LimmudLA draws about 600, offers flavors of Judaism

“Must I suffer the indignity of being the only pornographic lecturer?” said Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, kicking off the annual LimmudLA learning conference this year with a decidedly risqué bang.

Enlightening as it was entertaining, the cross-denominational community conference LimmudLA took place Feb. 17-19 at the Hilton Hotel in Costa Mesa, drawing about 600 Jews of all affiliations, backgrounds and ages.  Most came for the full weekend, some for just a day.

Boteach’s Friday evening session, titled “Kosher Sex, Kosher Adultery, and the Kosher Sutra,” drew an audience of nearly 200 people. Expressing comical anger that his was the only presentation to be labeled “adults only,” and saying he’d had some whiskey during Shabbat dinner, Boteach preached for 75 minutes on the unraveling of American relationships. The lecture provoked mixed opinions. Still, no one could deny that Boteach was entertaining.

“How many women here need a man?” he asked the women in the audience. “How many need a refrigerator?”

On Sunday, Boteach created a different kind of controversy, during his presentation on “Kosher Jesus,” his new book. Asked by a LimmudLA volunteer if he could stand farther away from the microphone because a neighboring workship could hear him,  he was apparently so troubled by the request that he left the room and didn’t return.

Originating in the United Kingdom in 1980, Limmud (Hebrew for “learning”) conferences are held throughout the world. LimmudLA is one of the larger Limmud events. This year’s conference, the fifth LimmudLA, featured nearly 100 presentations.

Different from the typical conference, presenters aren’t professional lecturers. They’re synagogue lay leaders or staff people, day schools teachers and regular people with normal day jobs who have Jewish interests. They paid admission, which covered two nights of hotel stay and meals, to attend and volunteer. Professional lecturers are in the mix — approximately 20 well-known authors, rabbis, musicians and artists attended at the invitation of LimmudLA — but the onus to create a successful weekend is on the volunteers.

“We’re interested in creating a space — a space for people to get out of their comfort zone, to connect with other people and to be inspired to transform themselves and their communities,” Yechiel Hoffman, executive director of LimmudLA, said during an interview before the conference.

With so much happening at once, the most difficult part of LimmudLA can be deciding which sessions to attend. “Torah and Social Equality” or “Laughter Resources for a Stressed-out World? A capoeira class or an introduction to Krav Maga?

Attendees managed, though, and brought LimmudLA out of the banquet rooms where lectures were held and into discussion in the hotel hallways. Before and after sessions, critiques abounded about who was profound and who was dull. People shared ideas inspired by what they’d just heard. They also played Jewish geography — and musical instruments they’d brought along.

Debate in the workshops could become intense. Ideas were welcome, intellect was valued, and everyone was respected. The climax of the event occurred on Saturday, when nearly every Limmud attendee — or Limmudnik, as they’re called — gathered for Havdalah. The singing of “Od Yavo Shalom Aleinu (Sallam),” and the banging of bongo drums, filled the seven-story hotel.

It is an idealized version of the Jewish world — the only problem is that it only happens for one weekend every year.

Film screenings, stand-up comedy, musical performances and slices of academia engaged Limmudniks. LimmudLA veteran and small-business owner Zahava Stroud soaked it in. “I love the fact that you have Jews from every denomination … normally, I don’t meet Orthodox people in my everyday life. I like that I can meet people from all different perspectives,” she said.

“Let’s take a smelling break, shall we?” said Leo Baeck Temple education director Avram Mandell, who led the workshop “The Power of Smell: The Nose Knows the Path to the Spiritual World.” Mandell passed around scents — cappuccino brulée, chocolate and cinnamon — and asked participants to share memories the smells triggered.

“What is a Jewish smell — to you?” he asked.

“It’s not about you and your quest for glory,” said Esther Kustanowitz, program coordinator of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles’ NextGen initiative, who led a Friday-night workshop on improvisational comedy titled “Jews’ Line Is it, Anyway,” making connections between Jewish values and improvisational techniques. For instance, the “yes, and” technique in improvisational comedy involves actors building on one another’s ideas, rather than working individualistically. The Jewish community could learn from that, Kustanowitz said.

In an effort to allow speakers to pack more substance into their sessions, and to offer more TED-style talks, LimmudLA organizers allowed a few sessions on Sunday to go beyond the requisite 75 minutes. Renowned Dutch rabbi, lecturer and author Nathan Lopes Cardozo offered a two-and-a-half hour discussion on authentic religiosity. Too much of observant Jews’ religiosity has become meaningless by virtue of being habitual, he said.

Less a place where people debate polarizing subjects and more a place where people learn and support one another, one of the few sessions where there was arguing was titled “OK, Let’s Argue: Understanding the Other Side of Controversies in the Jewish Community.” Led by Kulanu founder and director Kenneth Kaufman, the session was intended to show how conversations about difficult topics can take place without people competing to speak.

Moreover, LimmudLA examines the little things by holding big conversations about them. On Sunday, Brooklyn-based writer Laura Silver presented a slideshow about her quest for knishes, which led her to discover her family’s roots in to Kynszyn, Poland. Energetic Vassar College professor Marc Michael Epstein sat in the audience for “Knish and Tell,” then rushed down the hall to give his own presentation on the depiction of Queen Esther in “Esther: Revealed and Hidden in Jewish Visual Tradition.”

Because attendees are presenters, and attendees stay overnight in the hotel, the lines between workshops, performances and leisure time blur. Late Saturday, Joshua Avedon, co-founder of the think tank Jumpstart and a presenter at several sessions on Jewish innovation, wandered around the hotel with wet hair, having just taken his kids to the pool. On Sunday, Zack Lodmer, who led “Om Shalom Yoga,” played piano in an empty banquet room.

Late Friday night, Boteach came downstairs to the Limmud Café and chatted about the miserable state of the universe with a group of wine-drinking 20-somethings. There aren’t many other events where one sees academics and Jewish communal workers outside of the classroom or professional sphere, intermingling with the people they serve.

“It was a pleasure working with you,” Mandell said at the end of his workshop.

The pleasure, no doubt, was theirs.