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.
It’s 4:30 A.M. at Limmud FSU Odessa, a Jewish learning conference that few would probably associate with such nocturnal adventures. Across the world, Limmud is synonymous with different kinds of passions, like analyzing Sholem Aleichem works or promoting women’s 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, Limmud’s 500 participants are predominantly young Jews who seem to have 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 from 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 event, 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.
Later in the evening, hundreds of Limmudniks burst into song in Russian to Israeli oldies which the Israeli singer Dorit Reuveni sang in Hebrew on stage. “The lyrics may be different but we were raised on the same music,” she said.