Letters to the editor: Purim alert, Limmud and more

Purim Alert: Send Us Your Funny Headlines!

Every year, the Jewish Journal’s Purim issue features a tabloid-style gloss cover with fake headlines that shock, upset and sometimes even entertain our readers. This year, we’d like to invite you to contribute one or two of your best ideas for fake Purim headlines.

We credit contributors in the Table of Contents and will post all entries online. Send your ideas to editor@jewishjournal.com by Monday, Feb. 16.

Remember, the best headlines play off big news items and personalities, or the quirks of Jewish life. Don’t pull punches — it’s Purim!

Take a Picture …

As I usually disagree with Rob Eshman’s columns on national and world affairs, I was shocked to my foundations to read his column (“Drones, Jews and Morality,” Jan. 30) several times (it was that good) with great respect.  If he is going to write such well-reasoned, rational, thoughtful columns with no detectable left-wing drivel, how am I going to be able to rage against him? His proactive stance against the mainstream at a bastion of left-wing radicals (Princeton) blew me away. I even learned something new that I found very useful. What’s this world coming to?  But please, keep up the good work.

Warren Scheinin, Redondo Beach

LimmudLA and Sustaining Support 

I commend David Suissa for shining a light on one of the most expansive and inspirational Jewish engagement programs launched locally (“Whatever Happened to Limmud in LA?” Feb. 6), as well as the considerable challenge facing social entrepreneurs and philanthropists everywhere: sustainability of these dynamic initiatives.

The Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles was instrumental in launching LimmudLA in 2007 with $250,000 awarded over three years through its Cutting Edge Grants Initiative. Additionally, The Foundation’s own donors have provided over $100,000 in additional grants to support LimmudLA.

Since establishing our Cutting Edge Grants in 2006, The Foundation has provided financial support of nearly $10.5 million to launch 53 groundbreaking programs.  Proudly, about 90 percent of these initiatives — including LimmudLA — continue to operate during and beyond their grant periods.

The fact that LimmudLA today operates with a different model and capacity from when originally launched reflects the sustainability challenge confronting even the best initiatives and start-up nonprofits. Long-term success entails more than just securing support through a seed funder like The Foundation; it takes a veritable “Jewish village” of resources. Regrettably, not all programs will take root longer term.

This underscores the vital need for second-stage funding, to support promising initiatives as they grow, adapt and become truly sustainable into the future. The Foundation continues to be committed to exploring how we, in partnership with like-minded funders, can play a leadership role in enabling the community’s most viable programs to flourish beyond our grant-making support.

Marvin Schotland, Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles, President and CEO

Artistic Integrity

In reference to Ellie Heman’s piece about the Oscars (“Why I Don’t Want to Watch the [White] Oscars This Year,” Jan. 30), I am sick to death of hearing the term “white” being used as a racial invective. Herman, secure in her limited little bubble of academia, feels free to toss the word around as if skin color exempts white Academy members from any serious ability to think for themselves, forgetting that voting members come from all racial and religious backgrounds.  In all fairness to Herman, perhaps she does not realize that “Hollywood” operates as a meritocracy, and that films are not nominated for racial or ethnic consideration, but for any number of reasons, including artistic merit. Let’s face it: “Selma” was a bore, cast with British actors whose American accents at times seemed somewhat labored. If Herman, even dimly, recognizes her own bigotry, then perhaps she will be able to understand what meritocracy is all about.

Ron Southart, Marina Del Rey

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.” 

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.

How much is Jewish innovation worth?

On May 8, in a very cool space in Culver City, I listened to a hundred very cool people talk about their very cool vision for the Jewish future.

The occasion was something called — OK, bear with me — “ALCHEMY: The Science & Art of Jewish Innovation: an evening of thought-provoking learning and conversation presented by the Joshua Venture Group, Jumpstart & LimmudLA with the Joshua Venture Fellows.”

I know, almost as long as the production credits for “Prometheus.”

But this title at least shows there is a bull market in Jewish innovation. Groups like these have arisen, at least in part, to find, develop and fund young, or young-ish, Jews who are trafficking in innovative approaches to Jewish life.

Indeed, “innovation” is the hottest word in organized Jewish life these days. Say you are doing something “innovative,” and Jewish organizations will roll out the welcome mat and funders will prick up their ears. To what do these young people owe their windfall? Three things.

First, society has never looked more kindly on innovators. We all live in the post-Jobsian glow of the next new thing, and it’s no surprise that a people who lay claim to the “Start-Up Nation” are particularly susceptible to start-up ideas.

Second, there is a deep fear among the older Jewish generation — the people giving away the money — that Judaism is losing its hold on the younger generation of Jews. “Innovation” is the solution begat by the last buzzword of Jewish anxiety, “continuity” — the fear brought on by the 1990 Jewish Population Survey that younger generations of Jews are detached, assimilated or marrying out of their People. In Los Angeles, of course, we have zero proof whether this is still true because, unlike in other large Jewish communities, there has been no subsequent scientific survey. (New York just released a new comprehensive survey this week, as it does every decade.) But, hey, data is so old-fashioned.

Third, social media has made the cost of seeming to build an organization or movement fairly cheap. Your parents’ chavurah never had more than 15 people in it, and their synagogue maybe only had 500 members. In the Internet age, 500 is how many people join Facebook every minute.

I’m not saying that the organizations that presented at Alchemy were not thoughtful or serious or worthy. Just the opposite. To become recipients of Joshua Venture grants, they had to prove their abilities at organization and leadership. Nati Passow of the Jewish Farm School, Eli Winkelman of Challah for Hunger, Ari Weiss of Uri L’Tzedek and Alison Laichter of the Jewish Meditation Center, to name a few, all spoke impressively.

The Alchemy organizers asked me to listen to the evening’s worth of these and other presentations and then, at the end, “synthesize” what had been said, especially in the context of the Los Angeles Jewish community, in a final wrap-up speech. I did just that, but with the fair warning that as a columnist it takes me at least a week to think on my feet. The interim has allowed me time to innovate some further thoughts.

I told the Alchemy attendees, first, that I was humbled. 

I said that they do need to recognize that they are just the latest in a long line of innovators. In fact, the coolest, youngest innovators I know in the Jewish community are all between 60 and 90 years old. Think about it: Rabbi Marvin Hier created the Simon Wiesenthal Center out of thin air. Rabbi Uri Herscher built the Skirball Cultural Center from the ground up. Rabbi Harold Schulweis has been at the forefront of the chavurah movement, the righteous persons movement, the Jewish response to Darfur, the acceptance of converts and intermarrieds. Rabbi Laura Geller keeps creating new models for women and synagogue leadership. There’s Brandeis-Bardin, the Shoah Foundation, the Israeli Leadership Council and everything the Cunin family initiated years ago — I mean a Chabad telethon.

Today, the institutions these men and women built look like … institutions. But in their day, they struggled against a status quo that, to put it mildly, did not welcome them with grants and conferences. What looks mainstream today was anything but at the conception.

The lesson from this is that innovation is not new: It is built into Jewish life. That’s because Judaism itself was once an innovation — a radical departure from the status quo that realized only through balancing tradition with hiddush, innovation or renewal, can a culture move forward and thrive.

And that’s what leads me to my caveats and worries: I wonder if true innovation among young people isn’t hampered, rather than helped, by our rush to reward innovators with grants and aid. If innovators have an idea and don’t get communal monies to pull it off, can they develop the skills, or cojones, to just strike out on their own and sustain their ideas, like the Hiers and Herschers did?

It’s one thing to create the next new Web site or cool organization, but lasting innovations have always been solidly linked to visionary leadership, often forged in adversity, and committed for the long haul.

I would hope, too, that existing Jewish organizations understand the benefits of bringing young innovators on board, of just saying yes to more outside ideas, if only to save on the money and energy expended to start yet more groups.

And finally, I hope — pray — that grantors balance their eagerness to fund “new and cool” with the much less sexy need to fund “old and sick,” or lonely and disabled, or poor and weak. Maybe we as a community are so awash in money that we can afford to spend millions getting perfectly healthy, smart, upper-middle-class Jews excited about Judaism and Israel. Fine. But before we spend a penny there, let’s make sure we have taken care of the needs of all those who otherwise could use that money: the Holocaust survivors, the working poor, the hungry and disabled and ill. That’s not innovative. It’s just Jewish.

Heads of young innovative Jewish organizations debrief L.A. Jews on their work

As part of their visit to Los Angeles last week, the outgoing class of Joshua Venture Fellows, all leaders of innovative Jewish organizations that are less than five years old, spent a few hours one evening talking to a group of L.A. Jews.

At an event co-presented by Jumpstart and LimmudLA, the fellows presented the work of their own organizations. Headquartered around the country, their nonprofits engage in work that ranges from the very hands-on, to the heady, to the overtly political, to the radically reductive. 

For a few hours on May 8, though, the fellows functioned as the hub of a self-contained ecosystem of Jewish innovation that popped up in a shared office space in Culver City. The approximately 80 (mostly young) Angelenos who joined the (also youngish) fellows included leaders of more established Jewish organizations, aspiring Jewish innovators, and staff members from Jewish Community Foundation and The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.

It was both an opportunity for the Joshua Venture Group, the New York-based organization that funds the two-year fellowships, to present the fellows to Los Angeles and a chance for the fellows themselves to seek out partners to help advance their work.

While the crowd talked, noshed, networked and (occasionally) Tweeted, the fellows themselves made clear their awareness that they were coming up to the end of two years of both training and exposure to other Jewish resources for innovation, as well as grants from the Joshua Venture Group to each of their organizations of up to $100,000.

“We are working on replacing that funding,” said Rabbi Ari Weiss, executive director of the Modern Orthodox social justice nonprofit Uri L’Tzedek. In addition to the Joshua fellowship, Weiss and Uri L’Tzedek have been supported by other organizations, including getting funding, office space and other resources from Bikkurim over the last four years.

Weiss said the organization is stronger today than it was before those programs invested in it.

“I think we’re a much more mature organization, having been in this ecosystem, he said.

LimmudLA draws about 600, offers flavors of Judaism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The pleasure, no doubt, was theirs.

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.

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.

Notes from LimmudLA 2011 [VIDEO]

If it was a bit easier than usual to find a seat or a parking spot at your synagogue over Presidents’ Day weekend, you may be able to thank the organizers of the LimmudLA conference. More than 500 Jews from Los Angeles and beyond traveled to the Hilton in Costa Mesa for the fourth annual gathering of cross-denominational learning. LimmudLA is one of 50 annual Limmud conferences worldwide, all of them modeled after the United Kingdom Limmud, begun in 1980.

This year’s conference, which began midday Friday and ended midday Monday,  featured more than 200 sessions led by 125 different presenters, including rabbis, artists, educators, academics and other Jews with regular jobs and something to teach. Some presenters were flown in from around the globe (but even they are not paid for teaching), but the majority of the work that made LimmudLA happen was done by volunteers, who are also participants. “Volunticipants” is the neologism favored by the conference’s organizers.

No single person can fully experience the variety and diversity of LimmudLA. Jews of all affiliations — and no affiliation — chose from a dizzying array of lectures, films and workshops. Yet certain moments — the musical Havdalah service on Saturday night, a packed stand-up comedy show that included very young amateurs and seasoned professionals — were experienced collectively.

Two Views of a Contested Land, One Conference Room

Just after noon on Sunday, Shoshana Hikind, executive vice president of Jerusalem Chai/American Friends of Ateret Cohanim, told an audience of about 10 about the work her organization has done to help bring dozens of Jewish families to what she referred to as “the so-called Muslim and Christian Quarters of the Old City of Jerusalem.”

“We have brought this area back to life,” Hikind said of the group’s work to insert Jewish families into places like Kidmat Tziyon, more widely known by the Arabic name that the majority of the area’s residents use, Abu Dis. “And why not?” Hikind said. “These are our roots!”

Less than 24 hours later, three people gathered in the same conference room to hear Caryn Aviv, a professor from University of Colorado, Boulder, talk about alternative Jewish travel in Israel and the West Bank.

Aviv described two programs that take Jews on intentionally unsettling journeys: The Encounter program brings American Jewish leaders to listen to the stories of Palestinians living in the West Bank; the more marginal (and, Aviv said, explicitly anti-Zionist) Zochrot program takes Israelis to destroyed Palestinian villages and other spaces within the pre-1967 borders of the state of Israel that recall the history of the 1948 Israeli-Arab conflict that Palestinians refer to as the Nakhba (the catastrophe).

Aviv, a sociologist, talked about Encounter as a program inspired by Jewish ideas of justice. Hikind, the wife of New York State Assemblyman Dov Hikind, talked about the establishment and maintenance of Jewish power and control over Jerusalem. It would be hard to find two more diametrically opposed presentations — and yet Limmud was the venue for both.

Story continues after the jump.

Video by Jonah Lowenfeld. Edited by Jeffrey Hensiek.

Teens at Limmud

All Limmud conferences feature presentations from out-of-towners — New York comedian Joel Chasnoff’s performance on Saturday night was his seventh appearance at a Limmud — but they depend primarily on locals to lead sessions. This year’s younger Limmudniks weren’t exempt from this expectation.

Just before sunset on Saturday, two seniors from Milken Community High School led a discussion about whether morality could be achieved without God, one of about a dozen sessions led by teens. Participants in the lively discussion included two UCLA undergraduates, a few students from YULA and Shalhevet high schools and about a dozen from Milken.

LimmudLA aims to be intergenerational, so there were adults in that room as well. And the teenagers didn’t restrict themselves to sessions that were explicitly teen-friendly: two 11th-graders from Leo Baeck Temple’s Hebrew school participated in a session about the halachic and legal questions surrounding brain death. On Sunday evening, a band made up of kids ages 10 to 16 played a set that included songs by the Doors, Debbie Friedman and a rendition of “Sweet Caroline” to serenade conference co-chair Caroline Kelly.

You Wrote That?

A pleasant evening of Israeli standards at a concert with composer Nurit Hirsch transformed itself into an intimate glimpse into Jewish cultural history.

Hirsch has composed more than a thousand Israeli songs, among them the 1978 Eurovision-winning “Abanibi,” the camp favorite “Ba’Shana Ha’ba’ah,” (“Yes They Do!”) and the musical “Sallah Shabati.”

Hirsch sat at her baby grand in a small conference room, with more than 100 people crammed in. She shared stories of collaboration with Israel’s poets and top vocalists, and her own musical path through modern Israeli history.

“I am going to sing a song that everyone knows, but no one knows that I wrote it,” Hirsch said toward the end of her concert.

It took only a few chords for everyone to start singing along to “Oseh Shalom” — yes, the “Oseh Shalom” that has achieved both folk and liturgical status. She won third prize at the Chassidic Song Festival with that song in 1969. And she sang it in Costa Mesa in 2011.

Two Heads Are Better

Mechitzah minyan? Liberal Egalitarian? Traditional Egalitarian? Maybe Shabbat yoga or a 12-step meeting?

Shabbat morning seemed like a good time for “My Time,” a Torah session using chavruta, where 30 study partners used biblical, rabbinic and contemporary texts as a jumping-off point for discussions about multitasking, staying in the moment and over-scheduling. For around 15 years, Limmud UK has been producing an annual chavruta source book, with textual sources as diverse as the Babylonian Talmud and Klingon proverbs.

This year, Limmudniks from 12 time zones volunteered to compile a source book that debuted in December in the U.K. The batch of 100-page spiral-bound books then traveled in the suitcases of Limmud groupies to New York in January, made it to Los Angeles this month, and are now headed for Philadelphia, Boston and around the world.

Recovery and Renewal

The more than 40 performances, films and artistic sessions at LimmudLA shift the focus to the heart and offer a much-needed break for the mind.

“Freedom Song,” performed late Sunday afternoon at LimmudLA, starred residents and alumni of Beit T’Shuvah in Culver City. Founded 25 years ago, Beit T’Shuvah is the only Jewish residential rehab facility in the country, making Jewish ideas and practice central to the recovery process.

“Freedom Song,” a powerful and emotional musical, juxtaposes a 12-step meeting on one half of the stage with a family seder on the other, exploring the pain and struggle of the recovery process and the rupture addiction causes in a family.

The production, which travels the city and country on request, asks audiences to hold up a mirror to our own behaviors. To what are we slaves? What lies do we tell ourselves to justify small misdeeds, and how do we mistreat those whom we love?

As a conversation with the cast following the production was coming to a close, a cast member brought out a “birthday” cake. David, who had been working the sound board, was celebrating his 365th day of sobriety. For this song, the audience and the cast sang together.

LimmudLA, 1 A.D. (After Debbie)

Leading the liberal egalitarian services on Friday night, Avram Mandell made the weekend’s first reference to the late Debbie Friedman. With a guitar strapped to his chest and a smile on his face, Mandell, the director of education at Leo Baeck Temple, paused before the “Ve-shamru” prayer to remember having seen Friedman and UCLA Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller sing it together at a previous LimmudLA. The moment, Mandell said, embodied the spirit of Limmud, because you had a Reform Jewish woman and an Orthodox male rabbi singing biblical verses to the tune written by Rabbi Moshe Rothblum, rabbi emeritus of the Conservative Adat Ari El in Valley Village. “And Rabbi Rothblum was in the room,” Mandell added. Friedman, a resident of Orange County whose final performance was in December 2010 at Limmud in the U.K. —  had been a mainstay of LimmudLA, and her absence this year was deeply felt by many.

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.

Post-election healing — kumbaya in class and at the beach

Alison Weinreb, a teacher at Maimonides Academy in West Hollywood, invited her sixth-grade social studies class to her home for an election-night viewing party.

As the electoral map turned increasingly blue, she noticed that her scattered Obama supporters were keeping pretty quiet — embarrassed even in victory to be in the minority among their McCain-supporting friends.

At the same time, McCain supporters — who have been the majority of students at Orthodox day schools like Maimonides — needed a fair amount of reassuring that an Obama presidency would not spell immediate disaster for Israel and the Jews, the message they had been hearing throughout the election from their friends and gleaning from conversations at home.

Weinreb wasn’t the only one facing a distressed and confused community in the aftermath of this year’s presidential race. Jews battered one another in passionate arguments throughout this election season, as each side staked out their positions, often spilling over into questionably grounded rhetoric and incivility. Friends and institutions squared off around Shabbat tables and at debate lecterns in what each considered life-or-death debates.

How children have interpreted such passion offers a revealing, though slightly distorted, mirror in which to view adult political discourse.

While children selectively perceive and then reinterpret information that comes their way, they reflect an atmosphere where issues of race, security, economic class divisions and Israel’s future have stirred up strong emotions.

At Orthodox day schools, mock elections yielded landslide McCain victories.

Students from at least one elementary school came home reporting that friends told them that if Obama were elected, he would “kill all the Jews.”

On the other side, at a another, more liberal school, one mother reported that her daughter was afraid to let on that her parents were McCain supporters, since everyone around her was so enamored of Obama.

Now that the election is over and campaign exaggerations can give way to reality, in schools, and everywhere else, people are making efforts to put things back into perspective.

At Maimonides, Weinreb helped organize a post-election assembly on Wednesday morning. On the stage, between the American and Israeli flags, two piñatas — an elephant and a donkey — stood side by side. Rabbi Karmi Gross, headmaster of the school, invited the sixth- through eighth-graders to come together to celebrate this historic triumph for American freedom and democracy.

“But we also come together for a different reason,” Gross continued. “We come together because this was one election — and I have seen quite a few — where the battle lines in America were drawn more clearly than ever, which pitted American against American, the red and the blue states, the left and the right, against each other in ways I do not recall. And sometimes the debates became very loud, and many times the debates became very nasty.”

Gross, using a talmudic parable, urged the children to understand the difference between disagreeing with an idea — which is fine — and attacking the person who holds such ideas, which is not.

Students together watched a video of McCain’s concession speech, and were asked to pull out some of the major themes.

“He said he was more proud to be associated with America than anything else,” one student offered.

“He said that we shouldn’t be upset that Obama won, because he’ll do good things for this country,” another said.

One rabbi acknowledged that many of the students were worried about Israel, but he assured them that Israel was strong, and that Israel’s ultimate fate lies in God’s hands, not in any president’s.

Jews who believed McCain was the better choice for Israel had to do a delicate dance with children.

One father, who asked not to be named to protect his son’s privacy, described a conversation he had with his 6-year-old son about the historic nature of this election and about the many reasons he was voting for McCain. In an age-appropriate way, they talked about security, the economy and issues that were important to them — such as having a president who had a record of supporting Israel. And the father posed the idea that he didn’t know whether Barack Obama would be a friend to Israel and the Jews, because there was not a very long record to rely on.

“Then — like all kids do, they pick up a small amount of what you tell them — he picked up from that that Barack Obama may not be nice to the Jewish people,” the father said, a declaration the boy made to his horrified mother.

The couple talked to their son again, softening the stance and saying that Obama might end up being a very good friend to the Jews. By the time Obama’s picture covered the front pages on Nov. 5, the boy seemed fine with his new president.

Helping kids process the broken-telephone game of information coming from the home and through their friends was a major focus at Emek Hebrew Academy-Teichman Family Torah Center in Sherman Oaks, where teachers integrated ideas about democracy or the specific campaign issues into the curriculum.

“But there were also moments where the students made baseless or exaggerated claims, repeating things they had heard,” said Gabriela Shapiro, general studies principal at Emek. “What we did at the time and will continue to do is teach the students about discernment — in other words, if someone makes a negative comment about Obama, we want the student hearing the claim to ask ‘what is the basis for your claim?'”

Harkham Hillel Hebrew Academy in Beverly Hills brought in Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky of B’nai David-Judea Congregation, who introduced a pre-election debate by highlighting a moment several weeks ago in which McCain asked riled-up ralliers to stop relying on rumor and innuendo to attack Obama as a person, and to focus instead on the issues.

Rabbi Boruch Sufrin, headmaster of Hillel, plans to use examples from the election when the school starts a conflict-resolution and community-building program next week.

“We’re going to deal with issues of perception and judging others favorably, and attacking issues, not people. We’re going to talk about accepting people’s differences and understanding what you have in common,” he said.

It’s a tough message to get across to kids, when adults themselves haven’t been behaving well.

Rabbi Ed Feinstein of Valley Beth Shalom said he found the rancor among Jewish voters “painful and discouraging.” At a pre-election debate in his synagogue, Feinstein had to put on his former middle school principal hat to discipline the crowd.

“It’s discouraging to me as an American and as a person who believes in democracy, and it’s discouraging to me as the rabbi of a synagogue where important things should be discussed that you can’t have a serious political debate without hooting and hollering and drowning out the other side,” Feinstein said.

ALTTEXTIt was such rancor that a Healing Havdalah — the ritual marking the end of Shabbat — last Saturday night aimed to overcome. The event was organized by LimmudLA, the apolitical, nondenominational, Jewish-unity organization that will hold its second annual conference in Orange County over Presidents’ Day weekend, in February.

Saturday’s event, organized by Gary Wexler, a Jewish marketing expert, attracted 150 people to Dockweiler Beach, where drums and guitars competed with the wind and planes taking off from the nearby LAX.

Warming themselves around a crackling fire, participants talked about how Havdalah, like the election, marks the end and the beginning, the perfect moment for healing.

Many kids were at the Havdalah, joining their parents in singing and dancing, basking in the very Limmud idea that no matter our differences, we can come together for a kumbaya moment of Jewish oneness.

While a lot of healing may still be needed before that sort of unity can move beyond a Saturday night at the beach, one uniting factor all agree on is that this election brought a new level of political awareness and passion across party lines and across ages.

“I’ve heard kids saying that for the first time in their lives they care about politics and elections and personally feel involved, and that is amazing — that energy is constructive,” Vicki Helfand, a teacher at Maimonides, told the students at the assembly. “When you care about something, you can do amazing things. Now that this election is over, we encourage you to keep being passionate, to keep believing that what you think matters — because it does.”

Danielle Berrin and Orit Arfa at Dockweiler Beach. Photo by Joe Haber http://funjoel.blogspot.com

The Nazi in the hot tub

Seven-hundred Jews gathered at the Orange County Hilton in Costa Mesa two weekends ago for a three-day teach-in called LimmudLA, and at one point in the intense, round-the-clock learning and shmoozing, suffering from what Philip Roth once called, “Jew on the brain,” I just needed a break.

I headed for the hotel hot tub.

There were a few Limmudniks already there, and one man with his back to me, lounging in the bubbles. I stepped in beside him, said my requisite, “Ahhhhh,” then turned to say hi.

And noticed — I could not not notice — that his chest was covered with a large tattoo of a swastika.

The man was big, maybe 6-feet, 250 pounds. And when I say there was a swastika on his chest, I mean it was blue black, inked in one-inch wide lines and went from nipple to nipple. My first thought, of course, was, “Maybe that’s the Navajo swastika.” My second was, “Please let that be the Navajo swastika.” My third was, “No, that’s not the Navajo swastika.”

One of the Jewish women in the Jacuzzi was talking to him, but he had moved away, and I could only make out his last sentence to her: “Thank you for not judging me.”

Then he got out, hitched up his large, baggy bathing trunks and split.

The woman was a photojournalist named Naomi Solomon. She was tending to her baby as her husband, Yehuda, enjoyed the waters. The other men in the hot tub and I marveled at her ability to lead a calm conversation with the man. I asked Naomi how she broached the subject.

“I just leaned down and asked, ‘Um, is that a swastika on your chest?'” she said.

Children and parents who came down to the hot tub saw the man and went to the pool instead. Soon the others left, and I was alone, pondering the whole weird affair.

Then he returned. Now it was me and him, alone.

I tried to channel my inner Naomi Solomon.

“I’m Rob,” I said and stuck out my hand.

“Don,” he said, and we shook.

“You do know, Don, that there are 700 Jews in this hotel all weekend?” I said.

“Yeah, I found that out,” he said. “It’s ironic.”

Then Don and I talked. He joined the Aryan Brotherhood while in prison in Arizona. There are no tattoo parlors in prison, so the inmates attach a pen and needle to the motor of a Sony Walkman. They make ink by burning hair grease in their lockers, scraping the black char off the metal and mixing it with shampoo.

The Brotherhood did his chest. Don inked his own left arm — shoulder to wrist — with a devil-in-flames design, capped with the Goth-script words, “Seize the Day.”

“I want to get it off,” Don said of the swastika.

In prison, he said, the tattoo identified him as a member of a gang not to be messed with: “It saved my life.” Outside, it’s been a problem.

“They would have removed it for free when I was on parole,” Don said, “but I couldn’t get to the place from work. Now they want $1,600.”

He said a friend of his who couldn’t afford the removal took a belt sander to his chest and ground away the first few layers of skin.

“I’ll get you the money,” I said, without a second of hesitation. “I can walk into the hotel lobby and raise it in 45 seconds.”


“I’ll find you a dermatologist in Phoenix; I’ll set it up. All you have to do is show up.”

Don, according to Solomon, said he was no longer a white supremacist. But, he told her, he still didn’t like Jews.

The man had a tense, unsettled energy. He was twice my size, and we were alone in a hot tub at night, practically naked. It didn’t seem the place to explore his ill will toward the Jewish people. I just wanted to keep things practical.

We set a time to meet later and exchange numbers.

At the appointed hour, Don wasn’t anywhere to be found. I didn’t know his room number or last name, and I tried in vain to find him.

In the meantime, telling the story to others at Limmud, I had raised enough in pledges for Don to get his swastika removed, get lipo, a facelift, a ranch house in Encino — whatever he wanted. But Don was gone. I laid out the whole story to Jessica at the Hilton front desk, and she passed my e-mail and phone number on to all the guests registered from Phoenix, but they claimed never to have heard of Don.

At breakfast that Sunday morning, Ethan Ward, one of the kids from the Jacuzzi, said he came up with the perfect title for a story, “The Nazi in the Hot Tub.”

He appeared in a public place, where we Jews had freely gathered to learn and celebrate our Jewishness. He was the asterisk at the end of the sentence, the shattered wine glass at the wedding. Yes, he said he wanted to erase his error. So he was a complicated asterisk.

But the world we live in is complicated as well. Just this week, there’s been a resurgence of the anti-Semitic Hungarian Guard in Budapest and of anti-Semitic attacks in Ukraine, even as, at the Academy Awards, an Austrian filmmaker won his country’s first Best Foreign Film Oscar for a movie, “The Counterfeiters,” that forces his countrymen to confront the Holocaust.

French Jews are hiding their kippot under baseball caps, while the country elected a pro-Israel descendant of Jews to the presidency. Muslim extremists marched through the streets of London carrying signs reading, “Get Ready for the REAL Holocaust,” this week, while Muslim leaders in the United Kingdom issued an unprecedented appeal to world Jewry for closer relations.

In Sderot, the citizens of Israel faced more rocket attacks in their tenuous struggle for existence; in America, the leading Democratic candidate met with Jewish groups to declare his unwavering support for the Jewish state.

It turns out there is something eternal and topical about the ancient wedding ritual of breaking the glass at the wedding, of the Jewish reality being forever black and white, of the Nazi in the hot tub.

The message

Thank you.

That’s the profound message of this column: Thank you. The instigators, organizers and volunteers who brought Limmud to Los Angeles last weekend deserve our gratitude for challenging one of the long-held orthodoxies of the L.A. Jewish community: There is no Jewish community.

It’s something I hear myself saying to people who ask me to describe L.A. Jewry. It’s something the leaders of our putative community bemoan when trying to explain their lack of success in galvanizing widespread support or funding for their causes: We are divided; we are spread out; we are the Balkans. Tosh, as Limmud’s British founder, Clive Lawton, would say.

The idea of LimmudLA, which came to the Costa Mesa Hilton last weekend, was to bring L.A. Jews together to study and learn. Man, did it work.

“I get tears, really, just walking the hallways,” said Moshe Shapoff, an outreach coordinator for the Karlin-Stoliner Chasidic sect who flew in from Jerusalem for the conclave. I met Moshe just after dinner Saturday night. He was still wearing his traditional Shabbat outfit: black ankle-length satin frock and a shtreimel.

I told him how unusual it is for Jews anywhere to mix it up like this, for the secular feminists to learn beside the Chasidim, beside the Conservative academics and the unaffiliated and undeclared. For someone like me to be spending a weekend with someone like him.

But that’s the essence of Limmud — not just Jews learning from other Jews but experiencing the breadth and depth of tradition, culture and spirituality in one place, in a weekend. One Limmudnik looked over some 700 people, mostly Angelenos, in the dining room Saturday night: “This is going to save me returning a lot of calls,” he said.

That evening, Moshe and other Karlin-Stoliners led a post-Shabbat course in traditional niggunim, or songs. I couldn’t make it, but I heard a schnapps bottle made rounds between tunes, and the 12 or so Jews who showed up — mostly non-Orthodox — got pretty joyous.

I was in another session, hearing four stand-up comedians, including a Chasid, a Palestinian and Aaron Freeman, a black convert to Judaism, joke about all the hilarious stuff that happens in the Mideast. That was after a full day spent dipping into one class on the teachings of Rabbi Joseph Solovetchik, another on the meaning behind the Hebrew calendar and innumerable hallway and, yes, barstool discussions and debates with everybody from the Russian scholars to Hollywood players to major philanthropists to street-level activists to post-denominational observant Israeli American rock musicians (they were in the hot tub with me, along with a brilliant Reform aerospace engineer from Manhattan Beach — go figure).

The vast majority of Jewish conferences set a bar that excludes the vast majority of Jews: The Wexner Program skews toward upscale leaders-in-the-making; the various movement gatherings stick to their movements; gatherings of Jewlicious and Reboot skew young; too many other Jewish conclaves skew old.

But Limmud succeeded in breaking down those barriers for a long weekend. Much credit goes to volunteer conference organizers Shep Rosenman and Linda Fife, who tapped their personal networks to ensure diversity from the start; Executive Director Ruth Rotenberg, who got what will surely become an annual event off to a smooth start; and the Jewish Community Foundation, which gets kudos for kicking in $250,000 (to be paid out over three years) to help it all happen.

Sure, everybody had suggestions for improvements: better outreach to the Reconstructionist, Reform and secular communities; more involvement of the many superb Jewish academics and rabbis in town (Where were Stephen S. Wise, Wilshire Boulevard and Sinai Temple?); more outreach to Los Angeles’ Persian and Israeli Jewish communities; more teen activities; a venue that offers some outdoor opportunities.

Do all this, and the consensus was next year’s Limmud will double in size. But last weekend no one was complaining (let me rephrase: I heard a near-miraculous lack of complaining, considering the sheer mass of people with a, um, propensity for critical analysis).

Instead, people were urging Limmud on, hoping next year would be bigger and the year after that bigger still. For the individual Jew, it’s a chance to learn about the widest variety of Jewish topics from a wide variety of teachers. For the community, it offers, among other benefits, a prophylactic against the kind of communal divisions that come when you simply haven’t met, learned with or shared a Shabbat meal with, your neighbor.

Limmud won’t make us all agree or stand united, but it will help us all learn more about the people with whom we disagree, and it will enable us to treat them with the kind of familiarity that breeds respect.

At the Middle East comedy night, I heard Freeman tell a joke that, in its twisted humor, perfectly explained Limmud.

“When I converted,” Freeman said, “they said, ‘You have to look into your heart and ask, “Do I love Jews?” If the answer is yes — you are not a Jew.'”

Or perhaps you are — a Limmud Jew.

LimmudLA: Chance encounters, many choices

LimmudLA – By the Numbers

Participants:* 634
Sponsors: 14
Presenters 133
Sessions: 262
Films: 21
Artists: 23
On-site volunteers: 227
Steering committee: 14
Chairs: 2
Executive director: 1
*Participants for the entire conference. An additional 16 joined for Sunday only and an additional 32 participated as vendors in the Shuk on Sunday.

Cost of LimmudLA: Still being calculated. The fee of $450 per adult covered only part of the actual cost, while Limmud subsidized the rest. Significant scholarships were awarded. The Jewish Community Foundation provided the largest grant at $250,000, paid out over three years.

Breakdown by denomination:
Conservadox 56
Conservative 144
Chasidic 11
Humanist 4
Just Jewish 32
Modern Orthodox 150
Orthodox 30
Post-Denominational 27
Reconstructionist 5
Reform 68
Renewal 4
Secular 9
Traditional 14
Unaffiliated 14
Prefer not to answer 21

Breakdown by age (range, 0-87):
0-2 28
3-12 68
13-17 9
18-34 163
35-50 163
51-64 135
65+ 25

Breakdown by geography:
Within CA

Conejo Valley 5
Los Angeles Area 412
San Gabriel Valley Area 14
San Fernando Valley 79
Ventura County 7
Northern California 8
Orange County 20
Long Beach 7
South Bay 6
San Diego 8
Santa Barbara 1

Other states:
Colorado 1
Florida 3
Georgia 1
Illinois 3
Massachusetts 4
North Carolina 1
New Jersey 4
New York 22
Ohio 1
Pennsylvania 4
Texas 1
Virginia 1
Washington 1

Other countries:
Canada 6
Israel 7
United Kingdom 9

Friday 4:51 p.m.

We have 27 minutes until Shabbat, and we need to check in to the Costa Mesa Hilton, register at the LimmudLA desk, unpack and get three children and two adults showered and into our Friday finest before candle lighting. All this while my husband, Alex, and I are still shaking off the tension of three hours — three hours — on the 405. The hotel lobby is chaotic, but it’s an excited kind of mania, because no one here really knows what to expect from LimmudLA. Yet we’re all aware that we’re about to become part of something momentous: Southern California’s initiation into this potentially transformative Jewish festival/Shabbaton/retreat.

More than 100 volunteers and one paid professional worked insanely long hours over the past two years to bring together more than 600 Jews from every denomination, age group and area of Southern California for 262 study sessions, 21 films, two concerts, a comedy show, an off-Broadway play and countless hours of connecting.

Over the past few years, Limmud has spread from its original location in England, where it began 27 years ago, to 30 communities around the world — Istanbul, Johannesburg, Basel, Berlin, Sydney, New York — brought to life by an organically grown volunteer army in each location.

So two years after conference co-chairs, attorney Shep Rosenman and chronic community activist Linda Fife, dreamed of bringing Limmud to Los Angeles, here we are, arriving, chaos and all, for day one.

5:25 p.m.

I make the candle-lighting window, but the 405 hasn’t yet worn off, and the schedule is 93 pages long, so I’m feeling overwhelmed. I try to figure out which services to go to. Liberal Egalitarian with Debbie Friedman, Jewish folk singer extraordinaire? Traditional Chasidic? Traditional Egalitarian? I end up bopping around between them and don’t get much out of any of them.

Dinner is raucous, and when Rosenman stands on a chair to welcome everyone to the first annual LimmudLA, the ballroom erupts into cheers.

He offers advice that would have served me well for services: Limmud is about choices. Own your choices.

But I still haven’t learned my lesson as, after dinner, I slip out of “Feminophobia in Religion” after just a few minutes and sneak into a back row of “Guerilla Girls of the Talmud,” which sounded like it would have been really great if I had heard the whole thing.

There are more sessions scheduled, but Alex and I head into LimmudLA Cafe, stocked with snacks and drinks. In one corner, three tables are pushed together, and people are singing Shabbat songs, telling stories, sharing some schnapps. Most of us are schmoozing. As I head off to bed around midnight — while the place is still going strong — I think about choices. Tomorrow, no more sampling, I decide. Tomorrow I commit.

Saturday, 9 a.m.

While I usually go to an Orthodox shul on Shabbat morning, today I’m going secular. Limmud, after all, is about stepping out of your comfort zone.

I head into a session about secular spirituality — Judaism without a supernatural God — headed by Mitchell Silver, a philosophy professor at the University of Massachusetts in Boston and head of the Boston Workmen’s Circle, a Yiddish secularist society.

Not the venue where I would expect to have my most spiritual moment in a long time.

LimmudLA — by the numbers

Participants:* 634
Sponsors: 14
Presenters 133
Sessions: 262
Films: 21
Artists: 23
On-site volunteers: 227
Steering committee: 14
Chairs: 2
Executive director: 1
*Participants for the entire conference. An additional 16 joined for Sunday only and an additional 32 participated as vendors in the Shuk on Sunday.

Cost of LimmudLA: Still being calculated. The fee of $450 per adult covered only part of the actual cost, while Limmud subsidized the rest. Significant scholarships were awarded. The Jewish Community Foundation provided the largest grant at $250,000 (paid out over three years.)

Breakdown by denomination:
Conservadox 56
Conservative 144
Chasidic 11
Humanist 4
Just Jewish 32
Modern Orthodox 150
Orthodox 30
Post-Denominational 27
Reconstructionist 5
Reform 68
Renewal 4
Secular 9
Traditional 14
Unaffiliated 14
Prefer not to answer 21

Breakdown by age (range, 0-87):
0-2 28
3-12 68
13-17 9
18-34 163
35-50 163
51-64 135
65+ 25

Breakdown by geography:
Within CA

Conejo Valley 5
Los Angeles Area 412
San Gabriel Valley Area 14
San Fernando Valley 79
Ventura County 7
Northern California 8
Orange County 20
Long Beach 7
South Bay 6
San Diego 8
Santa Barbara 1

Other states:
Colorado 1
Florida 3
Georgia 1
Illinois 3
Massachusetts 4
North Carolina 1
New Jersey 4
New York 22
Ohio 1
Pennsylvania 4
Texas 1
Virginia 1
Washington 1

Other countries:
Canada 6
Israel 7
United Kingdom 9

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.