Two Local Attendees Recall UK Jewish Learning Conference

By Rena Fraade
and Rabbi Melissa B. Simon
Imagine this. It's the second night of Chanukah and you’ve just arrived at a conference thousands of miles from home with hundreds of people you don't know. You walk into a “Communal Menorah Lighting” and enter a massive room of unfamiliar faces. You are greeted with words of welcome as you join with those around you in the blessings over the candles – for the miracles brought to our ancestors that brought us to this day. The group breaks into various Chanukah songs, led by renowned Jewish musician Noah Aronson.

In another space close by, individuals, families and small groups gather for “Personal Menorah Lighting.” As faces are illuminated by the candle light, each cluster offers their own blessings and songs, reflecting Jewish traditions from around the world. The room is filled with menorahs and the voices of the Jewish world united in celebration. Each of the following five evenings repeats the joyous scene.

The magical moments above are just a taste of the meaningful space that Limmud UK creates at its annual conference, held between Christmas and New Year’s each year outside of London, in Birmingham.

Limmud International is a lay-led learning initiative founded and based in the United Kingdom. Eighty Jewish communities around the globe from Beijing to Bogota, from Jerusalem to Johannesburg, and from New York to New Zealand have adapted the model for their own conferences and gatherings.

Limmud UK is the flagship conference and continues to be the largest – this year’s Limmud had 2,700 participants who choose between 1,400 sessions over five days. Attendees are both Jewish professionals and lay people who want to learn. Sessions are led by both Jewish professionals and others who have something to share. Not all sessions are specifically Jewish in content.

Limmud is guided by the mission that, wherever you find yourself, Limmud will take you one step further on your Jewish journey. Limmud’s mission is informed by the values: learning, expanding Jewish horizons, enabling connections, participation, empowerment, diversity, community and mutual responsibility, respect, arguments for the sake of heaven and religious observance. Under each of these values are a series of statements which are inscribed on posters which hung throughout the conference venue.

Rena was invited to attend to represent JeducationWorld, the Jewish education website for which she serves as the content currator, with the goal of connecting with European Jewish educators. After years of hearing about Limmud UK, Melissa jumped at the opportunity to go learn Torah Lishma, Jewish learning for its own sake. Both of us look forward to bringing elements of our learning back to our work in the Lehigh Valley, for Rena as the director of youth & family learning at Congregation Keneseth Israel and the managing director of Congregation Am Haskalah and for Melissa as the Hillel director and Jewish chaplain at Muhlenberg College. It is clearly challenging to summarize Limmud in just a few paragraphs. It was deep learning, powerful connections and meaningful conversations – a truly memorable experience.
Highlights from sessions we each attended:

Ethics of Kashrut: Two people, an American activist and the owner of the UK’s kosher, organic chicken company, met for the first time and talked about steps they are taking to change the meat industry and the struggle of understanding that just because meat is kosher does not mean that it was ethically raised or slaughtered.
Get to Know the European Community: I met 20-somethings who were all brought to the conference through a scholarship program for leaders of small Jewish life in Europe. It was fascinating to see the parallels with their struggles in engagement, but also to witness how the impact of the Holocaust is still so deeply felt in terms of the decimation of their numbers resulting in having fewer people to work with and significantly less money. In our conversation, several participants remarked their surprise that in the U.S. there are full-time paid Jewish professionals!

The Rise of Jewish Schools in Britain: Jewish day schools are currently “free” in Britain – paid for by taxes. They have been built in traditionally Jewish neighborhoods and are known for offering a great education. But research is observing shifting trends in Jewish day school attendance as well as grumblings in the government about whether these religious schools should continue to have their “free” status. As attendance in Jewish day schools grows, there is also an impact on the supplementary school programs at Liberal, Reform and Masorti (Conservative) synagogues. Scholars and lay leaders are both working to understand the ripple effect.

​Jewish Themes in The West Wing: Led by three Rabbinical students at Leo Baeck College, the UK’s progressive Jewish seminary, the session combined clips from the popular political TV drama with the Talmudic text, Bava Metzi'a, on public embarrassment.

The Chavruta Project: Now in its 20th year, the Chavruta Project is one of Limmud’s great traditions.  Each year a committee assembles traditional and modern texts on a topic and learners from around the world gather to study together. This year’s topic was Tzedakah, with an eye not only on the practical side (such as how much) or the tension between communal and individual responsibility, but also on the broader implications not just in this world but in the world to come.


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