Boom-time Limmud beats the gloom
Light programmes: a young participant concentrates on striking a Chanucah flame
The grim economic conditions failed to dent the numbers at this year's Limmud conference, with an attendance of 2,300-plus making it one of the largest ever.
Organisers of British Jewry's annual five-day festival of Jewish culture and learning at Warwick University doubled the bursary pot for hard-pressed families as well as having to cope with a massive cut in funding from a major donor - the United Jewish Israel Appeal.
Carolyn Bogush, chairman of Limmud, said numbers had held up "amazingly" with family accommodation selling out "earlier than we have had before… we had to arrange extra accommodation with the university, which we have never done before and that also sold out within 48 hours."
There were nearly 300 children under 18 plus the largest-ever contingent, 186, on the 18-30 programme.
Shoshana Bloom, head of Norwood's Jewish culture department, who chaired this year's event with lawyer Jonathan Walters, said: "It's lovely to see that people think it's a priority."
Pumping up the volume at Limmud UK’s all-embracing festival
With a family of five being asked to stump up £1,200 for the event, Limmud increased the total amount available for bursaries from £10,000 to £20,000.
"We would never turn anyone away," said Ms Bogush, a business psychologist who is a member of Hampstead Garden Suburb Synagogue, whose new rabbi, Dov Kaplan, along with his guitar-playing colleague, Rabbi Danny Bergson of Pinner Synagogue, restored a much-missed United Synagogue rabbinical presence to proceedings.
Rabbi Kaplan, who arrived in the UK from Israel four months ago, said: "I heard of Limmud before I came to the UK. For people to get together during their holidays to learn is an amazing phenomenon. And where Jews want to learn, rabbis should be there."
Limmud UK had to find £50,000 to subsidise young volunteers, local rabbis and visitors from Limmud abroad. Representatives of more than 30 countries, including Mexico and China, planning their own Limmuds travelled to the British mother-event.
Steve Cohen, one of the leading sociologists of world Jewry, who carried out a study of the influence of Limmud internationally, said it "counters the prevailing patterns of decline among mainstream Jews throughout the world".
The UJIA has drastically cut its support for Limmud UK - which once reached £100,000 - although it pledged to provide up to £20,000 to fund Israel-related speakers. But UJIA chairman Mick Davis stepped in as one of the private donors.
Ms Bogush said: "I understand that the UJIA, like charities everywhere, is struggling… I think it's a shame that one of the best things in the Jewish world is losing funding from them.
"We have had to go out and raise the money and we are in a slightly better position than we were last year."
While much of Britain settled down to Christmas TV, hundreds of Limmudniks gathered in an amphitheatre on the first night for the Chanucah candle-lighting by Israel Ambassador, Daniel Taub.
They had been warmed up by a foot-tapping rendition of Adon Olam and other synagogue hits by Joshua Nelson and his kosher gospel singers.
The programme ran from belly-dancing to two-and-a quarter-hour Talmud classes, and appearances by Ethiopian MK Shlomo Molla and Glyn Secker of Jews for Justice for Palestinians.
The Jewish Agency hosted sessions on social issues in Israel, and featured Daphni Leef, who started Israel's tent protest movement. Artist Alisa Olmert, wife of former Israeli PM Ehud Olmert, introduced the Oscar-winning documentary, Strangers No More, on the Bialik-Rogozin School in Tel Aviv for young refugees from such places as Sudan.
A one-day programme for adults with learning disabilities held integrated sessions for everyone to attend. "We want to show the community that everyone can be part of it," said Ms Bloom.