The annual Limmud winter conference, which opened at Warwick University on Sunday, is the most popular ever with more than 2,600 coming to the five-day event.
Its unique combination of culture festival, family camp and Yarchei Kalloh – a study break in talmudic times – comes this year with the historic visit of Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, who is scheduled to give two talks as the first serving chief rabbi to speak at Limmud.
Numbers are up by more than 10 per cent than the average 2,200-2,300 over the past few years.
Sara and Stephen Greek, 28 and 31 respectively, from Stanmore, Middlesex, were among the new faces this year, “A lot of friends have come here – it’s something we’ve always wanted to do. The bonus is to hear the chief rabbi, although we’d booked before [his appearance was announced].”
A record number of sessions, 1102, will span the rainbow of Jewish life, from the Dead Sea Scrolls to Women of the Wall, from psychoanalysis to psychedelic funk. They are being given by more than 450 presenters, ranging from NASA bioethicist Paul Wolpe, to Hagit Yaso, winner of Israel’s equivalent of Pop Idol in 2011 and the child of Ethiopian Jewish immigrants.
Richard Verber, co-chairman of the conference this year, said that the scale of the event – which costs around £800,000 to organise - was “really exciting. One of the reason we have managed such large numbers is that we have doubled the core team of volunteers who run the conference to 40 from 20 last year.”
In the registration area, old friends were hugging each other to the sounds of live klezmer trio, Hava Tequila, as new arrivals began leafing through the 210-page handbook - which was available on phone app for the first time this year.
Newcomer Matthew Perlberg, 18, from Mill Hill, North London, saw the event as a Christmas getaway where he could “meet people in the Jewish community and have fun. I want to get more involved, hopefully this will give some ideas of what I want to do.”
He was recommended to come by his friend Daniel Sinclair, 17, who was returning from a second year after last year’s experience which was even “better than I thought. There is so much to choose from on the programme - which I can’t wait to see.”
Those feeling disorientated in their first few moments at conference soon found their salvation by the wandering green light of a volunteer’s vest.
By noon on the Sunday, Rabbi Garry Wayland, of London’s Woodside Park Synagogue, one of nine United Synagogue rabbis beside the chief rabbi due to attend, was leading a Talmud class in the cross-denominational Beit Midrash staffed at different times by Orthodox, Masorti or Progressive tutors. Those unable to make morning chavruta - yeshiva-style study of Jewish sources in groups - on the theme of prayer could opt instead to do it midnight.
For some teachers, this was a chance to venture beyond their usual educational fare. North-Western Reform Synagogue’s Rabbi Mark Goldsmith’s sessions included early morning kabbalistic meditation and a “audio-video-danceable” look at biblical influences on reggae music.
Outside classes, participants could order a fresh coffee and pancake while browsing round the bookshop: or exchange clothes, books or CDs at the “swap shop” – one of the new features this year.
“Given the demand, we have also opened a second bar, which will offer a quieter space for people who prefer to talk away from the hustle and bustle of the main bar,” Mr Verber said.
Compared to the mainly dairy diet of previous conferences, carnivores could this year grab their fix at a new daytime burger and hotdog stand. Dining options have included a guest appearance from pop-up specialists Kosher Roast. Anyone worried about finding time to eat between shacharit or morning yoga and their first class could take a croissant on the hoof with the newly introduced breakfast bag. Keen to cut down on waste, the organisers have arranged for left-over food to go to a hostel for the homeless in nearby Coventry.
If the past is a guide to this year, around a quarter will be first-time attenders. Patricia Hartwig, from central London, who is due to turn 71 on December 25, said she had been “waiting to come for a long time”.
She said: “I love the feel of belonging. I’m interested in music, film and anything that crosses the divide between different aspects of Judaism. As a Liberal Jew, I’m very excited to hear Rabbi Mirvis.”
Barry Wise, Vice Chair of Radlett and Bushey Reform Synagogue said: “This is my second time at Limmud but already I’ve got the bug. It’s all a bit difficult to absorb at the moment - to manage all the conflicting sessions, there’s so much choice, but that’s a good thing.”
Ben Crowne, who has analysed feedback responses from the previous four conferences, said that the composition of both participants and presenters was broadly a “mirror of Anglo-Jewry as a whole - if you exclude the Charedim, who don’t come here in significant numbers. The single largest denomination is the central Orthodox.”
According to his analysis, around 35 to 40 per cent of participants in the recent past have come from Orthodox communities, 40 to 45 per cent from non-Orthodox and one in five were unaffiliated.
But the religious experience on offer was more varied than a typical suburban synagogue. At a pre-conference Shabbaton attended by 500 people on campus, options included a “secular-humanist” service and an Orthodox partnership minyan, where women led some of the prayers. The weekday prayer menu also branched out with an experimental musical shacharit among the offerings.