August 17, 2019

How to Draw More Jews

LimmudLA, an everything-Jewish weekend retreat, is so militantly pluralistic that its homemade Shabbat songbook has songs and prayers culled from about 20 different books, and some of the entries have five translations.

But even with its absurd attention to such details, the learning and cultural conference, which holds it third annual retreat Feb. 12-15, 2010, ran into some issues over the past two years with the Shabbat bathrooms.

At the Costa Mesa Hilton, which will house the conference for the third year running, the sinks and toilets operated by electronic sensors are a problem for those who are observing the Sabbath. So signs around the hotel pointed to which bathrooms had fixtures without automatic sensors.

But cryptic signs for the “Shabbat Bathroom,” or the “Shabbat Elevator” (it automatically stops on every floor), as well as an abundance of yarmulkes on Shabbat, left many under the impression that this conference was dominated by the observant.

And that perception also was somewhat warranted by the facts. At the first LimmudLA, in 2008, around 400 of the 630 attendees identified themselves as some form of Orthodox or Conservative, while the next year it was about 450 out of about 700. To many, the three-day event felt even more skewed than that.

“If you put up a sign that says ‘This way for Shabbat elevators,’ it sends a message about who is there. But you can’t put up a sign that says ‘Reform Jews are here, too,’” said Abby Fifer Mandell, who has been involved in LimmudLA since its inception in 2007 and this year is co-chairing the outreach committee.

Fifer’s committee has spent the last nine months trying to bulk up the presence of underrepresented communities such as secular, unaffiliated, Reform, Iranian, Israeli, Russian and Jews of color.

The Limmud model originated in the United Kingdom some 30 years ago and in the last decade has spread to 40 communities around the world, from Denver to Bulgaria to Argentina to Turkey, touching tens of thousands of Jews.

The conference is entirely volunteer run — LimmudLA’s only paid employee is executive director Ruthie Rotenberg. Most of the 200 sessions are led not by professionals, but rather by participants who have something to share. Among sessions to be offered at LimmudLA 2010 are: Jewish Roots, Rock and Reggae; The Jewish Body: From Bris to Nose Jobs; Power Negotiating Strategies: Lessons From the Bible; Efforts to Address the Iran Threat; Holographic Metaphor-Physics and Judaism; and sessions on Yiddish, Iranian Jewry, Latino Jews and Jews in Zimbabwe.

The program also includes Jewish thinkers Rabbi Yitz and Blu Greenberg; Anat Hoffman, a leader in Israel’s Reform movement and a founder of Women at the Wall; and Mel Konner, professor of anthropology, neuroscience, behavioral biology and Jewish studies at Emory University. Among the local stars, Valley Beth Shalom’s Rabbi Ed Feinstein will teach, as will Rabbi Chaim and Doreen Seidler-Feller, the UCLA Hillel director/sex therapist power couple.

Cedars-Sinai will run sessions on medicine, health and ethics, and scholars from top Jewish studies institutions such as Pardes, the Shalom Hartman Institute and Wexner Heritage Foundation are slated to attend. Most of the dozens of film screenings include a discussion led by a producer or director, and movement sessions include dance, yoga and Krav Maga. Evenings will be peppered with comedy shows, concerts and late-night hangouts.

LimmudLA hopes to attract 900 participants this year. The cost of the weekend, including hotel and all meals, is $500 for adults who register before Dec. 1, and $600 before Jan. 11. Payment plans are available, and although the scholarship deadline has already passed, organizers are attempting to raise more funds to subsidize the weekend for those who can’t cover the cost.

At this year’s conference, Shabbat bathroom signs will still, of necessity, be hanging, but programmers have added elements that liberal Jews find compelling — more mitzvah projects, both at the conference and in Orange County; sessions on gay and lesbian issues, many led by Gregg Drinkwater, director of Jewish Mosaic, the National Center for Sexual and Gender Diversity; still-to-be-confirmed Reform musical talents and Reform scholar Rabbi William Cutter.

Over the last couple of months, Reform congregations around Southern California have been invited to participate in several “Tastes of Limmud” — evening gatherings with four or five sessions meant to generate interest in the conference.

Other “Tastes” have targeted Israeli and Iranian populations, and LimmudLA has forged relationships with the Israeli Leadership Council and Iranian organizations including the Lev Foundation, 30 Years After and the Jewish Unity Network. Iranian scholar Houman Sarshar, head of the Iranian Jewish Oral History Project, will lead sessions.

A diverse volunteer corps has been specifically tasked with spreading the word in their own communities, since experience shows that most attendees hear of the conference from friends, not mass advertising.

But that presents a Catch-22 for underrepresented communities, who by definition don’t have insiders to trigger the word-of-mouth campaign. And Reform or unaffiliated Jews might be at a disadvantage to Shabbat observant communities who have weekly opportunities to schmooze and spread the Limmud gospel.

Some worry the obstacles for Reform go deeper.

David Aaronson, who is on the LimmudLA board and has been involved for three years, is a lay teacher at Temple Israel of Hollywood and other synagogues.

“The problem that the Reform community has is, given a window of educational opportunity, Reform Jews choose not to step through that window,” he said. The Shabbat morning study group he leads at Temple Israel attracts about 25 people a week — considered a great success in most Reform circles, but discouraging when you consider there are about 1,600 adult members of the congregation, Aaronson said.

Reform rabbis, who did not want to be quoted, confirmed that they have a hard time getting congregants to engage in Jewish study or activity outside of the prescribed routine, especially if that study involves an entire weekend.

But other Limmuds have overcome that barrier. In fact, Los Angeles and the United Kingdom are nearly alone among Limmuds in being dominated by the observant crowd; most are dominated by liberal Jews and have to work hard to attract more observant populations.

The volunteers who initiated the drive for LimmudLA were primarily Orthodox and Conservative and word naturally spread through their own communities, both to recruit participants and leaders.

Today, both the conference planning committee and the LimmudLA board have a broad mix of observance and ethnicity.

The conference chair, Caroline Kelly, is a Reform Jew with Persian roots who came to LimmudLA two years ago with a waning interest in Judaism, and she was not sure what she would get out of the conference.

“Somewhere along the line she got the importance of the weekend,” said Shep Rosenman, a co-founder of LimmudLA and current board member. “I think that everyone has that capacity once they’ve been there, because the weekend has such a transformative quality to it.”