A different taste

Last Saturday night, my husband and I were invited, along with many others — most of whom didn’t know each other — to the home of Lorin and Linda Fife. The occasion was not a party, but rather a “Taste of Limmud,” a precursor to something called LimmudLA. The Presidents’ Day weekend conference will be volunteer-led, and organizers expect it to bring together hundreds of local Jews of all denominations for three days of conversation and learning.

The Limmud model of cross-fertilization has become wildly popular in various countries around the world — including England, Australia, France and, in the United States, New York — but is new to Los Angeles, and getting the word out for the upcoming event began months ago. This evening was not the first “Taste” — designed to build excitement — and it may not be the last: It takes some nudging to get Angelenos out of their homes, out of their neighborhoods and out of their habits to try something that’s somewhat hard to describe.

Inside the Fife home was a world set up for willing learners. The house had been transformed into a conference hall, with folding chairs for the dozens of guests. Everywhere there were elegant platters of kosher treats (sufganiyot included).

After some mingling — during which strangers and friends alike admitted to one another that we didn’t really know what we were in for — Shep Rosenman, who along with Linda Fife is co-chairing LimmudLA, introduced the program. Strict rules: two 20-minute sessions, timed with no give. Four choices for each session, which all would be led by volunteers. Different rooms for each. Choose what interests you and go learn. It is the model for the weekend-long format in February, but then the days’ sessions, we were told, would extend from the crack of dawn until 2 a.m.

I was reminded of Yom Kippur afternoon at my synagogue, Temple Israel of Hollywood, when we’re given choices of learning opportunities, all of them led by fellow members. Hearing people’s personal journeys is always my preference, so I decided to check out comedian/TV actor Elan Gold, who spoke under the title “Not-So Orthodox in Hollywood.” My husband took a more serious track in choosing to listen to Hillel Neuer, executive director of UN Watch, a human rights group that monitors — guess what. His topic was “Israel at the UN: A Nation that Dwells Alone.”

While I’d like to say that our lives and visions of the world were changed by these talks, they weren’t. Both men were generously informative — particularly as they were talking here for free, and each can command considerable speakers’ fees. (Gold was off to play the Laugh Factory later that evening). But their topics were engaging, weighty, and very familiar — the struggle to be an observant Jew in a secular society, the fight for Israel to get its fair share.

Only when the second session started did I begin to get what is so extraordinary and delightful about Limmud.

I found myself in a room full of people, about half of whom were quite evidently Orthodox, the other half indefinable (most likely a mix of denominations), listening to a man named Yehuda Frischman, a Chasid and licensed acupuncturist. Frischman spoke about his philosophy of intermingling Chinese medicine, Jewish belief and his own brand of metaphysical healing.

Three men in this room, including Frischman, were wearing shtreimels, and I realized as I chatted with two of them, that this was the first time I’d ever had a chance to speak so comfortably to members of the ultra-Orthodox community. We cross paths regularly on the street and, professionally, through the pages of our publications, but we rarely personally interact. Yet, here, I was with them and with others more like me (including my husband) learning from Frischman — who opened his heart to us about the lives he’s had the opportunity to heal and the way that his beliefs have allowed him to take alternative medicine to a different realm.

I realized that there was a little bit of magic happening — not just in this room, but throughout the evening — as we moved outside the familiar to get a closer view of one another. And the surprise was not so much in the substance of what anyone said, but the feeling of approaching one another with open hearts and, hopefully, open minds. As Jews we are such a divided group — and even for those of us who spend our days in the Jewish world, as I do, it’s hard to move beyond our friends, our denominations, our own congregations and our comfort level.

It was a simple idea, really — just the hospitable Fifes, a set-up of chairs and those generous volunteers willing to lead us in conversation. The Limmud program on Presidents’ Day weekend (Feb. 15-18) will be designed for all ages, for families and individuals, because the goal is to link us up as one large community, to get us to move outside the pockets of our separate neighborhoods.

So, I’m going to LimmudLA. Are you?

Rob Eshman will return next week.

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