Put 700 Jews of all ages, ethnicities and all ends of the religious and political spectrum in a hotel for four days of classes, concerts and celebration and you have the annual LimmudLA conference.
Initially, the only reason I wanted to go to LimmudLA was to meet Chasidic reggae artist Matisyahu, see him lead Shachrit (morning prayers) and watch him perform on stage. To my surprise, LimmudLA ended up offering so much more.
I met individuals from all walks of Jewish life, each with unique life stories and ideologies. Four intense days of discussions with a variety of rabbis and fellow peers pushed my mind farther than I could have ever imagined.
Before the conference, my teacher, Rabbi Hoffman, suggested that I leave my comfort zone and try something totally new. So, along with 11 other students from my school, we joined another 700 Jews at the Costa Mesa Hilton.
There were so many programs offered that I could not physically be at all of them. I experienced a diverse sampling of classes on topics such as the conversion controversy, Modern Orthodox egalitarianism and the fundamentals of Kabbalah.
Every day, there was a choice of several minyans. Although I was unable to part from my traditional Carlebach-style minyan, next year I hope to try the yoga and meditation minyans.
The teens were a small but close group of students who spent a lot of time together throughout the conference. We engaged in classes exclusively for teens, shared meals, sang and performed at concerts, danced at parties and hung out in the teen lounge. Within four days, I made new friends and became closer with my old ones.
One of the highlights of the weekend was a Friday night Q-&-A discussion with Rabbi Natan Greenberg and Rabbi David Ingber titled, “Ask the Rabbi ... Anything.” As 15 teens sat crammed into a small room listening intently and asking questions, these two brilliant, but radically different, rabbis debated on some of the most controversial Jewish philosophies, ranging from the truth of Torah to modern Zionism. As I finished my cholent (yes, there was cholent on Friday night), I glanced at my watch and noticed it was past 1:30 a.m.
One of the things that surprised me most about LimmudLA was how accepting and nonjudgmental everyone was. As someone who goes to a Jewish community high school, an Orthodox synagogue and a Conservative summer camp, I had developed stereotypes about different groups of Jews.
However, at LimmudLA, after seeing bearded men in black hats talking sincerely with women in kippot and Reform and Chasidic rabbis having respectful and intelligent debates, all my prejudices were obliterated. That weekend, people put their different opinions aside, which is hard for a Jew to do, and came together as a single, united community.
The eclectic musical program truly stood out for its quality and diversity of performers. As a musician myself, I was impressed with the different types of Jewish musical artists, ranging from the Matisyahu to the Klezmer band, Shtreimel; to indie folk artist Michelle Citrin, and a high school rock band, Myelin Sheath. Matisyahu’s acoustic version of “Jerusalem” was one of the most spiritually moving moments of the weekend.
The great Jewish American writer Herman Wouk expressed my feelings exactly when he said in a TIME magazine interview, “There’s a wealth in Jewish tradition, a great inheritance. I would be a jerk not to take advantage of it.”
LimmudLA helped me see this plethora of ancient, vibrant and beautiful culture that my religion has to offer. The LimmudLA conference brought to life the indescribable spark of brilliance that is Judaism. The learning, the extraordinary individuals I met and the feeling of unity I experienced at LimmudLA reminds me of how lucky and proud I am to be a Jew.
Yoni Arbel is a 10th-grader at Milken Community High School.