Limmud: Everyone catered for at a cross-communal gathering with an extra festive flavour

Four thousand doughnuts have been stockpiled in Birmingham as the city plays host for the second time to the biggest annual Jewish education event: the Limmud winter conference.


This year’s cross-communal gathering will enjoy an extra festive flavour as it opens on Sunday on the first day of Chanukah.

Ben Lewis, the former Reform youth movement worker who has co-chaired the Shabbat and Chanukah programme with recent Union of Jewish Students president Hannah Brady, says: “We see it as a real opportunity to do something special.”

Whereas Limmud-goers have sometimes braved the elements to kindle a menorah outside, this year they will be able to take part in a communal lighting in the shelter of a large marquee.

A half-hour slot has been reserved in the schedule for remembering the miracle in the Temple. “We have invited some of the top speakers and performers to help with the celebration each night in what hopefully will be an exciting and suitably festive environment,” he said.

Others can choose to light the menorah with family or friends in another marquee.

Chanukah-themed events will also be sprinkled throughout the 1,400 sessions of the five-day conference, from a dreidel casino to a cheese and wine party in honour of Judith, the Apocryphal heroine who liberally plied those to the besieging Assyrian commander before decapitating him.

Ethical eaters have not been forgotten. A supply of vegan doughnuts has been ordered. According to Lara Smallman, director of the Jewish Vegetarian Society and a member of Limmud’s catering committee, around one in five of the 2,800 participants have signed up for a vegetarian or vegan meal, the highest proportion she can recall. “It signals a definite interest in animal welfare and healthy eating in the Jewish community.”

While non-carnivores were wont to bewail their conference fare in the past, dishes such as Moroccan tagine, she promises, will show people “vegetarian food at Limmud is fantastic”.

Animal welfare features strongly on the programme with a dedicated Limmud fund used to bring over two American experts in the field, including Jewish studies professor Aaron Gross, the founder of Farm Forward, which seeks an end to factory farming.

More widely on the green front, the Government’s special representative on climate change, Sir David King, will be a guest speaker.

Inevitably, the political upheaval of Brexit and the American presidential elections comes under the spotlight with transatlantic visitors including Jodi Rudoren, the deputy international editor of the New York Times, and Professor Leonard Saxe, one of the foremost researchers on Jewish demography.

MP Luciana Berger and Jon Lansman, founder of Momentum, the movement which helped propel Jeremy Corbyn to the Labour leadership, will be among panellists debating the party’s turbulent relationship with the Jewish community.

Lord Glasman, an adviser to former Labour leader Ed Miliband, will examine what’s left of the British left in a session entitled, “Who will say Kaddish for me?”

A variety of voices will present different sides to Israel, including “Zionist Druze” MK Hamad Amar, from the right-wing Yisrael Beitenu party, Rabbi Yishai Fleisher, a spokesman for the Hebron settlers, and 18-year-old social and political activist Wejdan Abd, a Palestinian living in the Negev who has family from Gaza.

A batch of sessions will run next Tuesday, designated “Refugee Day”, on the plight of asylum-seekers and those fleeing conflict next Tuesday. Speakers include two refugees from Syria’s civil war who have found a new home in Britain and Mutasim Ali, the first Sudanese to be granted refugee status by Israel earlier this year.

Also coming is Yotam Polizer, global development director of Israeli humanitarian agency IsraAid, which has been providing frontline assistance to refugees reaching European shores.

A spokesman for the festival’s pla ning committee said: “It’s Limmud’s job to provide a platform to hear about and reflect on issues and challenge preconceptions. We would be doing a massive disservice to the community if we didn’t highlight the issue of refugees, the biggest issue facing the world.”

The organisation challenges Jews to “to look outward and inward at the same time”, she says.

Also on the bill is 15-year-old education rights campaigner Ahmad Nawaz from Birmingham. “He is from Pakistan,”  said the spokesman. “He was in school one day when the Taliban came and shot everyone in his class. He played dead and was then flown here to receive medical treatment.”

For the past year Daisy Abboudi has been researching the story of the Jews of Sudan and is presenting a session on the now-vanished community on Tuesday evening.

Ms Abboudi, whose grandparents were members of the community, says that save for a very small number of sources, it's history has, up to now, been completely undocumented.

Limmud has played a major role in raising the profile of women Torah teachers and their presence will be stronger than as ever this year. Returning faces include Reb Mimi Feigelson from America, the first woman in modern days to be ordained by an Orthodox rabbi, Rabbi Judith Hauptman of the Conservative Jewish Theological Seminary and Dr Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, one of the leading Bible scholars of her generation and author of a new literary study of Moses.

Debutants include another Orthodox-ordained woman rabbi, Shoshana Cohen from Jerusalem and Reform Rabbi Susan Silverman. Rabbi Silverman, who has campaigned for egalitarian prayer rights at the Kotel with Women of the Wall, happens to be sister of the comedian Sarah Silverman and is married to the Israeli green entrepeneur Yosef Abramowitz, who will be also be speaking at the conference.

The  conference aims to  address the challenges which women confront while “celebrating the significance of bringing a full cohort of women Talmud teachers from across the spectrum”.

Due back for his third Limmud visit is Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, whose two sessions include a look at his favourite religious melodies in “Desert Island Discs”.

This year’s conference marks the 20th anniversary of the Limmud chavruta programme, the daily group text study sessions involving hundreds, which will return to the theme of its inaugural year, tzedakah.

But there will be plenty of respite from texts and doughnuts with film, music and various curiosity sessions.

Richard Verber, senior vice-president of the Board of Deputies and WJR head of external affairs, will be offering a tasting tour of Russia, Polish and Ukrainian vodkas.

And JC Judaism editor Simon Rocker, is chairing a live version of the Rabbi I Have a Problem column with Rabbis Jonathan Romain and Naftali Brawer on Monday morning as well taking part in a panel on how to get Limmud and media coverage.

Keren David, the JC's features editor, is chairing a session on LGBT and the Jewish community on Monday afternoon

Share via

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive