October 20, 2018

LimmudLA gears up for second conference

Caroline Kelly spent a weekend last February in a whirlwind of Jewish texts, culture, politics, arts and community at the inaugural LimmudLA conference, a nondenominational, noninstitutional, volunteer-run festival of everything Jewish. When it was over, one thing was clear to her: She wanted to help make it happen again.

“I really became re-energized with my own Judaism. I felt so positive about Judaism, and I thought that any group that can do that for you in one weekend was worth volunteering for,” said Kelly, a mother of three, who had never heard of Limmud before she saw an ad for it last year.

LimmudLA is hoping that about 800 Southern Californians will sign up to attend the second annual weekendlong event, scheduled to take place Feb. 13-16 at the Costa Mesa Hilton. Los Angeles’ Limmud is one of 40 conferences that take place worldwide — including in Argentina, Bulgaria, Sweden, Turkey, South Africa and several communities in the United States and Israel.

Kelly is one of about 200 of last year’s 670 participants who have stepped forward to volunteer for this year’s conference. That response is what the organizers view as their biggest success: having communicated that being part of Limmud — or Judaism, for that matter — means taking ownership.

“The thing that is most exciting is new people coming in and taking on leadership roles and bringing in their vision,” said Linda Fife, co-chair with Shep Rosenman of both last year’s and this year’s conference. “It’s amazing to walk into the team meetings and see people so excited, and devoting time and energy. That is how you define success.”

Last year, Kelly spent the three-day weekend attending sessions on Arab extremist groups — not her usual area of interest — collecting ideas for a creative Passover seder, getting a handle on secular spirituality and unpacking what it means to be a Jewish leader based on a shared vision. She attended concerts and a theatrical performance, twisted herself into Jewish yoga positions and had long conversations late into the night with people she might never have crossed paths with otherwise.

“One of the highlights of my experience Jewishly was youth group,” said Joanne Helperin, who with Kelly stepped up to lead the programming team for this year’s conference. “The feeling I had at the Limmud conference is as close as I’ve felt to being a teenager at youth group — everyone was happy to meet everyone, there was no judgment, nobody is trying to recruit anyone. It’s not about changing your Judaism; it’s about embracing where everyone is and owning your journey.”

Helperin, a Web content editor and mother of two, is working with Kelly to lead a team empowered to organize 160 sessions, dozens of film screenings, late-night entertainment and the kids and teen program.

“The exciting thing about being a volunteer now is that we’re in a building phase — we’re creating something that will be an institution in Los Angeles and afford people these kinds of learning experiences regularly,” said Carol Abrams, who is coordinating volunteers and serves as liaison with the sessions’ presenters. Abrams is a grandmother who works full time as a development director for Camp Ramah in California, and she echoes others in describing the Limmud volunteer culture as empowering and educating volunteers in a nonhierarchical, ego-free environment.

Attendance at the conference costs $550 for adults in a double-occupancy room ($900 single occupancy) and includes all events, as well as hotel and all meals, which are kosher. The fee for children sharing a room with parents is $100 and $250 for teens. Executive Director Ruthie Rotenberg said LimmudLA leaders hope to remove price as a barrier, and therefore it is offering a “ridiculously high” amount of financial aid to help participants attend.

LimmudLA takes in about $300,000 from conference fees, and Rotenberg is confident it will be able raise the balance needed to cover its $700,000 annual budget through foundations and individual donors, as it did last year.

The Jewish Community Foundation already has awarded the group a $250,000 grant over three years, and LimmudLA had already cashed in its $50,000 grant from the Chais Foundation before the foundation closed its doors last month due to the Bernard Madoff scandal, Rotenberg said.

In the spirit of volunteerism, most presenters are not paid for their services, and only a handful of invited artists and teachers are covered for travel costs and conference fees. Even seasoned lecturers usually pay their own way, and most presenters come from the ranks of participants. The idea behind Limmud is that everyone — from electrical engineers to rabbis to kindergarten teachers — has something to teach, as well as something to learn.

This year, some session titles will include: “Buying Human Organs Is Illegal: But Is It Unethical?” “Tallit-Making Workshop,” “A Survivor Revisits Germany 50 Years After Kristallnacht,” “Mexican Jews or Jewish Mexicans?” and “A Testosterone Primer for Women: What Testosterone Does to a Man’s Soul.”

A few big-ticket names also will anchor the program.

Gidi Greenstein, president and founder of the Reut Institute, a policy group that provides strategic decision support to the government of Israel, will help participants get a handle on the current crisis and elections in Israel.

Also in attendance will be Rabbi David Ingber of Romemu, an eclectic community in New York that integrates body, mind and soul in Jewish practice; Saul Wachs, professor of liturgy and education at Gratz College in Pennsylvania, and Edward Goldman, an art commentator for KCRW-FM who is also a former curator at the Hermitage.

Artists, dancers, comedians and actors will entertain and run workshops, as will an eclectic musical lineup. Shtreiml, an East Coast band, will perform its blend of rock klezmer with a Mideastern flare, while Sway Machinery, from JDub Records, will fill the indie rock slot. Shira Kline, a.k.a. ShirLaLa, will head up some kids entertainment, while Dave Koz, a renowned jazz saxophonist, and Bernie Pearl, a blues guitarist in the tradition of Muddy Waters, will engage in unrehearsed collaborations with other artists.

“We’ll create new pairings and see what happens when worlds collide,” co-chair Rosenman said. “It’s a great space for people to let go and not subject themselves to boundaries.”

For some, the presenters are not the main attraction.

“For me, the most impressive thing about the conference is that it’s real bonding time,” said David Kopp, a songwriter and music producer who attended last year. “It’s not meet and greet, or schmoozing and networking, or mingling or dating or hanging — it’s none of those things. It’s real connection, and that connection can only happen over the course of few days by really getting to know people.”

Kopp, who lives in Pasadena, became close with a cadre of about 10 people at the conference, and that group still talks and meets regularly today.

LimmudLA is making an effort to reach more communities this year, especially those that were not well represented last year, including local Israelis, Reform Jews and Iranian Jews.

Only a handful from the Iranian community attended last year, among them Michelle Halimi, a 24-year-old English teacher at Beverly Hills High School. She has been working to recruit others to this year’s conference, focusing her efforts on connecting with 20- and 30-year-olds through groups like 30 Years After and the Lev Foundation.

Yechiel Hoffman, a Judaic studies teacher at Milken Community High School, is coordinating the teen programming, hoping to attract more than the handful of teens who attended last year. LimmudLA also has invited youth groups and schools to send groups of teen leaders with advisers — no parents necessary.

And parents who bring younger children can look forward to a shored-up children’s program — a weak point, according to last year’s otherwise highly positive evaluations — with camplike programming aligned with the adult schedule.

As these issues get ironed out, organizers are looking forward to the changes they hope Limmud will bring to the larger Los Angeles Jewish community.

“Even though we have different levels of observance or different ways of doing things — Sephardic, Ashekenazi, Reform, Orthodox, Reconstructionist, Conservative, Renewal, Chasidic, secular — bottom line, we are all Jews,” Fife said.

“This is about being together and learning with one another.”

To register or for more information on LimmudLA, visit limmudla.org.