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February 21, 2008

LimmudLA: Chance encounters, many choices

http://www.jewishjournal.com/articles/item/limmudla_chance_encounters_many_choices_20080222

A group of women break into dance in a hotel hallway. Photo by Mitchell Griver

A group of women break into dance in a hotel hallway. Photo by Mitchell Griver

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. Religion, Silver begins, creates a sense of connectedness and gives meaning to a life that might otherwise be vulnerable to despair. If you are connected to God, who is connected to the entire universe, you feel connected to the totality of all things.

Now, this may be Philosophy of Religion 101, but Silver's elegantly constructed articulation went straight to my soul.

The next step for Silver, as an atheist, is achieving a similar level of connectedness without having to rely on the existence of a supernatural being that defies human logic -- something I, too, constantly struggle with. As a Jew, Silver connects to our shared history and culture and bonds with the rest of the world through a commitment to creating a just world for all. His reliance on tikkun olam rang a little hollow for me, but what worked was his description of how the rituals, narrative and calendar of Judaism can have meaning even without God. When he prays, for example, he is expressing his spirituality by singing with other people -- not by believing he is talking to God. He prefaces a blessing with "as our ancestors said," transforming it from a religious act to homage to his history.

Ironically -- and Silver and I talked about this later, and he wasn't displeased -- he sold me more on the idea of why having a God concept works than he did on the need to eject God from the formula.

What stuck with me most, and what would stick with me the rest of the conference, was this new way of delving deeper into an idea I thought I had down a long time ago -- the idea of connectedness.



Saturday, 10:50 a.m.

Ezra, my 9 year old, runs up to me, looking frantic, with more to say than the "Hi Mommy, bye Mommy," I've been getting since he and his friends established dominion over the hotel corridors.

"Mommy, Mommy, are we going to Limmud next year?"

"I don't know yet. We just got here. Why? Do you want to?"

"Uh, ye-ah," he answers me, as if it's the dumbest question he's ever heard.

In a flash, he's gone again.



Saturday, 11 a.m.

For the rest of the day, I keep coming back to the idea of connectedness -- my connection vertically through time, my connection horizontally to Jews everywhere. So that when Clive Lawton, one of the founders of the first Limmud in England, masterfully tells of Abraham's evolution in relationship to God, I feel connected to Abraham, to God and to Clive Lawton. With long silver hair and a British accent, Lawton evokes Gandalf the Wizard from Lord of the Rings, a part he serves well among this crowd of Limmud devotees.

Later in the day, I explore the Leviticus holiness code with Deborah Lipstadt, Holocaust professor at Emory University. In a session on the Mishnaic sages Hillel and Shammai's approach to education, Avraham Infeld, former president of International Hillel, doesn't so much teach the texts as guide us in unpacking them ourselves.

I am bleary-eyed by the end of Shabbat, but satisfied. I owned my choices.

A fear that I am missing something awesome still lingers, however, since about a dozen things are offered at once. There is an interesting psychology to this over-scheduling approach: It engenders a frantic need to get the most out of everything, because by making one choice you are giving up other equally good choices. You can't help feeling there is so much more to learn.

It also fosters connection. At the LimmudLA Cafe and in the corridors, there is one question always floating around: "So, what did you go to, and how was it?"



Saturday, 6:35 p.m.

In a chilly courtyard, drummers beat on their bongos to get the attention of the millers and schmoozers, and the guitarists begin to strum out a melody. Soon, everyone is focused, and Yehuda Solomon of the band Moshav begins Havdalah to mark the end of Shabbat. A kid holds up a multi-wicked candle, and sprigs of rosemary are passed around -- a bright light and a sweet scent to usher in our new week. When Solomon transitions into Debbie Friedman's ya-na-na Havdalah melody, everyone's arms find the shoulders of whoever is next to them. As I am pulled by swaying to either side of me, I close my eyes. That doesn't stop the tears from welling as I hear and feel everyone -- for the first time since LimmudLA started -- standing in the same place, doing the same thing, at the same time.

The kids lead us in "Eliyahu Hanavi," which they practiced all day with Solomon, and the emotion of the moment swells into ecstasy. Soon we're all singing and dancing -- the Chasid from Jerusalem, the kid with the gelled-up Mohawk, the tunic-clad vegans with nose rings and the suit-wearing lawyers.

This, I think, is what Mitchell Silver meant this morning when he talked about connectedness. It doesn't matter if it is because of God or because of people. This is a religious moment.



Saturday, 11:57 p.m.

The Peter Himmelman concert has just ended. His bluesy rock and his relentless wit as he riffed on the Limmudness of it all tapped right into the moment. He waxed sarcastic about the dignity of all, the liberal egalitarian social justice tikkun olam stuff. He prefaced half his songs with a winking, "This next one derives from a kabbalistic idea ..."

But where was everyone? There weren't more than 50 people in the large ballroom.

It was one of a few instances where LimmudLA fell victim to its own enthusiastic over-scheduling.

Peter Himmelman was preceded by alternative pop-rocker Jill Sobule and Mystic Sideshow, the alter ego of Robby Helperin of the Simcha Orchestra and Spotlight Music. While the concert was going on -- and it started and ended late -- the Israeli-Palestinian comedy troupe was performing, there was also ballroom dancing, a talk about Israel on campus, three films, a Chasidic Melave Malka sing-along and the bar and the cafe were open. Peter took it all in stride, and since he was told to do a "truncated" show, he used the word "truncated" as many times as he could, enunciating for effect.

But such glitches were few and easily forgiven. The weekend went remarkably smoothly for a first-time endeavor run almost entirely by volunteers. With only one paid person on LimmudLA's staff, volunteers saw to every detail, from what we ate, to what we learned, to where we slept, to all the financing.

All the presenters were volunteers, too. Not only did world-class teachers not get paid, but most of them paid their own way, from travel to conference fees.

I knew this before I came, and it didn't make sense to me.

Now, I get it.



Sunday, 8:30 a.m.

Actor Ron Rifkin on a panel with Hollywood manager Joan Hyler
Actor Ron Rifkin on a panel with Hollywood manager Joan Hyler


It's breakfast time, and at table in the corner of Cafe LimmudLA, Ron Rifkin is sitting talking about his Jewish journey. Ron plays a brother (Saul Holden) on "Brothers and Sisters," and was Arvin Sloane, head of the bad spies, on "Alias." But today he isn't an actor; he's a Jew.

He was raised in New York by Orthodox, immigrant parents. His mother had 14 siblings. He tells us about how he sobbed as he slipped a quarter into the subway slot on Shabbat for the first time at the end of his teenage years, and about how no one helped him when, after his mother died recently at 96, he went to shul to say Kaddish and couldn't remember how to wrap the tefillin around his fingers.

He chants the first few words of his bar mitzvah portion for us -- Noah -- and discovers that two other men at the table have the same portion.

"That's the tie, that's the bond," he says. "There is a connection we have that we all understand, and no one can take that away from us."

He pulls a knitted green yarmulke out of his pocket, sent to him by a fan: "Sometimes, fans come up to me on the subway, and they say, 'You make us proud.' And I know exactly who they are and what they're saying."



Sunday, 10 a.m.

It's time for me to totally Limmud-out -- I'm going to Bibliyoga. Stretching room is scarce as the conference room fills up. But like a jigsaw puzzle, we move together through downward facing dog and a modified crow handstand. Together we use our minds and our bodies to explore the Jewish texts on breath and spirit, and we end with a Shalom mantra and the vibrating tone of the shofar. It's hokey, but I go with it. At a minimum I got in some good stretches -- without kicking anyone, or being kicked myself. That much connection I could do without.



Sunday, 11:24 a.m.

I'm wandering the hall with my schedule in hand, trying to figure out what to do next. Jewish marketing? Caring for the sick? Keeping weight off while keeping Shabbat? Poetry? Song writing? Russian Jews? War and peace in the Middle East, with one of the world's experts on the topic? A friend corals me in the hall and tells me I have to go to Peter Pitzele's Bibliodrama workshop.

This is from a friend who is not into crunchy Judaism. He likes his tradition neat.

Pitzele, a professional educator and author, asks all of us to choose an object from the Bible we want to be. A man named Aaron says he is Moses' staff. Pitzele then interviews Aaron, who gamely tells us that he was crafted from a branch on the Tree of Knowledge, blown out of the Garden of Eden and carried by Abraham until he got lost during Abraham's hurried departure from Egypt after that whole wife/sister Sarah episode. He was found by Bedouins and eventually landed in the hand of Moses and helped usher the Jews from bondage.

Is any of this factual? No. Is it engagingly constructed modern-day personal midrash that requires both imaginer and listener to jump into the story as never before? Remarkably so.

"Once you are in first person within the Bible, you become invested in it and deeply connected to it," Pitzele tells us.



Sunday, 12:48 p.m.

I'm so pumped I feel like I've had six cups of coffee. But I've only had two cups -- both decaf.

I grab my lunch -- Limmud is not about the food -- and get ready for an afternoon of high intellect. Arna Poupko Fisher, a closet comedienne who also teaches Bible and Law at the University of Cincinnati, challenges us to really consider what are -- if there are -- non-negotiable Jewish beliefs. Mitchell Silver -- who Fischer finds out midway through is a philosophy professor -- brings thoroughly thought-out ideas to the discussion. Since all the presenters are also participants, you never know which expert is sitting next to you in a session or at the dinner table.

Next I cut out early from "12 Steps + 10 Commandments = 1 Soul" for a quick brain rest and then opt for a presentation on the Dead Sea Scrolls. Greg Bearman, a Jet Propulsion Laboratory imaging expert, figured out how to use spectroscopic imaging technology to recover more of the seemingly illegible ancient script than had ever been seen before. Bearman and his wife, Sheila Spiro, used their own time and money to research and publish the results, finally getting the attention of the Israel Antiquities Authority.

With the Jewish past now in sharp relief, I drop into a session to contemplate the Jewish future, for 15 minutes, and then jump into the present as I meet up with my kids, who have taken a swimming break with dad. The children's programming hasn't been quite as stimulating as the adults', but my kids are having a great time. They participated in some kid-oriented sessions and have reaped the bounty of the art room, and will bring home candlesticks, a challah cover, a Havdalah spice box and various painted wooden stars, pomegranates and hamsas (the Sephardic hand symbol for good luck). Sunday, 7 p.m.

It is time for "All of Jewish History in One Hour," with David Solomon.

The largest of the meeting rooms is packed, and butcher-block paper stretches across every wall -- one millennium per wall. Solomon, an Australian who lives in Israel, holds the tip of his marker up against the first wall and runs -- really runs -- down it's length. He scratches 10 vertical spikes across the long line he's just drawn, and sets out to fill in the timeline for Judaism's first thousand years, starting with Abraham and getting roughly to David. His energy is exhausting, his knowledge and ability to present striking. He is more performance artist than lecturer as he runs around the room sharing details and stories. With each new millennium we swivel, face another wall, and he never stops talking -- really, really quickly.

Solomon finishes to a standing ovation, but the crowd lingers, surrounded by our entire history. My ancestors, I think, are each one tiny dot somewhere on those lines.

Suddenly the "chain of tradition" is no longer abstract. It is a hastily drawn scratch of permanent marker on yards and yards of white paper that surrounds a group of Jews in a hotel meeting room in Costa Mesa, in 2008.



Sunday, 9 p.m.

Singer Debbie Friedman, a Limmud regular around the world, taps straight into the energy as soon as she starts her concert. From her soulful "Mi Sheberach" to the raucous dancing of "Miriam's Song," she has kids and adults moved and moving. For anyone who has been to a Debbie Friedman concert, that is usually how it goes. But for much of Limmud -- heavy on the Modern Orthodox participants, disturbingly light on the Reform -- Debbie Friedman is brand new.

Next up is the band Moshav, and their reggae/rock/folk music in English/Hebrew/Arabic brings the whole crowd to their feet.
Next up is the band Moshav, and their reggae/rock/folk music in English/Hebrew/Arabic brings the whole crowd to their feet.

Halfway through, the band calls up a man named Sagi Salomon (right in photo) and his girlfriend, Rachel Bello (left). Sagi takes the mike and addresses Rachel, saying she was the one who made Judaism an important part of his life, which is why he's going to do what he's about to do at LimmudLA. He then gets down on his knee and asks her to marry him, handing her a silver band engraved with the Hebrew words, "I betroth you to me forever" -- a purchase he made just that day at the LimmudLA Shuk vendors' fair. She shouts "Yes, Yes, Yes," into the microphone, the Moshav Band strikes up "Siman Tov U'Mazel Tov," and Rachel and Sagi are lifted up on chairs, floating above the crowd.



Monday, 12:40 a.m.

I'm exhausted, but I don't want to sleep, because I'm afraid I'll miss something.

I'm too tired for the comedy show or any of the late-night film screenings. In the LimmudLA Cafe, a table of young Russians are singing folksongs. At the bar, there is a big game of Taboo going on, and several tables seem to keep breaking into song. Downstairs outside the ballroom, an impromptu Israeli disco has broken out near the folk-dancing sound equipment.

But I go to our room, knowing that in the morning I have the impossible task of writing this, to communicate just how energizing this has been.



Monday, 9 a.m.

There are more sessions and performances this morning, but things are winding down. I am sitting in the LimmudLA Cafe with my laptop.

The organizers have told me Limmud is meant to be a year-round endeavor that transforms the community. I don't know yet how that will happen.

What I do know is that 600 Jews are going back to their communities pumped up about our culture, our traditions and our bonds. More of us know more about each other, more of us are part of something bigger. So when another ridiculously hard-working cadre of volunteers brings us LimmudLA 2009, my guess is there will be 1,000 people, maybe more.

I know I'm going to be back.

And trust me, I've got connections. Lots and lots of connections.

Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller talks with another participant.
Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller talks with another participant. Photos by Mitchell Griver.






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