Partying hard at Limmud Odessa

Leaning against the door of a low-budget hotel room in Odessa, an inebriated young man knocks with unmistakable urgency.

“Wake up, man, it’s important. I need a condom right now,” he tells his buddy, who is sleeping on the other side of the door.

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It’s 4:30 A.M. at Limmud Odessa, a Jewish learning conference which few would probably associate with such nocturnal adventures. Across the world, Limmud is synonymous with different kinds of passions, like analyzing Shalom Aleichem texts or promoting female participation in institutional life.

In Warwick, England, where Limmud began 30 years ago and which remains the movement’s flagship, the conference draws hundreds of families whose children enjoy early morning aerobics classes as parents chat over coffee about which activity to attend. Elsewhere in Europe, like in Amsterdam, Limmud conferences last for just one day and are particularly popular with people over 60.

But in Odessa, the Ukrainian beach resort famous for its nightlife and liberal tradition, Limmud’s 500 participants are predominantly young Jews with partying on their minds. Some sit deep into the wee hours hours on the lobby floor, cradling guitars and bottles of vodka they brought from home — a far cheaper alternative than the bar of the OK Odessa hotel, which hosted the conference on Oct. 5-8.

Showcasing the region’s famous tolerance for heavy-duty alcohol consumption, the same people who partied on the dance floor until 4 A.M. can be seen attending and even presenting Limmud talks after sunrise, though things usually pick up only around 10 A.M.

“The lectures are interesting but my main goal here is the human contact and networking,” says Maxim Yudin, a participant in his 30s from Minsk. “When I arrived it took me hours just to get from the lobby to my room because I kept getting sucked into groups of people I know. This is like a water hole for Jews our age from all over the former Soviet Union.”

The theme of this year’s Limmud — the third such conference hosted in Odessa and the seventh held in Ukraine — was the ties that link Odessa with Tel Aviv. “Like Odessa, Tel Aviv is not famous for producing prudes,” said Ayelet Bitan Shlonsky, a presenter from Tel Aviv’s Bialik Museum complex.

Co-sponsored by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, the branding strategy at Limmud Odessa seems deliberately informal. At the main even, organizers projected a video greeting by Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai, who played a flute in his office while wearing shorts. He also practiced shooting hoops with a beach tennis ball.

If Limmud FSU founder Chaim Chesler disapproves of the hard partying, then he is hiding it well. “Take a look around, habibi,” says the Israel-born former Jewish Agency boss. “Not a good time to be married, huh? Tonight these guys will be partying so hard they’ll bring down the roof!”

Boruch Gorin, a Limmud Odessa presenter and influential Chabad rabbi from Moscow, isn’t shocked either. “I think it’s terrific that so many young people are coming here, it shows the resilience of the Jewish people that even after decades of Communist repression such an event has an enormous pull on the very people who will take Jewish life into the future in this part of the world,” says Gorin, who is the editor-in-chief of the L’chaim Jewish monthly.

Elsewhere in Europe, Limmud has alienated the rabbinical establishment. Britain’s former chief rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, stayed away from the gathering during his 22 years in office – an absence which many connect to a rabbinical court ruling in London that Orthodox rabbis should stay away from the event. His replacement, Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, only this year announced he would attend.

“But FSU communities aren’t nearly as compartmentalized as the British Jewish community, where the Orthodox and seculars live in separate worlds,” Gorin says. “We are all members of the same milieu, same group, with the same celebrities and shared interests, despite all the differences — and this is a source of strength and pride for us.”

Cnaan Liphshiz is JTA’s news and features correspondent in Europe. Based in the Netherlands, he covers the mosaic of cultures, languages and traditions that is European Jewry. Born in Israel, he used to work as foireign news editor for Ma’ariv and as a reporter for Haaretz.