LimmudLA reboots — minus staff, 2013 conference

This year, for the first time since 2008, February came and went without a LimmudLA conference. 

“That had been such a focal point of the calendar for me, so I was personally upset that I wasn’t going to have the experience,” said Esther Kustanowitz, a Jewish Federation staff member who presented at all five LimmudLA conferences. “At the same moment, my immediate next thought was, ‘Now I can attend a Limmud in another city.’ ”

The Limmud concept — bringing a diverse group of Jews together for Jewish learning opportunities that are equally varied — originated in the United Kingdom more than 30 years ago with just 70 or 80 people. Groups worldwide have since adopted the model; over Presidents Day weekend, Kustanowitz went to Limmud NY, the nation’s largest Limmud conference, which drew 700 attendees. 

In the United States, LimmudLA’s conference used to be second in attendance to New York’s, drawing 600 to 700 participants in its first three years and 500 to 600 in 2011 and 2012. But the group decided, shortly after its most recent conference, not to hold its signature event in 2013 in order to stage smaller, in-town events and work on growing its volunteer base.

Beyond a fundraiser last September celebrating its fifth anniversary, LimmudLA has staged just one event in the past 12 months, a half-day program at Shomrei Torah Synagogue, a Conservative synagogue in the West Valley, that drew more than 200 people. Fundraising has tapered off as well; in 2011, the most recent year for which numbers are publicly available, LimmudLA took in $330,000, a drop of 25 percent from the prior year and less than in any of the three preceding years. 

And, for the first time since 2007, the organization is operating without a paid executive director. Yechiel Hoffman, who served in that role until jan 31, recommended to the board that the position be eliminated, in order, he said, “to further empower the volunteer leadership and create a more flexible financial model for the organization.”

The leaner, all-volunteer LimmudLA is planning its next event, a weekend-long gathering in mid-August at the Brandeis-Bardin Institute in Simi Valley, calling it a “Fest.” 

“LimmudLA was always a volunteer-driven organization and had that as one of its core values,” said Jeff Ward, the organization’s chairman. “I think that’s where we’re going from here.”

Israeli-born artist Amir Magal teaches a workshop on capoeira, an Afro-Brazilian martial-arts dance, at the 2012 LimmudLA. Photo by Alexi Rosenfeld, AJR Photography

But some wonder about the sustainability of LimmudLA without an executive director. 

“I’m not saying it can’t happen; I just haven’t seen it happen,” said Rhoda Weisman, a consultant who worked in Jewish community organizations for more than 20 years. “What it would require is hours and months and years of commitment to accomplish what a paid staff member could.” 

Some 2,500 people attended the flagship Limmud conference in the United Kingdom last year, and 60 groups around the world; Limmud is, in the words of co-founder Clive Lawton, “a global phenomenon.” At its best, it is a stunning achievement in Jewish community building. 

“The story of Limmud is undoubtedly a story of diversity, success and growth,” Steven M. Cohen and Ezra Kopelwitz wrote in a study that surveyed Limmud participants worldwide. It was conducted for Limmud International, a U.K.-based umbrella group for the international efforts, and published in December 2011. 

And, of the core values promoted by Limmud International, one of the most important is volunteerism. 

“Had we had the money — we had none — we would probably have employed somebody to run things for us,” Lawton wrote in a column for eJewishPhilanthropy in January. “But we couldn’t. This participatory and voluntary ethos slowly grew to be something that people enjoyed and valued and it was [longtime Limmud chair] Andrew Gilbert in the 1990s who wisely finally enshrined voluntarism as an essential Limmud value.”

Nevertheless, LimmudLA made the decision early on to bring in a professional. 

“The concern was, in a community like Los Angeles, or even in the U.S. in general, to have at least someone that was manning the desk, so to speak,” LimmudLA co-founder Linda Fife said. “Making sure that bills are paid, being there to support — not to do, but to support — the volunteers and help guide them a bit if needed.”

For its first three years, that person was Ruthie Rotenberg. 

“They used to call me ‘the puppet master’ or ‘the juggler,’ ” said Rotenberg, who now works at the Jewish Funders Network in New York. “I had to keep everything from falling down, but I wasn’t everything.”

Still, volunteers certainly did the lion’s share of work for LimmudLA, including Fife, who has worked for other local Jewish organizations both as a professional and a volunteer. According to documents filed with the Internal Revenue Service, Fife spent an average of 20 hours a week working for LimmudLA over the period starting in January 2009, the year of LimmudLA’s second conference, and continuing until at least June 2011.

For much of that time, Fife was the board’s secretary. Shep Rosenman, an entertainment lawyer who co-founded LimmudLA with Fife, was the treasurer, clocking an average of 10 weekly hours during the same period. 

“The reason the Limmud space works is that you’re creating something that you’re passionate about,” Rosenman said in an interview. “It’s very enjoyable to see people enjoying the fruits of your labor.”

Unlike the slow, organic development of Limmud in the United Kingdom, the rapid rise of Limmud in the United States owes much to efforts by prominent Jewish leaders and well-endowed Jewish foundations — even as those same individuals and organizations trumpeted the value of Limmud’s “grass-roots” model.  

“We should not wait for large national organizations to do all the heavy thinking for the Jewish community,” Lynn Schusterman wrote in The New York Jewish Week in February 2006, just after Limmud NY’s second conference. “National organizations offer inherent advantages, but bottom-up efforts such as Limmud NY are critical to spur creativity and energy throughout the community.”

Schusterman’s own $2.3 billion family foundation had already begun a process that would eventually bring LimmudLA into existence: It issued a grant that brought Rosenman, Fife and others from Los Angeles to Limmud NY’s 2006 conference. Rosenman had first heard about Limmud a few years earlier at a retreat for 400 Jewish leaders selected by the Wexner Foundation ($127 million in assets in 2011). According to a 2009 Wexner Foundation newsletter, alumni of Wexner’s various fellowships have also been involved in the leadership of Limmud FSU (Former Soviet Union), Limmud NY and Limmud Atlanta + Southeast.

Other major funders in Los Angeles also threw their support behind LimmudLA, most notably the Jewish Community Foundation, which awarded LimmudLA a three-year, $250,000 Cutting Edge Grant in September 2007. 

Inspired by what they saw in New York and buoyed by the availability of startup funding, Rosenman and Fife decided to go big from the start. 

“In those heady times, we thought, ‘Ah, we can do this,’ ” Rosenman recalled. “ ‘We should start off with a bang.’ ”

But sustaining that energy would prove challenging. One of LimmudLA’s earliest decisions — choosing to hold its annual conference at the Hilton hotel and conference center in Costa Mesa, located just off the 405 — came with benefits (comfortable beds, reliable hot water and climate-controlled meeting spaces) and drawbacks. From the start, the conference was highly dependent on hotel staff and, by extension, more expensive to attend and to run. 

“That also had the impact of chipping away at the core Limmud value of volunteerism,” Rosenman added.

The fallout from the economic collapse of 2008 hit the group’s funding base, particularly when the Chais Family Foundation, an early backer, disappeared after losing millions to Bernard Madoff’s Ponzi scheme. Hollywood writers, available because they’d been striking for the four months leading up to LimmudLA’s first conference, were less available to volunteer for subsequent conferences. And when the Cutting Edge Grant expired after the 2010 conference, LimmudLA’s annual revenue dropped from about $450,000 down to $330,000.

Other Limmuds also hired professional staff early on, only to let them go. All four of the largest American groups — Limmud Colorado, (first conference 2008), Limmud Atlanta + Southeast (first conference 2006), Limmud NY, (first conference 2005) and LimmudLA — had executive directors until 2011. Only New York’s still has a professional leader; the rest rely on a mix of volunteer labor and hired clerical assistance. 

And many have changed their offerings, as well. 

Over the past three years, Limmud ATL+SE scaled back — and later eliminated — its annual winter conference in Atlanta. At the same time, it has seen demand jump for its LimmudFest, over Labor Day Weekend at a summer camp two hours north of the city, which in each of the last two years drew about 310 participants. 

Limmud UK has continued to grow its wintertime conference but has canceled its own summer “Fest” event.

And last year, Limmud Colorado seriously considered doing what LimmudLA did — canceling its 2013 conference to focus on building up its volunteer base. According to Limmud Colorado co-chair David Shneer, the argument against that course of action was the concern that “to the outside world,” Limmud Colorado might “look like [it was] in trouble.” 

“We ended up opting to do the conference in a scaled-back way,” Shneer said. 

Organizers dispute any suggestion that LimmudLA is “in trouble.” Fife — who, together with Rosenman, has scaled back her involvement somewhat — now sits on the group’s new steering committee, which is charged with charting its future direction. 

“I still believe that LimmudLA is the most important organization in Los Angeles,” Fife said, “because the model is not just about your own community. It’s really about being a part of the larger Los Angeles Jewish community.” 

The proof of their success will be tested at the “Fest,” Aug. 16-18 at Brandeis-Bardin. 

“We really want to maintain the high-level interaction with text and tradition,” said Aki Yonekawa, co-chair of LimmudLA Fest. “We also want there to be interaction with nature through a Jewish lens.”