LimmudLA Fest: Less is more

There are very few places where one could learn about the Jewish prison population, sing Kiddush with a Broadway legend and do tai chi — all in one weekend. 

All of these topics were among those explored at the first-ever LimmudLA Fest, a retreat full of learning that took place Aug. 16-18 at the Brandeis-Bardin campus of American Jewish University in Simi Valley.

The Limmud concept was the same as always: bringing a diverse group of Jews together for Jewish learning opportunities that are equally varied. This year, however, the location was also part of the attraction for the 180 attendees. 

Guests slept in cabins situated near rows of corn and surrounded by summer flowers in all shades of red and orange. The campground atmosphere, complete with ample sun and a pool, was well suited to participants looking for an environment that was as physically relaxing as it was spiritually engaging. (For a working journalist, however, the prohibition against writing during Shabbat made things a little challenging.) 

The event replaced the annual LimmudLA conference, normally held in February. Past conferences were held at an Orange County hotel and had to attract around 600 people to pay for the expenses of the venue, according to Aki Yonekawa, event co-chair. This smaller Limmud took place without a paid executive director, relying entirely on volunteers.

Having a Limmud event at Brandeis-Bardin just felt right, Yonekawa said. At previous conferences, participants lounged on the floors of hotel hallways playing the guitar, giving the impression that a group of camp people had been brought into a hotel. Yonekawa said people used to approach her and ask, “Why wasn’t [Limmud] at Brandeis?”

The result was a smaller event that allowed more spontaneity, she said. 

“We were a little bit more organic. We could be a little bit more flexible.”

Good thing, because some of her most memorable moments were not scheduled at all. Like when gospel singing teacher Sharon Alexander spontaneously led a song and everyone got to their feet and joined in. Or like when Theodore Bikel, the actor known for his numerous portrayals of Tevye in productions of “Fiddler on the Roof,” performed in the fest’s concert and led Kiddush. (He happened to be at the retreat as a participant.)

Limmud volunteers also took advantage of the change in scenery to suggest that presenters make their sessions more “experiential,” Yonekawa said. One session devoted to the study of the heavens in Judaism ended with stargazing, something that would have been impossible with the light pollution of an urban hotel. Arrangements of flowers that guests picked from the garden decorated the tables on Shabbat, and the kale and tomatoes they gathered were served as a salad with lunch on Saturday. 

Other elements of LimmudLA Fest strongly adhered to the values of the previous Limmud conferences, including the effort to welcome Jews from all backgrounds. Saturday morning saw people gradually emerge from their cabins in everything from summer dresses and khaki shorts to kippot and button-down shirts — all to attend an offering of services as diverse as their dress. 

There was a mechitza service and a “traditional egalitarian minyan.” In a small building with the doors thrown open to welcome latecomers and warm breezes alike, Jewish musician and songwriter Naomi Less and Storahtelling Inc.’s founding director Amichai Lau-Lavie encouraged participants to stretch, compliment their neighbors and sing along with drums and guitar in an alternative to traditional prayer called “Shabbat Morning With Storahtelling’s Lab/Shul.”

For those preferring textual analysis to prayer, Karen Radkowsky a founder and past president of Limmud NY, led a discussion about consumerism and Judaism. The discussion included a family with multiple generations in attendance, who shared perspectives on collecting possessions. A mother of a young teenager shared a story of back-to-school shopping in which the line between “wants” and “needs” was clearly subjective, while an older woman induced tears from the group by sharing her story of collecting photo albums throughout her life and passing them down through her family. 

The relaxed setting of LimmudLA Fest did not prevent it from tackling tough, timely subjects in its study sessions. Gregory Metzger, who has worked with prisoners as the director of Jewish Committee for Personal Service, shared his experiences with helping release Jewish prisoners and helping them make a meaningful life for themselves while incarcerated. 

He provided a bit of history as well, like how the cause of the first major crime wave among Jews in the United States was bigamy. Married Jewish men immigrated to America and then found wives while waiting for their original spouses to immigrate after them, he said. He also talked about how Jewish gangsters were involved in organized crime. 

With plenty of sessions taking place each day — some simultaneously — there was plenty from which to choose. Or, well, there was always the pool.