September 17, 2019

L.A. woman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

David Suissa, an advertising executive, is founder of OLAM magazine and He can be reached at