COVENTRY, England — A lone woman stood and prayed in the Orthodox prayer gathering at the Limmud Conference, Britain’s flagship Jewish study festival, last month. It was a weekday evening, so attendance was sparse. And she was wearing a veil.
Halima Krausen serves as imam (religious leader) of the German-speaking Muslim community in Hamburg, Germany, and this was her eleventh conference, which she called “the highlight of the year.” A Muslim theologian by training, Krausen has been returning to Limmud to study Jewish texts and participate in the traditional Shabbat rituals.
Founded in the UK in 1980 as a retreat attended by 80 participants, Limmud events — from one-day gatherings to weekend study retreats — now take place in 26 countries from New Zealand to Mexico. In 2012 alone, Limmud events drew 35,000 participants. Limmud Conference, Britain’s central Limmud event held at the University of Warwick over Christmas, attracted nearly 2,500 participants. (Full disclosure: This fall, I too decided to spend my vacation at Limmud, speaking on the Arab Spring and social media’s contribution to journalism, and attending sessions on Jewish Italian cuisine and deciphering Talmudic legends.)
Limmud, Hebrew for study, encourages participants not only to attend lectures by well-known speakers but also to present sessions themselves. Formal titles such as rabbi or doctor are intentionally omitted from the conference handbook to level the presenters’ playing field. In 2012, this made for session topics as diverse as “Eco-revelation for the post-industrial Jew” and a hip hop concert in Aramaic.
Limmud sees itself primarily as a Jewish learning gathering, but over the past few years more and more Muslim speakers have been invited to partake in interfaith discussion panels and present their own sessions, in a sign of the community’s shifting interest from Christianity to Islam.
At her first Limmud Conference, Krausen taught a four-part series on the Koran’s attitude towards Jews. Throughout the sessions, she said, the atmosphere was both welcoming and intellectually stimulating.
“I started out with comfortable texts, then moved to more critical texts and at the end I brought the tough stuff.”
Dilwar Hussain, head of the Policy Research Center and member of the Islamic Society of Britain, said he too was never made to feel “like an outsider” at the three Limmud conferences he attended. In 2012, he was on three panels; one titled “Nothing Holy About Hatred” dealing with issues of prejudice toward people with different sexual orientations; another about how religious leaders deal with sensitive issues within the community; and a third about the recent circumcision debate in Europe.
Hussain said that in addition to having made many friends, he tried to show Limmud attendees that “there are very different perspectives within Muslim communities.”
At one session a few years ago, he told the audience that Muslims need to confront anti-Semitism wherever they see it, and to “understand and appreciate much better the meaning of Zionism and what Israel means to people.”
Limmud’s atmosphere of openness and mutual respect goes a long way to enable such candor, he added. “At the end of the day, when we talk honestly about our differences we can see that many of those differences are exaggerated and others are reconcilable.”
Onkardeep Singh Khalsa, an active member of Britain’s Sikh community, told The Times of Israel that he was taken aback by the participants’ massive interest in Sikh social activism, about which he spoke at his session. He said the atmosphere at Limmud reminded him of much smaller-scale residential retreats held by the Sikh community.
“Sikh means ‘to learn’ and Limmud really does foster an environment for learning,” he said.
One of the most popular presenters at the conference, Clive Lawton, was among the founders of Limmud over 30 years ago. He said that the involvement of non-Jewish presenters allowed participants to view their community through the eyes of others, “for good and for ill.”
“These non-Jewish contributors need to have something to say that will enhance someone’s ‘Jewish journey’ — after all, that is the stated aim of a Limmud program,” Lawton told The Times of Israel.
In the early days of Limmud, organizers tended to focus the inter-religious encounter on Christian Jewish relations, but over the past few years the thrust has shifted from Christians to Muslims. Lawton said that probably reflects the growing interest of the audience in issues pertaining to Islam.
Part of being a Jew in the modern world, Lawton noted, “is discovering how we engage with ‘the other’ and how ‘the other’ sees us.”
Will the Limmud model be copied by other faith communities in the UK? Probably, Lawton said, although the product will likely be markedly different, reflecting differences in “preoccupation, culture and style” between Britain’s Jewish community and the country’s other faith groups.
Krausen, the Muslim theologian, said she hoped to return to Limmud again in 2013, for the twelfth time.
“When I came back [to Germany] I said that in one week of Limmud I probably learn more about Judaism than sitting in the university for two years.”