Sermons slammed to celebrate Sinai


Becoming ourselves is a process. We learn what our family or friends find funny or valuable, and shape our identities accordingly, either to conform to, or in opposition to those norms and expectations. Teachers help us acquire skills, the basics of contemporary education, text analysis and interpretation. If we are lucky, our teachers don’t just teach at us, but learn with us, validating our instincts toward personal interpretation and endorsing multiple possible readings instead of just one definitive one. 
 
But for many who might never have felt free, or qualified, to interpret holy texts, Torah study remains daunting, incompatible with our hectic daily pace, or inconsistent with the personal convictions that guide our actions. Some of us have been lucky enough to find Limmud events, in Los Angeles and around the world, which position diversity of voices as a primary value. But the contemporary celebration of Shavuot is the one that most brings us the chance to see the text through our own eyes, and to share those visions with the community, as I saw last month, at Temple Beth Am’s all-night study program, or Tikkun Leil Shavuot, which featured a “Sermon Slam.”
 
The night included eight different perspectives (including one from this writer) on two short texts. Each of us wrote and delivered an original 3-5 minute “sermon” in the “story slam” style known to those who frequent “The Moth,” or other storytelling and performance nights. 
 
The night wasn’t just about the eight voices – it was about providing the entire assembly with access to the texts that were under our microscope. Outgoing Ziegeler School Dean Rabbi Aaron Alexander (only two weeks before he and his family relocated to Washington D.C. for a position at Adas Israel) taught the texts to the entire audience, giving them the background to understand the performers. 
 
So what happens when eight Jews stop being polite about text study and start being real? They interpret from their own education, influences, politics, passions and sensitivities, taking something uniform and transforming it entirely. 
 
WATCH: Esther Kustanowitz: “Brokenness” a Shavuot sermon slam
 
 
Rachel Salston, a soferet (scribe for Jewish texts) and a rabbinical student, shared her perspective on broken Torah as an opportunity to fix it. “Moshe Rabbenu was also Moshe Sofrenu. Celebrating the brokenness in revelation. I get to help just like he did.”
 
Michael Salonius, Clinical Chaplain for the Wounded Warrior project, took a different approach, calling upon his ancestors to “release me from Jacob’s sin…and the outcome of his deceit,” and invoking the rebellious spirit of Resh Lakish, the rabbi – and former bandit – who had been quoted in the text we’d been given. “Only the outliers know the cruelty of the crowd,” he said. 
Josh Warshawsky, artist-in-residence at Temple Beth Am and Pressman Academy and a rabbinical student, spoke of music’s power in piecing together broken fragments: “Song heals… Song enables us to open ourselves up to the melody of another. To infinitely feel their note by note and match it to our own.” 
 
The Sermon Slam ended with musician Nachum Peterseil teaching a song, then participants moved forward into the rest of the program, with offerings that continued the evening’s commitment to different perspectives.
 
It is this diversity of voices, the application of modern and creative formats to long-held beliefs and ancient stories that annually renews my interest in these texts. I am lucky enough to have had a solid Jewish education, but traditional programs of text study don’t stir my soul: while rabbis can inspire, it’s the insights of my peers, colleagues and strangers – now granted access to text and given a pulpit for interpretation – that invigorate my connection to tradition.
 
Such events reinforce what we’ve always been told, that all Jewish souls (including those born into non-Jewish families) were present at Sinai, and that the Torah belongs to all of us. We try to find our modern selves in ancient texts, narratives and characters, to imagine our emotional responses to things we’ll never experience, and to use our contemporary experiences to increase our understanding of our past. 
 
“We will do and we will listen,” the Jews promised at the base of Mount Sinai. Many interpretations say that this speaks of extreme faith, to promise to do something even before you’re told what it is. But my reading is a little different: na’aseh, we will actively engage in the text, making it our own, and “nishma,” as others offer their wisdom, we will also listen.

At Tel Aviv’s first Limmud, participants confront Israel’s raucous politics


The debate over Jewish law’s role in Israel’s government has raged for 70 years. Should the state, above all, be Jewish, or should it put its democracy first?

Addressing a crowded room Thursday, Yotam Yizraeli argued that Jewish tradition suggested a third option: no government at all. When the Torah said to obey God’s law, Yizraeli claimed, it meant to denigrate kings, who would never measure up to divine rule.

“Theocracy means that I don’t accept anything,” Yizraeli said. “Theocracy is all around us. It continues with Israeli techies. Talmudic discussion has an anarchist quality to it.”

Yizraeli was teaching a class called “Judaism and Anarchy” at the inaugural Limmud TLV, a two-day pluralistic conference of Jewish learning that took place last week at a college in Jaffa. The 400 participants at the conference— many of them in their 20s and 30s — attended more than 100 sessions ranging from traditional Talmud study to yoga to the dissection of a popular satirical TV show. While most sessions were in Hebrew, several were in English, catering to the visible minority of English-speaking immigrants in attendance.

But many of the sessions used Jewish texts to address past and present Israeli political fissures. Sessions confronted topics like the source of Israel’s festering secular-religious divide, discrimination against African migrants in south Tel Aviv, political campaigns in the Bible and Israel’s controversial nation-state bill, which would enshrine into law Israel’s status as a Jewish state.

“There’s no doubt there’s an ability to have a deeper discussion because we live these issues,” said Limmud TLV Chairman Tal Grunspan. “There’s no doubt an Israeli will understand the nuances, because it’s meant for an Israeli audience. That’s part of the beauty of doing a Limmud in Tel Aviv.”

In hosting its first Limmud, Tel Aviv joins dozens of cities around the world that have held the Jewish learning conference — from London to Montevideo, Uruguay to Johannesburg, South Africa. Limmud TLV’s team hopes to make the conference an annual event.

Eight other communities in Israel have hosted a Limmud conference, from towns in the Arava, near Israel’s southern tip, to Limmud Galil up north. Cities with large religious populations, like Jerusalem and the central Modiin, have also held Limmuds, and Israel has hosted a Limmud for immigrants from the former Soviet Union.

The conference’s arrival in Tel Aviv is one more sign that Israel’s secular mecca is experiencing a spiritual revival, driven in part by young religious Israelis who have come to the country’s economic capital for jobs, as well as immigrants with more traditional lifestyles. And though Tel Aviv is known as a left-wing stronghold, perspectives at Limmud spanned the political map.

The class on the nation-state bill was taught by one of the bill’s proponents, who argued against left-wing claims that the bill would weaken Israeli democracy. A later session on the haredi Orthodox view of Zionism posited that the haredi worldview will never accept modern Jewish sovereignty — even as haredi politicians serve in Israel’s government.

“The moment we build coalitions in the Knesset that have an ingredient of people who aren’t Zionist, that dictates the agenda of the state,” said Conservative Rabbi Jeff Cymet, who taught the class. “And that worries people who care about Zionism.”

Postcards on an American-Jewish identity in Israel


Andrew Lustig, a Jewish spoken word artist, wrote this piece intending it to be performed — to be spoken. It was first performed on stage at a ChaiPowered storytelling event at LimmudUK. Illustrator Lon Levin created the artwork in collaboration with Lustig.

I am 16 … 

Eating breakfast with my father 

each of us reading a section of The New York Times. 

My father reads about Nazi hunters in Argentina. I read the sports scores. 

“Before you die what’s one headline you want to see on the front page of the paper?” I ask my father.

Without hesitation he answers, “Israelis and Palestinians make peace.”

“I knew you were going to answer something about Israel,” I say. 

“Something, for once, not about Israel. What about something that could be on the front page of the Science and Technology section?” 

And so he thinks for a second. And as he answers, he uses his hands to envision the headline in bold, black ink letters with a comma he can’t help but add before a clause he can’t help but include: “I’ve got it,” he says: “Cancer Cured: Israeli Scientists Lauded.”

I am 18 …

I have permission from my Israel trip leaders to spend the day with my Israeli family. 

I’ve never met Aunt Edna but since I’ve been in Israel she’s called me every day … to remind me to wear sunscreen. 

We plan to meet at a junction right outside the kibbutz my group is staying on. 

Right on time a car pulls up, and out of the back seat an older woman walks out and waves goodbye to the driver. 

I run to the woman and throw my arms around her. In the half biblical, half slang Hebrew I know from Torah services and teenage soldiers, I let her know that I’m wearing sunscreen … but she is stiff in my embrace. Doesn’t hug me back. Doesn’t respond to me as I tell her how good it is to finally meet her. 

From the driver’s seat, Aunt Edna rolls down the window and shouts at me: “Nu? … Get in. You’re hugging the hitchhiker. She’s not related to you.”

I am 20 …

My Israeli friends “don’t get” why I’m enrolling for a year at a yeshiva in Jerusalem. I’m not sure I do either. 

I sit down on the 21 bus across from a cute girl dressed in all black. Wearing Converse sneakers. A red streak in her hair. Nose ring. 

She’s reading a book. And it’s in Hebrew. And I’m so excited. 

To see someone who looks cool and secular like me reading a religious book. Finding meaning in Jewish text. 

I’m so curious about what she’s reading. If it’s the weekly parsha or something Chasidic. It must be something mystical. 

So I ask her, confidently: “Excuse me … Is that the kabbalah?” 

Kabbalah? She responds. “My book? Lo. Ze … ‘Fifty Shades of Grey.’ ”

As she gets off at her stop, the woman next to me looks up from her book of tehillim and warns me: “In this country, everything, even the pornography, is in Hebrew.”

I am 22 … 

Wandering through the alleyways of Nahlaot in Jerusalem, looking through the windows for a Kabbalat Shabbat service I’d feel comfortable in. 

As I’m about to give up, I hear a faint echo of Lekhah Dodi, and I excitedly follow the sound of psalms into a heavy steel door and down a staircase into an underground shul … 

disappointed to discover the prayer is separated. 

Men in front. 

Women tucked into a corner behind a curtain. 

I decide I will leave but first I ask a group of women, sitting, talking on a couch, if there is a bathroom. They point.

“Is this men’s or women’s?” I ask, confused. 

As I watch a woman walk out of one stall and a man out of the next. 

“It’s both,” one of the women says, rolling her eyes. “This is Israel, you know? This shul is in a bomb shelter. There’s not so much space down here that we can just separate the bathrooms by gender.”

I am 24 …

On a bus in Tel Aviv. It’s Friday, January 3rd. 

Early afternoon. Only hours before Shabbos. 

The first Shabbos just after New Year’s. 

The bus is crowded and slow and I’ve been sitting silently for an hour across from an old Israeli man who reminds me of my grandfather. 

As my stop approaches, I want to say something, so I smile and say, “Chag sameach.” 

And he responds 

throwing his head back 

Ma chag? What holiday?” 

“New Year’s,” I say. 

Ze lo he chag sheli. Ani Yehudi. It’s not my New Year’s,” he insists. “I am a Jew.” 

Taken aback, realizing I’ve offended him, I apologize. “Slicha. Ani mitztaier. I’m sorry. Achi, my friend. Shabbat shalom.”

And as I walk off the bus, I hear him yell after me: “Ma Shabbat? Do I look religious to you?” 

I am 26 … 

teaching at a Jewish summer camp 

standing in the back of the beit midrash as the participants listen to a lesson plan we’ve improvised …

because war has broken out.

I watch the Israelis in the room. 

I wonder if they’d like me less if they knew how liberal I was.

In my head, I label the 3 murdered boys “settlers” and I feel guilty for doing it. 

I am already afraid for Gaza.

In response to that thought, my father pleads, “Andrew, you’re too young to remember.” My grandfather reminds me to “never forget.” Aunt Edna dismisses me: “You don’t know what it’s really like to live here.”

I am a mistress. At my lover’s funeral. Watching from afar as the family members cry by the casket. “Who is he?” they wonder. “Why should he cry?” 

As I turn to wipe away a tear, I notice a book titled “Moses: The Outsider.” 

Moses. Who felt voiceless. 

Almost left forever 

Me anochi key A-lech

Who am I? 


Andrew Lustig is a Jewish spoken word artist and writing workshop facilitator. Contact him at iamandrewlustig.com or lustig.andrew@gmail.com.

Limmud comes to L.A.


LimmudLA will hold its second annual summer Fest — a celebration of Jewish culture and learning — Aug. 15- 17. The retreat, run entirely by volunteers, will be held at the American Jewish University’s Brandeis-Bardin Campus in Simi Valley and is open to Jews of all ages and backgrounds.

Aki Yonekawa, Brandeis-Bardin’s director of programming and president of the event, said the Fest will feature sessions on a variety of topics, including creating prayers, writing poetry, medical ethics and shechitah, or kosher animal slaughter. There will also be daily hikes around the campus and an evening of participant-led music, she said.

“Mostly, we want people to be able to try something new and meet someone new,” Yonekawa said, adding that the LimmudLA Fest will allow attendees to “take one step further on [their] Jewish journey.”

Speakers and workshop presenters at this year’s Fest include Paul Root Wolpe, an Emory University bioethics professor (and brother of Sinai Temple’s David Wolpe); Sue Fishkoff, editor of j., the Northern California Jewish weekly; David Siegel, Israel consul general of Los Angeles; Dov Waxman, a political science professor at the City University of New York who specializes in Israeli and Middle Eastern politics; Samuel Lebens, a blogger for Haaretz.com; and Taya Shere, co-founder of the Kohenet Hebrew Priestess Institute. 

Last year’s retreat drew 180 attendees, and Yonekawa expects to see between 150 and 200 participants this year.

She recommends that participants bring water bottles, hats and comfortable walking shoes. A selection of lodging options are available, from camping and shared cabins to motel-style rooms and deluxe suites.

LimmudLA is a nonprofit organization that seeks to connect Southern California Jews from diverse backgrounds. In addition to hosting Fests, the organization creates a variety of events that emphasize community building and leadership. This is the second year LimmudLA has held the Fest at Brandeis-Bardin. From 2008-2012, the organization held a similar multiday conference at the Hilton Orange County/Costa Mesa each February. 

Yonekawa said there are many volunteering opportunities at the Fest; among these are helping to supervise children, assisting at the help desk, setting up and cleaning up after the event.

Participants can still register online at the organization’s website, limmudla.org. Prices for the three-day event are all-inclusive and range from $200 to $600 for adults and $125 to $150 for children, depending on the type of lodging. Children 2 and younger are welcome to attend the Fest for free. 

All donations made during registration will go toward scholarships for people who might otherwise have difficulty attending the event.

The Limmud way: My journey to the future of Judaism


Two distinct visions of Judaism played in my head at the 33rd annual Limmud Conference in England, which I attended during Christmas week. The first vision was alive and kicking at the conference itself, where, under cold and gray skies, 2,600 Jews gathered on a university campus to sample the world’s greatest Jewish buffet. 

If you’ve never been to a Limmud conference, think of it as a Club Med for the Jewishly curious.

No Jewish subject is left behind. The conference I attended offered 1,102 classes, 25 films and 55 panel discussions touching on everything from the spiritual, cultural, religious and mystical aspects of Judaism, to the political, literary, musical and, of course, the controversial.

A major part of the Limmud adventure is learning the art of picking from this dizzying number of options. But another essential aspect of Limmud is the fact that, for several days, you live in an intensely Jewish “neighborhood” and mingle constantly with other members of your tribe.

Not too long ago in many areas of Europe, such a Jewish neighborhood would have been called a ghetto — a place where Jews were forced to huddle in the face of a hostile world. Today, we can be thankful that when Jews huddle, they do so by choice.

And if Limmud is about anything, it’s about the power of choice. The body of Limmud is learning, but its soul is choice.

Which brings me to the other vision of Judaism that played in my head at Limmud, one that was clearly not about choice. 

That vision was articulated in a hard-nosed editorial written by a prominent Orthodox Jew in a British Jewish paper, The Jewish News, which was widely distributed at the conference. Taking issue with Limmud’s pluralistic approach, the author, Brian Gordon, asserted that “the future strength of Anglo-Jewry lies fairly and squarely with the Orthodox camp.”

Freedom of choice is fine, Gordon intimated, as long as one chooses Orthodoxy.

For anyone at the conference seeing this message, it was an odd disconnect. Here we were feasting at this fabulous buffet of Jewish choice but reading that the future of Judaism resides only in one section of that buffet.

Even though England’s new Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis did show up this year, the continued opposition to Limmud among some in British Orthodoxy signifies that these two visions of Judaism — one based on choice, the other on religious boundaries — will continue to clash.   

To Gordon’s credit, he doesn’t mince words when making his case, stating flatly that “there is only one real factor that has sustained the Jewish people throughout the ages — namely adherence to Orthodox doctrines.”

He railed against a Jewish faith that is “a popular democracy based on trends,” or what he called “an ice cream parlor, where customers can pick and mix the mitzvah flavors that suit them and reject those that don’t.”

It was unsettling to read these words even as I was absorbing so much learning at this giant ice cream parlor of innumerable Jewish flavors.

In one session, for example, I learned from Joel Grishaver about God’s “brokenness,” examining Martin Buber and the Lurianic creation myth, and how “each of us is broken … and as we heal ourselves, God and the world are healed as well.”

In another session, I learned from Chicago Torah expert Shoshana Waskow about the 10 instances in the Torah when a woman “takes” something, and how, every time, something transformative happens.

In other sessions, I learned about “Torah and acting theory”; the oldest Jewish sect (the Karaites); the spiritual meaning of Havdalah; the rise and fall (and rise?) of political Islam; and I even saw a film on the once-vibrant but now vanishing culture of my ancestors, the Jews of Morocco.

One night, I skipped out of a class I found dull and stumbled onto what was, perhaps, my favorite session of the conference: “Photography That Cares,” presented by Glenn Jordan, an African-American artist originally from Los Angeles, who now teaches at the University of South Wales. Jordan showed a series of portraits of Welsh Jewry titled “Hineni: Life Portraits From a Jewish Community.”

Each portrait told another Jewish story; each face expressed the complexity of human emotion. Here was a black man from America giving a Jewish audience in England the goose bumps of Jewish peoplehood. 

As I continued to sample the multitude of Jewish flavors throughout the week, meeting Jews from around the world, debating Eliezer Berkovits’ breakthrough ideas about the existence of God, being challenged by a candid examination of King David’s series of sins, seeing an Orthodox woman perform a play imagining her burial, and attending a musical jam session of Iraqi-Israeli music, Gordon’s message was never far from my mind: This ice cream parlor is not the future of Judaism.

Was I enjoying a Judaism of pleasure that could never stick because it doesn’t make any demands on me? Would this very broad sampling of Jewish ideas reinforce my Jewish identity or water it down? And is this Judaism of choice incompatible with stringent Orthodoxy?

Ironically, it was something as silly as a colorful poster that enlightened me the most on this subject. This poster stared at me in every class I attended, and it said: “Taking you one step further on your Jewish journey.” 

That is the essence of the Limmud mission statement, and it frames your whole experience. 

Its brilliance is that it empowers everyone equally: Whether you’re a Charedi Jew or an atheist, there’s always something at Limmud to take you one step further on your Jewish journey.

By honoring individual journeys, Limmud nurtures the collective journey that its conference represents. It’s an artful move. Large Jewish gatherings are usually homogeneous — one movement, one ideology. Limmud is 2,600 attendees, 2,600 movements, 2,600 journeys.

This respect for the individual creates an unthreatening environment in which Jews feel free to explore, discover and break down barriers.

Children learning from parents, and parents learning from children, at a Limmud study session. Photos by Flix ‘n’ Pix

I met two deeply religious Jews at Limmud who embodied this very idea of breaking down barriers. The first was Rabbi Dov Lipman, a member of the Knesset in the centrist Yesh Atid Party. You listen to Lipman speak and you think: “Please, someone make him the Chief Rabbi of Israel — pronto!”

On every issue of controversy, Lipman offered moderate and compassionate views that respect Jewish law. It helps that he’s a Torah scholar trained in some of the most prestigious yeshivot, and that he holds a master’s degree in education from Johns Hopkins University.

When discussing Israel’s conversion crisis, for example, he quoted the halachic concept of zera yisrael (Jewish progeny) that would allow an easier path for hundreds of thousands of Russian Israelis seeking an official conversion to Judaism.  

What’s most intriguing about this Charedi Jew is how fearlessly and respectfully he engages with the secular world. Because he learns from them, they end up learning from him. In one of his sessions, he shared anecdotes about how some of the secular colleagues in his party often ask him, out of respect, “Is this OK with Jewish law?”

The point Lipman made was an old and timeless one. It was a point, in fact, that every Limmud conference makes: Human contact breaks down barriers.

The other religious speaker breaking down barriers was Rabbi Yuval Cherlow, a  halachic scholar, philosopher, author and founding member of the moderate Tzohar rabbinical organization.

In a conversation with Limmud co-founder Clive Lawton, Cherlow explained how Tzohar was conceived after the Yitzhak Rabin assassination — a traumatic turning point that galvanized religious Jews like Cherlow to try to lessen tensions between Israel’s religious and secular communities.

In reaching out to their secular brethren, members of Tzohar wanted to go beyond simple expressions of love to do something concrete that would benefit the secular world. They started by focusing on marriage, providing a halachic alternative to the thousands of Israeli couples whom the chief rabbinate refused to marry for one reason or another.

I got to hang out with Cherlow a little during the conference. One of the unique aspects of Limmud is that everyone is on equal footing. There are no titles on name badges — just your name. Presenters and students mingle in the cafes and bars and eating areas.

If you see a presenter and you feel like shmoozing, you do so. Which is what I did with Cherlow. Beyond his obvious intellect, what I took away was a sweetness and genuine curiosity.

Rabbi Dov Lipman, a Knesset member from the Yesh Atid Party, addresses Limmud International delegates from 40 communities around the globe. Photos by Flix ‘n’ Pix

The sight of these two Orthodox scholars mingling at a pluralist Jewish event was in sharp contrast to the uncompromising attitude I read about in Gordon’s editorial.

I wondered: Would Gordon and his ilk feel the same way if they actually attended this event? Would they still be turned off by “the active presence, on an equal basis, of non-Orthodox clergy” if they had attended a fascinating Torah class by a non-Orthodox rabbi?

We’ll probably never know, because they are not likely ever to set foot at a Limmud conference (at least not until Maschiach shows up first).

Part of me gets it. When you believe in something very deeply — such as the idea that Jewish identity lives or dies on absolute observance of God’s commandments — it’s difficult to expose yourself to anything that might challenge that view.

What these tough chaps are missing, however, is the fact that Limmud itself is hardly a secular venture. For one thing, the food is strictly kosher (which might be its best feature). Limmud also offers Orthodox prayer services, and on Shabbat you might as well be in my Orthodox neighborhood of Pico-Robertson in Los Angeles.

But above and beyond its respect for Orthodoxy, Limmud caters to the individual Jewish journeys reflected in its mission statement. How does it do it? By serving up the whole Jewish buffet.

Jewish groups famously love to say: “Every Jew is welcome! Our doors are wide open!” But wide open to what?  Wide open to their own, individual expression of Judaism.

Limmud goes one crucial step further: It doesn’t just open its doors to all Jews, it opens its doors to all of Judaism.

It opens its doors to talmudic debate and Torah study, yes, but also to Jewish philosophy, Jewish music, Jewish poetry, Jewish mysticism, Jewish activism, Jewish nationhood, Jewish history, Jewish argument … Jewish everything. 

It challenges the assumption that Jewish identity can only come from one vessel. In that sense, Limmud is a movement of modern-day realism. It acknowledges that the religious Orthodoxy of the ghetto days — while proudly one of the flavors offered at Limmud — simply will not fly with everyone in this era of free choice.

It recognizes the human truth that when people are given freedom of choice, using that freedom makes them feel human and alive. So, Limmud offers a diverse Jewish context in which to exercise that freedom.

This makes sense: If you are honoring the freedom to pursue individual Jewish journeys, how can you not open up Judaism to its many delights?

This philosophy has major potential for Jewish communities around the world struggling to keep Jews connected to their tradition. They should recognize that every Jew is on a different journey and their best bet is to nourish those journeys.

They should also recognize that the extraordinary breadth of Judaism is a key ingredient to nourish these journeys. By broadening and enriching the Jewish menu, communities can essentially tell their fellow Jews: No matter who or where you are, there’s a Jewish journey in it for you.

Isn’t this infinitely better than having no Jewish journey at all?

For the faction of Orthodoxy who shun such pluralistic impulses, Limmud offers  a practical question: If you believe so fervently in your way, why not come to Limmud and make your case? 

In today’s wide-open world of Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, ghettos are no longer the way. It’s counterproductive to be insular and dig in your heels, so you might as well join the conversation and put your best foot forward — just as Rabbis Lipman and Cherlow did so effectively at this year’s Limmud. 

If the anti-Limmud faction of British Jewry can swallow its pride, it may discover in Limmud a powerful outreach vehicle for its cherished Orthodoxy.

Of course, outreach works both ways.

So, here’s a word of caution to this anti-Limmud faction: If any of you ever decide to show up at Limmud, you might end up one day in a riveting Torah class taught by a woman rabbi from Chicago who is not Orthodox — and find yourself really enjoying it.

I’d call that a step forward for the future of Judaism.

To find out about Limmud activities in Los Angeles, please visit limmudla.org.


David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at davids@jewishjournal.com.

A Jewish wish list for 2014


In no special order, here are 10 wishes for our community for the coming year:

1. A sukkah for every Jew. Seriously, is there any Jewish holiday cooler than Sukkot? And yet, most non-Orthodox Jews don’t build a sukkah to commemorate the desert journey of our ancestors. In recent years, this has started to change, as more and more Jews are partaking in this odd but powerful ritual. I hope the trend continues. There’s nothing like having a meal in a ramshackle hut to keep your life in perspective. 

2. Friday Nights Live. Why does “Friday Night Live” happen only once a month and in only one synagogue (Sinai Temple)? As I see it, Friday Night Live should be an attitude, not just an event. Jewish communities of all denominations ought to approach the entrance of Shabbat as a renewal of life. Services should come alive with fresh melodies; communities and families should reach out and invite guests to their Shabbat tables.  Just think: For one night a week, you get to turn off your smartphones and reconnect with everything that’s real. How do you beat that?

3. Take my rabbi, please. There are hundreds of rabbis in our community, each with a unique gift. Unfortunately, most of us never get to hear what they have to say. This is understandable: We attend the synagogues we belong to and listen to our own rabbis. Still, it’s a shame to miss out on this great diversity of thought. So, let’s pick one Shabbat a year and call it the Great Exchange — a day when every rabbi in town gets to speak in a different shul. Just the thought of an ultra-Orthodox rabbi speaking in an LGBT minyan — or an LGBT rabbi doing the reverse — is worth the price of admission.

4. Night of a million stories. Another budding ritual in the local Jewish scene is the “White Night” of Shavuot, when a growing number of Jews and assorted hipsters stay up all night to attend learning sessions. Here’s my pitch for what we ought to learn that night: the story of our people. I don’t mean biblical stories or stories of the Holocaust. I mean the extraordinary, nomadic story of Diaspora Jewry since the destruction of the Second Temple — from Persian and Sephardic stories to European and Ethiopian stories. As crazy as it sounds, our community offers hardly any education — in schools or in shuls — that honors the complicated and fascinating journeys of our ancestors. How can we instill “peoplehood” if we don’t know our own story? 

5. Calling all bubbes and zaydes. We talk a lot about the role of parents in Jewish education — but what about the role of grandparents? Who’s got more timeless wisdom than they do? I’d love to see Jewish day schools devote an hour a week to having students hear the wise tales of our community’s bubbes and zaydes

6. Six million victims, six million Torah classes. A poignant way of honoring the victims of the Shoah is to make the essence of Judaism — the Torah — thrive in their memory. I’d love to see Holocaust memorials offer Torah classes right on their premises. In addition, we ought to have every Torah class, wherever it is given, begin with these words: “This Torah class is dedicated to the memory of (fill in name) who perished in the year (fill in details).” 

7. Bring back the old Limmud. Limmud L.A. has morphed into Limmud Light. Instead of a big annual gathering of L.A. Jewry, we now have smaller events throughout the year. I have to say, I miss the old days, when hundreds of us would hang out for three days and nights in a vibrant, makeshift “neighborhood” and bond like no other time of year. I loved it precisely because it was such a non-L.A. experience.

8. Do the Chai Mitzvah. We know the old story — after the bar/bat mitzvah, many families vanish from synagogue life. And yet, the most important years in a kid’s life are between the ages of 13 and 18. As I’ve written previously, synagogues ought to tailor programming specifically for those five years, working toward a new life cycle called the Chai Mitzvah — when kids really need to become adults.

9. Let’s attract more converts. Why not share our tradition with those seeking a spiritual path? There are plenty of non-Jews who might be seriously and independently interested in Judaism, regardless of marriage. We ought to make our religion more inviting to these spiritual seekers. Let’s face it: As more and more Jews assimilate into the American melting pot, we could use a little reverse assimilation — the addition of new Jews who will be infinitely grateful for the blessings of our tradition.

10. Judaism that works for you. In the era of open choice, when doing anything “religious” is far from obvious, I’d love to see more programming that shows how Judaism can improve people’s lives — in areas such as relationships, parenting, money, health or even just plain happiness.

Now there’s an aspirational theme for our community: “Life, liberty and the pursuit of Judaism.”

Happy New Year.


David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached atdavids@jewishjournal.com.

Danish, Swedish Jews hold first joint Limmud conference


About 160 Swedes and Danes attended the first inter-Scandinavian Limmud Jewish learning event.

The March 11 event was held at an adult education center in Lund, a Swedish city situated 23 miles north of Copenhagen.

“Last year we held the first Lund Limmud and this is the first time that the event has gone international,” said the event’s co-organizer, Rabbi Rebecca Lillian.

“Many Swedes can understand Danish and visa versa, but to completely eliminate the language barrier each time bloc included at least one session in Danish or English,” said Lillian, an American Reconstructionist rabbi who immigrated to Malmo from Chicago two years ago.

The event was promoted on social media in Swedish, Danish and English. The 2014 Oresunds Limmud will be held at a bigger venue, Lillian said.

She added the majority of participants were Swedish but a few dozen Danes also came, including former Danish chief rabbi Bent Melchior. In his address, he encouraged Jewish communities to embrace families with only one Jewish spouse.

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.” 

Israeli settlements high on agenda at Limmud U.K. 2012


A group that encourages Jews to oppose the Israeli occupation sparked a lively debate at its debut session at the 2012 U.K. Limmud Conference on Jewish life and identity.

Yachad, which was founded in 2010, “aims to discuss the occupation not with the outside world, but within Jewish communities,” the group’s chairman, Daniel Reisel, told listeners at a lecture on Sunday.

Some 2,500 Jews from across the world are attending the conference, according to organizers. Limmud U.K. is hosted by the University of Warwick and combines lectures and workshops on topics ranging from politics and religion to Jewish music and cinema. The Limmud movement began with the British version three decades ago.

Reisel and Yachad Director Hannah Weisfeld said Israel needs to cede land in order to remain Jewish and democratic. Their arguments drew critical remarks from a skeptical audience, with some listeners arguing such concessions would encourage terrorism.

Gerald Steinberg of NGO Monitor, a Jerusalem-based watchdog organization, invited listeners of another session to examine critically Israeli-Arab peace initiatives and “the peace industry.”

On the cultural front, the American Jewish reggae performer Matisyahu and artist Jacqueline Nicholls were scheduled to be interviewed on stage by philosopher Sam Lebens. In another collaboration, the Jewish, African-American hip-hop artist Y Love was scheduled to share the stage with the British-Jewish playwright Robbie Gringras.

Erika Siegfrid-Tompson of Limmud Hungary said that many of the non-British Limmud enthusiasts came to the conference to “learn from the diversity and level of professionalism that Limmud U.K. has reached.”
 
Limmud International now has 60 groups in 26 countries.

Jewish life in Poland – Towards a sense of joy and wonder


“We were over 1000 this year” – said someone on the bus as soon as we left the venue of the fifth edition of Limmud Poland, which took place between October 26-28, 2012.

Between the prophets and Bruno Schultz, Yiddish film and Jewish social media, feminism and the Holocaust, hundreds of participants of Limmud Keshet Poland spent the weekend running from one lecture to another. Who did you hear? What did you see? Where are you going now? Where's room D? A frantic attempt to reconcile between attending as many lectures and workshops as possible and spending quality time with friends and new acquaintances – such is the nature of the Polish edition of the Limmud Conference.

The first Limmud in Poland was organized in 2008. About 350 participants enrolled. Five years later, Limmud is unquestionably the largest Jewish event in the country. It is not the numbers that count though. The idea of the conference is that everyone is a student and anyone can be a teacher. Limmud is the Hebrew word for 'learning'. And learning, we might say, has been perhaps one of the essential components of the contemporary Polish Jewish experience. In defiance of the persisting conviction of many foreign Jews that Jewish life in Poland ended with the Holocaust or with the communist antisemitic purge of 1968, Jews in today's Poland come together and share their knowledge and experience during this unique event organized by the Joint Distribution Committee. For one weekend in a year, participants of all ages from all over the country – singles, couples and families – gather in a large conference hotel complex in a suburb of Warsaw.

Limmud is the perfect illustration of what being Jewish in Poland is about – it gives ear to the plurality of voices which exist in the Polish Jewish community. And 'learning' itself is in fact the Polish Jewish modus vivendi. Since the fall of communism in 1989, the number of Jews in Poland has been a growing one. Jews are deassimilating, or 'coming out of the closet', if you like, and it is an unprecedented phenomenon in that part of Europe. Twenty years ago, those who 'came out if the closet' and decided to pursue a Jewish identity had to learn about Jewishness mainly from American books, as Konstanty Gebert remembers. Since then, we might say that Polish Jews have reached a level of Jewish literacy which not only allows them to learn from one another – as is the mission of Limmud – but it may also inspire other Jews to begin to learn from them.

Poland has become a true hotbed of contemporary Jewish identity debate — Polish-Jewish issues are discussed in Europe, but perhaps even more so in America and in Israel, where we so many descendants of Polish Jews can be found.

In his lecture at Limmud, Jonathan Webber called for all Jews to appreciate the rich Polish Jewish heritage but also the recent positive developments and activities in contemporary Polish Jewish life. Incidentally, Professor Webber recently moved to Poland from the UK together with his wife Connie. They are now active members of Krakow's Jewish Community Center and they both contribute to raising the awareness of contemporary Jewish life in Poland.

“I meet old friends here, people who I've known for a long time but don't normally see on a daily basis” – says Limmud participant, Ewa who lived in Israel for the past 6 years but has recently moved back to Poland – “But I also meet new people, who only just recently 'came out of the closet'.

For some, participating in Limmud will be the first Jewish 'thing' they do.

It is the specificity of the Polish Limmud that late night conversations tend to turn into emotional discussions about the different experiences of the discovery of Jewish roots. Was it the parent or grandparent who revealed the secret? When? How? Why then? Being Jewish in Poland is not a matter-of-fact experience. The individual stories of the members of the Polish Jewish community are in and of themselves unique narratives of the process of identity construction. And each one of them could be studied and analyzed just like a Talmudic tractate. And in this sense, Limmud Poland is a site of many  narratives – the ones in the lecture rooms and the many more which reverberate in the hallways.

“I participated in a fascinating debate on contemporary Israel – it's amazing how people can have such different worldviews but still be able to talk with each other… I also saw a moving Yiddish pre-war film, I went to a cooking workshop and a lecture on the writings of Bruno Schultz” – says Beata who attended Limmud for the fourth time – “But for many of us the atmosphere here is what is most important. Education is important but meeting people is also crucial. It's kind of like a mini Jewish camp. Some of the people here I already knew from other Jewish events but many of them I only have the chance to meet here – once a year. I think Limmud is very important also for people from smaller towns, where they have no Jewish life on a daily basis. It's like being on a different planet.”

The participants of Limmud Poland 2012 had the option to choose between two alternative Shabbat services – an Orthodox and a Reform one. With the traditional prayer held downstairs and the progressive one upstairs, many ended up gathering somewhere in between, around the staircase – never making it to either one of the services. From there, one could observe the ones who chose to migrate like Rabbi Boaz Pash of Krakow, who was 'caught' sneaking out of the Orthodox service to take a peak at the progressive gathering upstairs. “I want to see what's up there too!” – he would explain as he walked passed the in-between crowd.

The more and the less religious outlooks are visible throughout the weekend and account for some of the most interesting points of discussion. On Shabbat morning, Jonathan Ornstein, executive director of the Krakow JCC, set out to break down the Ten Commandments and offer an alternative set of commandments as put forth by the world's most famous atheist, Richard Dawkins. Both religious and secular participants were in attendance.

Once again, different narratives and different voices coexisted.

The Jewish identity experience in Poland is unfinished and fluctuating in its nature. Jewishness in Poland aims not at an appropriation of its essence; rather, it thrives on not knowing its “essence.” It is an identity that hosts questions and contradictions. And its authenticity is that of a conversation rather than a text. And in this sense, Limmud is the perfect form of expression for Polish Jewish identities. The very nonessential “essence” of post-transition Polish Jewish identity is in being-in-discussion – in a changing configuration of specific situations we find ourselves in and distinct others we interact with. To be a Jew in Poland today is to participate in a dialogue.

The organizers of Limmud Keshet Poland report that the 2012 edition hosted some 800 participants and not 1000 as some have suspected. But it would seem that new Polish Jewish identities’ viability is based less on the number of people than it is on the number of questions Jews in Poland ask themselves and strive to answer every day in an attempt to build a self-awareness of a unique kind—one which is continuously dialogically reconstructed against the outside world.

One of the most discussed during Jonathan Ornstein's lecture was the fifth commandment in the alternative Ten Commandments suggested by Richard Dawkins: Live life with a sense of joy and wonder. Be it a commandment or not, seeing hundreds of Polish Jews studying and laughing together in the 21st Century, does leave one with a sense of joy and wonder. And may Limmud Poland see 1000 participants next year.


Katka Reszke is a writer, researcher, photographer and filmmaker working in the U.S. and Poland. Her upcoming book is called “Return of the Jew. Identity Narratives of the Third Post-Holocaust Generation of Jews in Poland.”

Limmud appoints new executive director, chair


Limmud, the international network of Jewish learning conferences, appointed a new director and a new chairman.

Shelley Marsh, currently the director of informal education for the United Kingdom’s United Jewish Israel Appeal, will become Limmud’s executive director following Sukkot, according to a Limmud news release. Marsh succeeds Raymond Simonson, who ran Limmud for six years and is the CEO designate of the London Jewish Community Center.

Limmud is an umbrella group for pluralist, multi-disciplinary conferences around the world on a range of Jewish topics. During Simonson’s term, Limmud has grown to include 60 conferences in 25 countries.

Kevin Sefton, a Limmud executive board trustee for four years, will become the organization’s chairman at the end of the year. Sefton runs a management consultancy firm and has helped organize Limmud conferences in five continents.

Marsh in the news release called Limmud “a unique organization” and said she strongly identified with its vision and values.

“I’m inspired by what they have achieved in recent years,” she said, “and I look forward to working closely with Kevin to support the volunteers as they continue to build.”

LimmudLA honors founders


LimmudLA honored its founders, Linda Fife and Shep Rosenman, in an evening of dinner, music and study on Sunday, Sept. 9, at the Los Angeles River Center and Gardens.

LimmudLA is the local outlet of an international model of interdisciplinary, interdenominational, no-boundaries Jewish conferences and events. Founded in the United Kingdom more than 30 years ago, Limmud now conducts 60 conferences in 30 countries, all of them almost entirely run by volunteers.

Fife and Rosenman conceived of bringing Limmud to Los Angeles about seven years ago, after they participated in a Limmud conference in New York. They rallied volunteers and funders and five years ago held the first conference in Southern California over Presidents’ Day weekend, with close to 700 participants converging at the Hilton Orange County in Costa Mesa. The conferences have continued there each February since then.

In 2013, however, LimmudLA plans to forgo its annual marquis conference, instead holding smaller, local events ranging from cultural to academic to family-oriented.

“We’re trying to be localized and organic to the communities where we’re doing different events,” said Yechiel Hoffman, executive director of LimmudLA, the only paid staff member. “Rather than taking people out to Orange County for an event, this gives us a way of being able to provide different options and different access points where people are.”

More than 400 volunteers have stepped up for LimmudLA since its inception. Hoffman said about 120 people are currently active volunteers. LimmudLA plans to hold a multi-day event next summer and is aiming to put on the full conference again in the winter of 2014. 

About 175 people came to honor Fife and Rosenman at what was LimmudLA’s first gala fundraiser. The organization met its goal of raising $75,000. 

The event featured music, text study and an examination of Jewish narrative. Rather than a plaque, Rosenman and Fife each received the newly published Koren Talmud, Tractate Brachot, and rather than a traditional acceptance speech, they staged a musical collaboration that had the audience responding to Rosenman’s “oom-pa-pas” and “ba-da-das.” Fife said it was, like LimmudLA, an example of volunteers stepping out of their comfort zones to produce something meaningful.

Raymond Simonson resigns as head of Limmud


The executive director of Limmud, Raymond Simonson, has resigned to head the Jewish Community Center in London.

Simonson announced last week that he would leave Limmud, which makes Jewish learning accessible to Jews around the world, after six years in his position. He was appointed Limmud’s first full-time executive director in May 2006. During his tenure, Limmud has grown into a worldwide movement, active in 60 Jewish communities in more than 25 countries ranging from China to Moldova, and Argentina to South Africa.

“In the past six years Limmud has gone from strength to strength and grown in ways no one had predicted a decade ago, to the point where it has become known as British Jewry’s greatest export,” Simonson said in a statement. “Owned and run almost entirely by volunteers, I’m proud to have made my small contribution to this success.”

Simonson will remain at Limmud until mid-October and will lead the search for his successor.

Limmud Oz cancels speakers who support Israel boycott


Limmud Oz, an offshoot of the international festival of Jewish learning, cancelled a panel featuring several controversial Jewish speakers for its upcoming conference in Melbourne.

The Jewish panelists no longer speaking, though they initially appeared on the Limmud Oz website, include Vivienne Porzsolt, a spokeswoman for Jews Against the Occupation who was detained in Israel last year en route to the flotilla to Gaza, and who recently marched in Sydney alongside Hezbollah supporters; Avigail Abarbanel, who renounced her Israeli citizenship in 2001; and Dr. Peter Slezak, a co-founder of the far-left Independent Australian Jewish Voices.

Although Limmud Oz officials have declined to comment on the controversy, they appear to have decided that the panel about “Beyond Tribal Loyalties” – a new book of essays by dissenting Jewish peace activists from America, Israel, Australia and elsewhere – was beyond the pale because many of its speakers support boycotting Israel.

The program, which includes some 200 presentations from about 150 speakers, still includes sessions featuring the president of the Australian Palestinian Advocacy Network, a representative of the Islamic Council of Victoria, as well as a Palestinian academic.

The decision sparked mass debate in the blogosphere, with one blogger describing it as the latest example of a “culture of censorship within the Australian Jewish community,” while another defended Limmud Oz, saying it “includes sessions on the Holocaust, but need not include sessions that promote Holocaust denial.”

Limmud in Australia began in 1999 and now rotates annually between Sydney and Melbourne, drawing about 1,000 participants each year.

Limmud conference to launch in Moscow


The first of six Limmud conferences for Russian-speaking Jews will open in Moscow.

Limmud FSU Moscow will begin Thursday and run through April 22. Some 1,000 participants are registered for the conference, which is designed to bring young Russian-speaking Jews closer to Jewish history and culture.

The conference will focus on Russia as a society undergoing change both in general and for its Jewish citizens.

Session presenters will include Sofa Landver, Israel’s minister of immigrant absorption; Alex Miller, chair of the Knesset Education and Culture Committee; Carmel Shama-Hacohen, chairman of the Knesset Economic Affairs Committee; and Dorit Golender, Israel’s ambassador to the Russian Federation.

Limmud conferences also will be held this year in Belarus, Moldova, Ukraine, Israel and the United States. The next Limmud conference will take place at Princeton University in New Jersey and focus on the life and work of Albert Einstein.

The uncontested challenge and opportunity of Limmud


I am a child of a mixed marriage.  I was raised in a completely secular environment. My discovery of Judaism has been an ongoing revelation over many decades. I studied for more than 12 years in yeshivot and spent many years studying secular philosophy.  The more I study, the more I realize that Judaism is greater than I ever imagined. In truth, I believe that many Jews, whether non-religious, Reform, Conservative or Orthodox, including myself, do not know how much more Judaism has to offer. It still has scaffoldings, and many more building blocks can be added, shifted and restructured. Shabath, the dietary laws, its moral teachings and so much more suggest a world of sublime ideas that we have not even begun to grapple with yet.   

And so I love to come to Limmud. I just returned from Limmud in England, the birthplace of this everything-Jewish conference/festival. This year, more than 2,500 men and women participated for a full week in Limmud, where every day there were hundreds of lectures, panels, music and cabaret performances, all with a Jewish or Israeli theme.  Limmud is by now the greatest happening in the Jewish world. It has branches all over the world, and every year more and more countries join. I will be teaching at LimmudLA Feb. 17-19 at the Costa Mesa Hilton, as the Southern California conference convenes for its fifth year, and I will be going to Limmud in Germany, South Africa, New Zealand and Australia.

Over the years I have taught in many of its conventions, and every time it is an utter delight. It is the place where I get challenged, where I hear new things (including some utterly delightful nonsense), where I can fall in love with my fellow Jews, laugh and cry with them, and share my commitment to and struggles with Judaism. 

Limmud offers me the whole Jewish world in a microcosm. I hear about the death of God, the real Jesus, the rhetoric in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Jewish power of satire, kosher gospel, homosexuality and more.  As the dean of the David Cardozo Academy in Jerusalem, the main purpose of which is to suggest radical new ways to think about and practice “Orthodox” Judaism, I need to know what is happening in the larger Jewish world — all the struggles, the differences of opinion, the paradoxes and the pain of many of my fellow Jews who don’t fit into an easily definable box but still love being part of our great endeavor. I am confronted daily with the accusation that Judaism has stagnated, that it is terribly dogmatic, that it no longer advances bold ideas, that it offers little to the many young Jews who are looking for more spiritual lives. And, sadly, I agree. Judaism today is far too dedicated to defensive self-preservation — and to propping up sacred cows that need to be slaughtered before it is able to rediscover itself again.

The irony is that the teachings and practices that comprise Judaism were designed to avoid just such a scenario. Jewish law was originally never codified; Jewish beliefs never dogmatized but open-ended. Opposing opinions were the life force in the Talmud. In our age of human autonomy and intellectual freedom and creativity, this is of the greatest importance.

I ask myself:  Can I reformulate or, more accurately, can I help to revitalize Judaism so that it will once again represent a vibrant way of living, without letting go of what I believe are its fundamentals? I think I can, but I need Limmud to help me to hear the voices of all these searching, struggling souls.

And so I love to sit on panels where representatives of other denominations will argue with me about topics such as the divinity of the Torah, or whether halachah has still any purpose, or whether we should sanctify mixed marriages. No doubt I am able to learn a lot from their teachers while they, hopefully, will learn from me. Great controversies are great emancipators.

I want Judaism to be what it really always used to be: a tradition where ideas can be tested, discussed, thought through, reformulated and even rejected, with the understanding that no final conclusions have ever been reached, could be reached or should be reached. Matters of faith should stay fluid, not static. I want my fellow Jews to fall in love with halachah, authentic Jewish law. Not defensive halachah as developed in the Diaspora — in which we had to make sure that we would survive among a non-Jewish environment that included strong anti-Semitic overtones —  but prophetic halachah, in which the great universalistic values of Judaism become key players. After all, halachah is the practical upshot of living by unfinalized beliefs while staying in theological suspense. Only thus can Judaism avoid becoming paralyzed by its awe of a rigid tradition or, conversely, evaporate into a utopian reverie.

As Baruch Spinoza might have said: All noble things are as great as they are rare.

For more information or to register for LimmudLA, visit limmudla.org.

Russian Limmud gathering marks ‘Siege of Leningrad’


Participants in the first St. Petersburg Limmud gathered to remember the 70th anniversary of the Nazi massacre known as the “Siege of Leningrad.”

The commemoration in Pushkin, Russia, a city on the outskirts of St. Petersburg, featured a group of conference participants, dignitaries and survivors speaking on the implications of the battle today.

The 872-day offensive by the Nazis in the former Leningrad, now named St. Petersburg and Russia’s second-largest city, was particularly bloody and was responsible for the deaths of about 1.5 million civilians and Soviet soldiers. In Pushkin, about 800 Jews were killed in a Nazi massacre on Sept. 9, 1941.

Matthew Bronfman, chairman of the Limmud Former Soviet Union international steering committee, told the crowd that the gathering was a rebuke to Nazis who sought to destroy Russian Jewish life.

“The importance of this ceremony is to emphasize that the Nazis failed in their endeavor to extinguish Jewish life, and here in St. Petersburg we are actively restoring it,” he said.

Other speakers included steering committee member Chaim Chesler, former treasurer of the Jewish Agency for Israel and a longtime Soviet Jewry activist; Steven Schwager, executive vice president of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee; Ben Helfgott, a Holocaust survivor and the vice president of the Claims Conference; Dorit Golender, Israel’s ambassador to Russia; Sofa Landver, Israel’s minister of immigrant absorption; Roman Polonsky, head of the Former Soviet Union department of the Jewish Agency; and Eddie Shapira, Israel’s consul general in St. Petersburg.

A St. Petersburg-area Holocaust survivor also addressed the gathering, recalling the effect of the siege on the city’s Jews.

“People like living skeletons were roaming the streets,” Ludmila Yampolskaya said.

The siege began in the city’s outskirts and Jews made attempts to relocate to central St. Petersburg. Those unable to flee were tortured and killed by the Nazis.

Less is more for LimmudLA


Organizers are hoping to attract more people to an annual festival of Jewish learning and culture by shortening the conference and lowering the price.

LimmudLA, which debuted on Presidents Day weekend 2008 with a 600-person conference at the Costa Mesa Hilton, will shift its schedule to end on Sunday night, while maintaining the bulk of the programming, according to Yossi Kastan, executive director of LimmudLA.

LimmudLA brings together Jews of all denominations for a volunteer-led weekend of text study, concerts, films, and political and social discussions. Limmud was developed in the United Kingdom 30 years ago, and has spread to 40 communities across the globe.

LimmudLA’s 2009 conference attracted 700 people, but only 500 attended in 2011. Through a survey, the board determined that the cost — $550 per person in a shared room in 2011 — was keeping more people from attending. While scholarships were available and the fee for children was lower, the cost for a family was prohibitive for many.

The new cost has not yet been determined, but Kastan expects shaving one night off will allow the board to push the price down into the mid-to-high-$300 range. With fewer people requesting scholarships — nearly a third of conference-goers got financial help last year — Kastan believes Limmud will be able to offer more significant help to those who need it.

Kastan emphasized that very little programming was sacrificed for the move. The conference will now start Friday morning instead of Friday afternoon.

On Sunday, guests will have to check out of their rooms by afternoon, but LimmudLA will store luggage and will still have full use of meeting areas. Sessions will continue into the evening, and the conference will culminate in a Sunday night concert. In previous years, the conference ended late Monday afternoon.

LimmudLA is also undergoing a leadership change. Kastan is moving to the East Coast in June to be near family and take a position as a head of school, so LimmudLA is searching for a new director.

Limmud Australia bars speakers who advocate Israel boycott


Limmud-Oz, the Australian arm of the global festival of Jewish learning, has barred presenters who advocate a boycott of Israel.

Less than a month before the popular two-day festival opens in Sydney, Limmud-Oz’s program director, Michael Misrachi, issued a statement this week saying that the executive of Limmud-Oz believes “that the BDS campaign is an attack on Israel’s basic legitimacy and harms the Jewish people as a whole.”

BDS stands for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign against Israel.

Vivienne Porzsolt and Peter Slezak, Jewish activists who support BDS and had applied to present at the Limmud-Oz conference, have been told they will not receive a platform. Porzsolt, a spokesperson for Jews Against The Occupation, wrote on a blog that the ban will “bring ridicule and contempt on the Jewish community.”

But Misrachi said BDS proponents have the right to express their views, “But that right does not impose an obligation to provide them with a space to do so.”

Limmud-Oz, which has more than 150 presenters, usually attracts more than 1,000 people.

Limmud becomes a Jewish networking nexus


Journalist and author Lisa Alcalay Klug flew across the country this month to present at the annual New York version of Limmud, one of the Jewish learning gatherings that occur worldwide. She’ll fly in the other direction next month to attend the fourth annual LimmudLA, Feb. 18-21 in Costa Mesa.

LimmudLA will be Klug’s eighth Limmud gathering in 12 months. Like the hundreds of other Limmud presenters whose paths she crosses, she doesn’t get paid for her time.

“I’ve met amazing people, developed new friendships and reinforced past relationships,” said Klug, who splits her time among California, New York and Israel. “My world has grown exponentially because of it.”

LimmudLA, which attracted 600 attendees last year, has around 75 people signed up to present sessions — usually around 10 in any given timeslot, from morning till morning, on topics ranging from medical ethics to the Jewish Jesus to the Israeli military to challah baking. In addition to sessions, the conference, which will be held in Costa Mesa, will feature dozens of films, theatrical presentations, comedy acts and performances by one of Israel’s top alternative bands, Aharit Hayamim.

Limmud started out 30 years ago in Britain as a conference for professional Jewish educators and has burgeoned into the world’s largest network of gatherings promoting informal Jewish education. It has become a creative and professional hub for presenters, some of whom have become regulars on the Limmud circuit.

More than 35,000 people took part in one of 55 Limmuds held last year from Siberia to South Africa, according to the organizers. As more branches opened in more countries — there are eight now in the United States alone — it has become a collaborative opportunity for musicians and visual artists, who meet at Limmud and begin working together.

Some performance acts formed for a Limmud event have continued afterward, including Los Desterrados, a British band that sings in Ladino, and the klezmer-house dance mash-up project Ghettoplotz. Limmud gives writers an opportunity to promote their books and educators a chance to try out new topics. It also puts Jewish organizations in front of new audiences and potential donors.

Much has been written about Limmud’s impact on those who attend — the celebratory atmosphere, the array of learning opportunities and the radical egalitarianism of its all-volunteer structure that encourages participants to present and presenters to participate.

That was all intentional from the beginning, says Raymond Simonson, the project’s Britain-based executive director. But what he and other organizers didn’t foresee was how Limmud would become a networking tool for presenters.

Unlike most festivals and conferences, which tend to invite experts, anyone can apply to be a Limmud presenter — a big draw for inexperienced presenters and established professionals wanting to try out new material.

“We tell them, you don’t get money, but there’s an opportunity for people to have access to your merchandise,” said Karen Radkowsky, founding president of Limmud NY, which in 2005 became the first Limmud in the United States. “It’s an opportunity for them to be exposed to other thoughts and ideas. When they’re not giving their own presentations, they go to others.

“It’s very different from the GA, where you might fly in, speak, and then leave,” she said, referring to the annual General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America.

The Limmud structure facilitates this cross-pollination, said Uri Berkowitz, co-chair of Limmud International, which oversees all branches outside the UK. Last month, some 2,500 people went to Coventry, England, for the 30th anniversary Limmud Conference.

“Each Limmud is its own community, with a fresh audience, but they’re still part of the same family,” Berkowitz said. “That’s why presenters can go from one to another. Now that there are enough of them, they’ll often know at least one or two other presenters, and can continue the conversations and collaborations.”

That’s what happened to Klug. In February 2009 she went to LimmudLA on her own dime to talk about her new book, “Cool Jew,” and was spotted by friendly spies from Limmud UK. They invited her to present at Warwick in December 2009, which led to invitations to Limmuds in Atlanta, Berlin, Amsterdam and Budapest. Next month she’ll be back at LimmudLA, then on to Winnipeg in March for that Canadian city’s first Limmud.

Limmud usually covers travel and accommodations for invited presenters but does not pay them for their presentation. Around a dozen of the 75 presenters at LimmudLA are invited, while all the others pay for their own travel and the conference.

Organizations leverage the Limmud opportunities as well — Pardes and the Hartman Institute, both educational organizations in Jerusalem, have longtime partnership with Limmud, and both will be presenting at LimmudLA.

This year, Cedars-Sinai Medical Center is partnering with LimmudLA and will have some its staff as presenters, and Rochelle Shoretz, founder of Sharsheret, an organization for young Jewish women with breast cancer, is bringing her message to the West Coast audience.

“It’s a great place to network for fundraising, a great place to network for relationships and a great place to leverage explorations into new communities,” said Shep Rosenman, a founder of LimmudLA.

Schools as well have used LimmudLA to teach leadership to students; teens from Milken Community High School have been training throughout the year to lead sessions for adults.

LimmudLA will have a wide range of political expression this year, from the progressive activist Andrew Lachman to a representative from Ateret Cohanim, which buys land and settles Jews in East Jerusalem.

Religious expression will be varied as well, from Web sensation Rabbi Simon Jacobson, who runs the Meaningful Life Center, to Rabbi David Saperstein, head of Reform’s Religions Action Center in Washington.

Yavilah McCoy, an African American Jewish woman, will talk about moving beyond the hyphen, and Amy-Jill Levine, an Orthodox scholar who is a professor of New Testament and Jewish Studies at Vanderbilt University, will offer another view of diversity.

Joel Chasnoff, a stand-up comedian and author of “The 188th Crybaby Brigade,” the story of his experience in the Israeli military, has presented four times at Limmud UK. Last year he led Limmud sessions in New York, Philadelphia and Atlanta, and this February he’s headed to Los Angeles.

“The first time I went, I had no idea what it was,” he said. “I love it. It’s like summer camp. In terms of the audience, I find them smart and interested in Jewish thought. They’re in tune with what I talk about.”

Arthur Kurzweil, a well-known genealogist, educator, magician and former book publisher, has presented at four Limmuds in New York and is headed to his first LimmudLA next month. Like Klug, he is an invited presenter. An experienced public speaker, Kurzweil gets more invitations than he can accept. Limmud is one to which he says yes.

“These are my people,” Kurzweil said. “It’s what I do. Limmud is one more great opportunity to teach and share my interests.”

Julie Gruenbaum Fax, Jewish Journal senior writer, contributed to this report.

Limmud becoming new favored networking tool for Jewish authors, artists, groups


Journalist and author Lisa Alcalay Klug flew across the country this month to present at Limmud NY, the annual New York version of the worldwide Jewish learning extravaganza.

The Jan. 14-17 conference in upstate New York will be Klug’s seventh Limmud gathering in 12 months. Like the hundreds of other Limmud presenters whose paths she crosses, she doesn’t get paid for her time.

“I’ve met amazing people, developed new friendships and reinforced past relationships,” said Klug, who splits her time in California, New York and Israel. “My world has grown exponentially because of it.”

Limmud, which started out 30 years ago in Britain as a conference for professional Jewish educators and has burgeoned into the world’s largest network of gatherings promoting informal Jewish education, has become a creative and professional hub for presenters, some of whom have become regulars on the Limmud circuit.

More than 35,000 people took part in one of 55 Limmuds held last year from Siberia to South Africa, according to Limmud. As more branches opened in more countries – there are eight now in the United States alone – it has become a collaborative opportunity for musicians and visual artists, who meet at Limmud and begin working together.

Some performance acts formed for a Limmud event continued afterward, including Los Desterrados, a British band that sings in Ladino, and the klezmer-house dance mash-up project Ghettoplotz. Limmud gives writers an opportunity to promote their books and educators a chance to try out new topics. It also puts Jewish organizations in front of new audiences and potential donors.

Much has been written about Limmud’s impact on those who attend—the celebratory atmosphere, the array of learning opportunities, the radical egalitarianism of its all-volunteer structure that encourages participants to present and presenters to participate.

That was all intentional from the beginning, says Raymond Simonson, the project’s Britain-based executive director. But what he and other organizers didn’t foresee was how Limmud would become a networking tool for presenters.

Unlike most festivals and conferences, which tend to invite experts, anyone can apply to be a Limmud presenter—a big draw for inexperienced presenters and established professionals wanting to try out new material.

“We tell them, you don’t get money, but there’s an opportunity for people to have access to your merchandise,” said Karen Radkowsky, founding president of Limmud NY, which in 2005 became the first Limmud in the United States. “It’s an opportunity for them to be exposed to other thoughts and ideas. When they’re not giving their own presentations, they go to others.

“It’s very different from the GA, where you might fly in, speak, and then leave,” she said, referring to the annual General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America.

The Limmud structure facilitates this cross-pollination, says Uri Berkowitz, co-chair of Limmud International, which oversees all branches outside the UK. Last month, some 2,500 people went to Coventry, England, for the 30th anniversary Limmud Conference.

“Each Limmud is its own community, with a fresh audience, but they’re still part of the same family,” Berkowitz told JTA. “That’s why presenters can go from one to another. Now that there are enough of them, they’ll often know at least one or two other presenters, and can continue the conversations and collaborations.”

That’s what happened to Klug. In February 2009 she went to Limmud LA on her own dime to talk about her new book, “Cool Jew,” and was spotted by friendly spies from Limmud UK. They invited her to present at Warwick in December 2009, which led to invitations to Limmuds in Atlanta, Berlin, Amsterdam and Budapest. Next month she’ll be back at Limmud LA, then on to Winnipeg in March for that Canadian city’s first Limmud.

Limmud usually covers travel and accommodations for invited presenters but does not pay them for their presentation.

Klug’s experience is not atypical, according to Radkowsky. Core volunteers from the British, New York and Los Angeles Limmuds attend each other’s gatherings to poach presenters.

Arthur Kurzweil, a well-known genealogist, educator, magician and former book publisher, has presented at four Limmuds in New York and is headed to his first Limmud LA next month. Like Klug, he is an invited presenter. An experienced public speaker, Kurzweil gets more invitations than he can accept. Limmud is one to which he says yes.

“These are my people,” Kurzweil said. “It’s what I do. Limmud is one more great opportunity to teach and share my interests.”

Joel Chasnoff, a stand-up comedian and author of “The 188th Crybaby Brigade,” the story of his experience in the Israeli military, has presented four times at Limmud UK. Last year he led Limmud sessions in New York, Philadelphia and Atlanta, and this February he’s headed to Los Angeles.

“The first time I went, I had no idea what it was,” he said. “I love it. It’s like summer camp. In terms of the audience, I find them smart and interested in Jewish thought. They’re in tune with what I talk about.”

A number of Jewish organizations have latched onto Limmud as a way to present their message before a self-selected, motivated Jewish audience.

Marc Rosenberg directs One Aliyah, the singles and young professionals department of Nefesh B’Nefesh, which sponsors North American immigration to Israel. He’s presented at Limmud UK the past three years, and this year will be his second at the New York one.

“Since Limmud draws such a strong crowd from across the Jewish spectrum and Israel is a central topic, it seems a natural fit for our organization,” he told JTA. “By attending Limmud we are able to increase our exposure, tap into trends inside the community and answer anyone’s aliyah questions.

“It’s a great place to meet activists and information-seeking Jews,” agreed Ruth Messinger, president of the American Jewish World Service, who has presented or sent staffers to New York, Philadelphia, Colorado, Los Angeles and Boston, as well as Turkey and three Limmuds in South Africa.

“You can assume the people who choose your session are really interested in what you have to say. And we get to determine, or at least influence, the structure of the presentation, which is not true of most conferences.”

Best of all, Messinger added, “It’s fun.”

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.

L.A. woman


Ruthie Rotenberg couldn’t make up her mind. She had to choose between two amazing jobs. One was connected to the future of Jewish education in America; the other could potentially re-energize the Los Angeles Jewish community.

In the past, Ruthie would always seek the advice of her father before making major decisions. She was Daddy’s girl, the little baby who was born a decade after her two brothers, the one who could do no wrong in her father’s eyes. The feeling was mutual. The father, with his quiet wisdom and deliberate ways, could do no wrong with his high-strung, mile-a-minute daughter.

On this occasion, however, it would not be easy to seek the father’s advice. He had recently suffered a stroke and could hear but could not speak.

But Rotenberg had something up her sleeve. She knew her father’s body language. So when she spoke to him about her job options, she noticed that he seemed to light up when he heard about the second job: executive director of Limmud in Los Angeles.

That little reaction was enough of a blessing for her, and, as it turns out, for our community.

You could argue that Rotenberg was better suited for the first job: to run a new Charter English-Hebrew day school in Miami that was providing government-funded secular and Hebrew education. This had the potential to be revolutionary, and with her background in Jewish education, seemed like a perfect fit for Rotenberg, who has always lived on the East Coast.

But there was another side to Rotenberg: the high-energy city girl who loves to engage with people from all walks of life. You might call it her Limmud side, and it’s the side that won out.

I first met Rotenberg about eight months ago, a short time after she took the Limmud job, and I remember feeling a little nervous about her career direction. The Limmud goal, she told me, was to get a cross-section of 400 to 600 L.A. Jews to pay good money to spend a holiday weekend in Orange County to learn more about their Judaism. This is in a town where you’re lucky to get a handful of Jews to show up in Beverly Hills for a Judaism class when it’s free and there’s valet parking.

But I got really nervous when she asked me for names of key people in the local Jewish community — rabbis, speakers, philanthropists, opinion leaders, etc. — and I noticed that when I gave her names everybody knew, she had no idea who I was talking about.

As the months went by, though, I could see her confidence growing. It helped that she had the support of a prominent circle of Limmud devotees who had been working on the project for some time — like co-chairs Shep Rosenman and Linda Fife, and a 14-member steering committee — as well as a host of other volunteers who have chipped in on a daily basis.

And there’s been plenty of work to go around, from finding co-sponsors to organizing “Taste of Limmud” events to recruiting volunteers to producing podcasts to actually signing people up for the conference. When I caught up with Rotenberg recently over lunch, by the time the coffee came, she had 20 new e-mail messages on her Blackberry. She had just returned from the Limmud conference in London — where the idea originated 27 years ago — and she seemed rejuvenated.

Her energy has certainly helped put Limmud on people’s radar, but I think there’s something else going for her. She hasn’t drunk the Kool-Aid. She’s an ardent fan of the Limmud idea — to gather Jews of all denominations to celebrate the kaleidoscope of the Jewish experience — but she’s not one of those cuckoo evangelists dripping with single-minded fervor who will pummel you with the greatness of their cause.

In a town where “Curb Your Enthusiasm” is a form of religious practice, you can’t come on too strong and hope to charm people into buying something they’re not sure they want.

Of course, when you’re offering classes like “Sexual Obsession and Repression in Traditional Jewish Practice,” it makes the marketing a little easier. In fact, if there’s one thing that sells Limmud above all else, it’s the range of classes they offer.

For the conference coming up at the Costa Mesa Hilton on Presidents’ Day Weekend, Rotenberg tells me there’ll be up to 14 different classes to choose from at any one time, including some that move (Jewish yoga and dance), inspire (Israel through the lens of poets), instruct (Talmud text study), surprise (the place and role of Arabs in Zionist thought), entertain (various film screenings and musical performances), nourish (the making of a great couscous) and even profit (marketing your Jewish cause).

When you think about it, there’s actually something very L.A. about Limmud: it’s Judaism for freedom junkies with a short attention span who don’t want to be told how to be Jewish.

And the numbers are coming in. After a slow start, they now have almost 400 reservations from Jews of all denominations, and they have maxed out on presenters — all without valet parking.

So Rotenberg is starting to see daylight. Maybe that’s why, at the end of our lunch, she got in a more pensive and reflective mood, and told me the story of how her father passed away a week after she took the Limmud job, and how she might have crumbled without the support of her new Limmud family in Los Angeles.

The morning after her father died, she decided to say “Kaddish,” which she continues to this day. She says that reciting this prayer for her father every morning and hearing Jews say “amen” has been her secret source of energy.

It might also be her way of showing gratitude for her father’s last blessing, the one that helped her come to a place she loves and now calls home.

David Suissa, an advertising executive, is founder of OLAM magazine and Meals4Israel.com. He can be reached at dsuissa@olam.org.

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.

For more information, visit

Volunteers drive eclectic learning at LimmudLA



You can feel the ruach in this Limmud UK video

At the Limmud conference in England three years ago, Angeleno Judy Aronson attended a session on the Jews and the Beatles, where she sat next to the former neighbor of Beatle’s manager Brian Epstein. She tried to keep up with Romanians teaching Israeli folk dance, she learned a new way to understand the “Shema” and she discussed Chasidic stories with secular Israelis. After participating in a session on Hebrew poetry, the retired Jewish educator was inspired enough to use her academic Hebrew to write a poem of her own — for the very first time.

Now, Aronson is one of more than 80 volunteers who have jumped at the chance to bring Limmud to Los Angeles this February, giving Southern Californians their first taste of the independent, non-denominational, volunteer-run Jewish learning experience that has swept the Jewish world.

“I never saw people so excited about learning anywhere in my life, and I think that was because everyone felt personally addressed by this conference,” said Aronson, who has chaired major Jewish conferences in the past and will run family and children’s programming for LimmudLA. “It was a very diverse group of attendees, and I felt this tremendous energy for learning and for playing together.”

Limmud was founded 25 years ago in England, where each December more than 2,000 people gather for a five-day conference. In the last six or seven years, the Limmud model has spread around the world, with conferences in Russia, France, Canada, Turkey, Israel, Germany, Australia and New York.

The goal of LimmudLA, slated for Febrary during President’s Day Weekend at the Costa Mesa Hilton, is to bring together the broad spectrum of Los Angeles Jewry to experience the richness of Judaism through intense days packed with the arts, shared meals and conversations, and a quirky and diverse offering of text studies, lectures and workshops. At Limmud, all the teachers are participants, and many of the participants are teachers, so everyone learns from each other.

“It has no objective — not to make you leaders, not to make you more religious, not to make you act politically, not to make you give — other than for you to grow and learn as a Jew,” Holocaust scholar and self-described Limmud addict Deborah Lipstadt told The Jewish Journal.

Organizers are hoping that the non-hierarchical, unifying model will leave a lasting imprint on a community that is geographically and ideologically diffuse.

“I think this is going to be an amazing thing for L.A.,” said LimmudLA co-chair Linda Fife, an educator turned full-time volunteer. “What excites me most is that I don’t think there is any place else where we are coming together in cross-communal conversation.”

The conference, including hotel and all meals, will cost $500 per person (lower for kids), a price tag that covers about two-thirds of the actual costs of hotel, food and programming. Scholarships are available, because organizers don’t want cost to deter people. Attendance is capped at 600, to keep things manageable in the inaugural year.

Organizers are hoping the energy of the conference will counteract the leave-in-the-eighth-inning culture that often plagues Los Angeles events.

Programming from 8 a.m. to 1 a.m., with about 10 sessions offered simultaneously, might include a jam session led by Jewish singing icon Debbie Friedman; a cholent cook-off; yoga; a class in theology with a Reform lay person and another in Jewish history with an Orthodox woman; nature walks; text studies of everything from Genesis to the Talmud to kabbalah; and workshops in bibliodrama, Jewish songwriting or Judaism and astrology. Babysitting, kids programming and teen programming will give parents freedom to attend the sessions, and family programming will offer time with the kids.

But much of the program won’t be set for a while, since most of the presenters, artists and teachers come from the ranks of the conference goers. Online registration, which opens this week at www.LimmudLA.org, will ask for attendees to present sessions in their area of expertise — and that will determine most of the programming.

Some more well-known presenters — many of them fans who attend Limmuds all over the world — have already signed on: Rabbi Danny Landes of the Pardes Institute in Israel; Bible and law teacher Arna Fisher; Chabad philosopher Rabbi Manis Friedman; Holocaust scholar Deborah Lipstadt; David Solomon, who has made his name by teaching things like “The Whole of Jewish History in One Hour”; and Jewish World Watch founder Janice Kaminer-Reznick.

But even professionals on the Jewish scholar circuit will not get paid, and will in fact have to pay their own way for the conference. Only a select few — a list that remains secret and is never the same two years in a row — get their travel and conference fee comped.

Many point to this militant egalitarianism, along with souped-up volunteerism, as the key to the sense of ownership that gives Limmud its aura.

“It’s fluid in a very real way,” Fife said. “The definition of what we are about is developed by the people sitting around the table, and they represent a whole conglomeration of the different segments of the community.”

Everything, from fundraising to catering to programming, is handled by volunteers, about 20 of whom are putting in second-job type hours. Only one paid professional, executive director Ruth Rotenberg, pulls the pieces together.

Despite the challenges volunteerism brings — conflicting visions, flakiness, lack of time — organizers say the sense of ownership and diversity of input is what makes Limmud work.

“One of the most meaningful conversations we had was about Shabbat and what Shabbat would look like,” Fife said. “You’re sitting around a table with people for whom the definition of Shabbat is very different from your own. We tend to stay within our own silo communities and throw around vocabulary and terminology and we think everyone understands it the same way we do — and that’s not true. This is wonderful opportunity to really understand others.”

After hours of discussion, the steering committee decided traditional halacha, Jewish law, would be observed in conference-wide venues, such as the communal Friday night dinner, but that smaller venues would have more freedom. Sessions or services with activities that might offend some but are key elements of celebrating Shabbat for others — such as the use of musical instruments or microphones — will be clearly identified, so people could opt out of those.

Love among many splendored things at Baltics Limmud


Inna Lapidus and Boris Kinber have been etched in the lore of Baltic Jewry.

Activists are pointing to them not only as prime examples of Jewish revival, but of efforts to unify the small ex-Soviet communities of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia.

It was two years ago that Lapidus, from the Estonian capital of Tallinn, attended her first Limmud conference in Lithuania, to immerse herself in all things Jewish and mingle with fellow Jews. Then a friend introduced her to Kinber, from the Latvian capital of Riga.

A long-distance Limmud love story unfolded, as Kinber and Lapidus, then studying French at The Sorbonne, met each month for dates in Paris, Tallinn or Riga. Their wedding last October drew guests from across the Baltics and beyond.

“When you’re surrounded by people in your community you’ve known for years and don’t find your partner, you go searching,” said Lapidus, who graduated from the lone Jewish high school in Tallinn, where most of Estonia’s approximately 4,000 Jews live.

The newlyweds returned to the fourth-annual Lithuanian Limmud in early February, this time joined by Lapidus’ parents, Natalja and Ilja, who journeyed 10 hours to the Lithuanian capital city with other Estonian Jews on three double-decker buses.

Sentimentality for Limmud aside, Lapidus’ mother said she was there to learn.

“Being from such a small Jewish community, there aren’t so many people you can learn from, and we don’t have much free time,” said Natalja, 57, a pathologist. “Limmud offers us a wide range of possibilities.”

The Lapidus-Kinber union may embody the essence of Limmud: creating space for Jewish learning and schmoozing with peers in a comfortable Jewish environment.

If matchmaking occurs between communities, so much the better.
Limmud also is the latest step in a campaign — funded in part by the contributions of the Los Angeles Jewish community — to create a cohesive Baltic region: from summer camps for children, to weekend gatherings for teens and 20-somethings, to Limmud, which is dominated by the so-called “missing generation” — reared entirely during communism — and younger families, with countless kids romping about.

Even a segment of the ultra-Orthodox attended the event.
Yet the opportunities at Limmud don’t fully explain the remarkable turnout at this four-star resort in the wooded, snow-covered outskirts of Vilnius, which drew more than 1,000 local Jews from a Baltic Jewish population estimated at no more than 25,000.

The crowd was so large, guests were divided into three hotels and shuttled around by van. During dinner they nearly filled an adjoining ballroom.

“Proportionally I think it’s the biggest event in the Jewish world,” said Andres Spokoiny, who handles the region for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), which co-sponsors the yearly event and other community-building efforts.

“It shows the thirst and desire to reconnect with Judaism, and that this reconnection takes place in an open, pluralistic environment with all the richness and diversity of Judaism present,” Spokoiny said. “And when they look around that ballroom and see 1,000 people, they feel they’re taking revenge on history.”

Vilnius, a city known to Jews as Vilna, was the historic heart of Yiddishkeit until the Holocaust decimated the community. All four Baltic Limmuds have been held here.

The Limmud “studyfest” manifests the vision first laid out a quarter-century ago by its British founders.

“The principle is that all Jews should learn and all Jews can teach, so we need to provide opportunities for people to learn and for people to teach,” said Clive Lawton, a Limmud co-founder who was on hand in Vilnius. “What you need is three to five people who say, ‘We need to do this’ — and then they need to find some friends.”

Recent Limmuds have been organized in Turkey, Australia, Germany, Holland and New York. In Vilnius, Jews from Bulgaria, Belarus and Argentina were investigating whether the Limmud formula could be adapted locally.

For Vilnius Jews, five decades of aggressively anti-religious, assimilationist Soviet policies after the Holocaust further separated them from their roots.

But the city’s symbolism and potential attracted The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, which co-sponsors the Vilnius Limmud with the JDC.

“It just made sense for us to partner with a community that used to be a center of learning, and can be once again,” said Diane Fiedotin, a Los Angeles Federation member at the event. “The community here is alive, not a remnant waiting for the last Jew to die.”

The Los Angeles Jewish Federation has donated about $200,000 annually to the region through a Los Angeles-Baltic Partnership begun in 2002. Beneficiaries include a hospital, schools, summer and winter camps, sports programs, leadership training and a research center.

“Limmud Baltics couldn’t have been possible without the generous support of The L.A. Jewish Federation and its leaders within the framework of the LA-Baltic Partnership,” wrote Spokoiny in an e-mail.

“Certainly, Limmud is the crowning jewel and the culmination of the many projects within that partnership that help develop the basic structure of Jewish life in the region. Together — L.A., JDC and, most important, the local leaders — we are transforming lives and making history. We are providing a vibrant Jewish future for thousands of people, and for entire communities, that we considered lost forever.”

Indeed, the weekend seemed like the social event of the season. Far from the image of ex-Soviet denizens dependent on the Diaspora, subsisting on food packages from the JDC and others, this Limmud attracted a confident, newly rich and burgeoning middle class willing to shell out $70 per family member — double the fee three years ago — plus more for a posh hotel room.

With its combination of dozens of lectures — ranging from Jewish history, culture and traditions to humor, ethics and sex — and evening entertainment — Yiddish-themed song and dance, Israeli folk dance and pop music, and a Russian comedienne — participants say they circle the Limmud weekend many months in advance.

“It’s a family seminar, and we try to do everything together as a family,” said Daniel Tsomik, 25, of Kaunas, Lithuania, who attended with his entourage of six — his wife, Margarita; his parents; his sister and her boyfriend.

Limmud L.A. in the Works


When attorney Shep Rosenman attended the interdenominational, interdisciplinary, cultural/experiential/academic Limmud conference in New York, what surprised him most was how much he was able to step out of his comfort zone.

“I would normally not take a class called ‘Do Jews Believe in Astrology.’ It’s not really my bailiwick, nor is ‘Facing an Abusing God, a Theology of Protest.’ But those were two of the most moving classes I took,” Rosenman said.

Rosenman and a handful of other community leaders are trying to bring Limmud to L.A.

Founded in England more than 25 years ago, Limmud conferences have been spreading across the globe in the past 10 years, reaching New York two years ago. In three- to four-day conferences, Jews of all denominations, interests and backgrounds gather for classes, concerts, prayers, art workshops, food and a cohesive Jewish experience.

Rosenman said about 25 people are involved in an effort to have a Limmud L.A. conference during President’s Weekend 2008. Working groups have been formed, and venues, teachers and funding are all being sought.

Rosenman hopes the varied offerings and experiences can serve as a galvanizing force for L.A.’s fragmented Jewry.

“Limmud represents a real opportunity for people who don’t otherwise mingle in their learning or social circles, or in their shared passion for Jewish art, music or culture, to be in a safe environment together,” Rosenman said. “Some beautiful stuff has the potential to gestate and grow us into a community that is much less fractured.”

To learn more or get involved, call Shep Rosenman at (310) 867-3640 or visit www.limmud-la.org.

Women and the Machzor

What did women have to do with developing the High Holiday prayers? That is the topic to be explored at Netivot Women’s Torah Study Institute’s Elul Seminar on Sunday, Sept. 17 at Beth Jacob congregation in Beverly Hills. Netivot offers a full schedule of text-based classes for women throughout the year, including classes in prophets, the weekly portion and Gemara. A highly successful mother-daughter bat mitzvah class will begin again in January. For more information, visit www.netivot.org.


Kadima Students Reach Out to Israel Over Summer

Even before school started, the students and families of Kadima Hebrew Academy in West Hills were supporting the victims of war in Israel. Kadima’s seventh-graders were especially affected by the war, as a peer at the Teva School, Kadima’s sister school in Tel Aviv, lost her brother during the fighting in Lebanon. Kadima’s preschool director, Hana Livni, who was in Israel at the time, paid a condolence call to the family and brought them gifts from Kadima.
During the summer, students wrote letters offering moral support to Israeli soldiers, and urged Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa to continue supporting Israel. Kadima parents and trustees Shawn and Dorit Evenhaim paid for the relocation costs of 30 Israeli families to move from their homes in the north to the safer southern areas.

For information visit www.kadimaacademy.org.


Tooting Their Horns

Weizmann Day School in Pasadena opens school every year by inviting faculty and students, past and present, to gather to blow the shofar, an event repeated every morning throughout Rosh Hashanah. With less than 50 students and 14 teachers, the small school has made its mark. Historically over 60 percent of its students have achieved standardized test scores at or above the 97th percentile nationally. Weizmann recently received the city of Pasadena’s Model of Unity Award, presented to the school for the 2005 Daniel Pearl Harmony for Humanity Concert, which brought Weizmann students together with Muslim and Christian students from Pasadena’s New Horizon and St. Marks schools.

For information, visit www.weizmann.net.


New Faces

Sam Edelman, a scholar in Holocaust education, is the new dean of the College of Arts and Science at the University of Judaism.

Edelman spent 27 years at Cal State University at Chico, where he was a professor of rhetoric and communication studies as well as Jewish and Holocaust studies. He was the founder and director of the program in Modern Jewish and Israel Studies. Edelman will remain in his position as the co-director, with his wife, Carol, of the state of California Center for the Study of the Holocaust, Genocide, Human Rights and Tolerance. For information, visit www.uj.edu or www.csuchico.edu/mjs/center.


New Faces II

Jenna Rubin, a 15-year Jewish education veteran, is the new director of religious education at B’nai Tikvah Congregation in Westchester.

“My mission is for our students to develop to their full potential as both Jews and human beings. We’ll focus on nurturing each student’s self-identity, cultivating each student’s place within the community, and developing each student’s relationship with God,” Rubin said.

For information visit www.BnaiTikvahCongregation.org.


New Jew Principal Goes To Harvard

Ellen Howard, principal of New Community Jewish High School in West Hills, was one of 10 day school principals from around the country sponsored by the AviChai Foundation to attend a summer seminar for educators at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Participants in “Leadership: An Evolving Vision” combined rigorous study with writing, reflection and peer interaction, identifying priorities and sharing ideas and solutions.

“We learned how to enhance the quality of the school experience for everyone — students, teachers, and administrators alike,” Howard said.

For more information on New Community Jewish High School, visit www.ncjhs.org.