacher," says Simonson. "In the British world, we have teachers and learners, but in the Jewish world everyone continues to learn."

Journalist and author Jonathan Freedland describes Limmud as the "Edinburgh Festival for the Jewish community". He says: "There's this huge range of entertainment, art, music, history, learning, culture and debate and just the most enormous possibility of choice and range. That is, in itself, the sheer glory of it," he says. A small drawback is the university accommodation which he admits is pretty basic and while the claustrophobia does not bother him, he knows other people find the intimacy that comes with being surrounded by that many people in a confined space, somewhat oppressive.

Another issue is the price. Rabbi Michael Harris, of Hampstead Synagogue, thinks the reason you do not see many Orthodox rabbis there is because they often have big families, so spending five days there is just not affordable.

Rabbi Harris was the first United Synagogue rabbi to attend the conference in 1994 (the Chief Rabbi attended in 1987 when he was head of Jews College). Back then it was a controversial move because the Beth Din did not approve of its pluralistic nature. "Some rabbis opposed it on principle and some didn't want to go against the Beth Din," he says.

"I felt very strongly about going, so I went. It remained controversial for a few years after that. The Beth Din felt it was giving recognition to non-Orthodox rabbis. Then the Chief Rabbi issued a statement saying that it was up to rabbis themselves to make the decision to go or not. Now it is completely uncontentious.

"I enjoy it because I think the atmosphere is fantastically vibrant. About one per cent of the whole community are in one place at one time. It is a fantastic opportunity for any Orthodox rabbi."

Rabbi Natan Levy of Shenley United, who has attended the last four Limmud Fests and the last two conferences, adds that "the kashrut is totally in keeping with the London Beth Din in terms of Shabbat and food".

What has not changed in its 30 year history is that Limmud is still led from within, by the people who attend. Simonson and Lawton stress that Limmud's success revolves around the fact that the volunteers are not told what to do, as is the case with volunteers in other Jewish charities. They make decisions about how Limmud is run, which means they feel more involved. Meanwhile the team is constantly changing so there are plenty of opportunities for everyone to take part.

"Everybody knows it would be far easier to hire two professionals to run the event," says Lawton. "Having 150 volunteers setting up a conference is madness. Somehow or other the ring needs to be held. Limmud, at the centre, is not organising, it's holding the ring."

Limmud conference runs from December 24 to 30 at the University of Warwick. To book go to www.limmud.org or call 020 3115 1620

    Last updated: 9:17am, August 9 2011