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Notes from LimmudLA 2011 [VIDEO]

by Jonah Lowenfeld and Julie Gruenbaum Fax

February 22, 2011 | 6:53 pm

Rachel Bello-Salomon, a member of the conference planning committee, on her husband Sagi Salomon’s shoulders, leading Havdalah. Photo by Charles Abrams Photography.

Rachel Bello-Salomon, a member of the conference planning committee, on her husband Sagi Salomon’s shoulders, leading Havdalah. Photo by Charles Abrams Photography.

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.

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