Jewish Journal

Volunteers drive eclectic learning at LimmudLA

by Julie G Fax

Posted on Oct. 25, 2007 at 8:00 pm

You can feel the ruach in this Limmud UK video
At the Limmud conference in England three years ago, Angeleno Judy Aronson attended a session on the Jews and the Beatles, where she sat next to the former neighbor of Beatle's manager Brian Epstein. She tried to keep up with Romanians teaching Israeli folk dance, she learned a new way to understand the "Shema" and she discussed Chasidic stories with secular Israelis. After participating in a session on Hebrew poetry, the retired Jewish educator was inspired enough to use her academic Hebrew to write a poem of her own -- for the very first time.

Now, Aronson is one of more than 80 volunteers who have jumped at the chance to bring Limmud to Los Angeles this February, giving Southern Californians their first taste of the independent, non-denominational, volunteer-run Jewish learning experience that has swept the Jewish world.

"I never saw people so excited about learning anywhere in my life, and I think that was because everyone felt personally addressed by this conference," said Aronson, who has chaired major Jewish conferences in the past and will run family and children's programming for LimmudLA. "It was a very diverse group of attendees, and I felt this tremendous energy for learning and for playing together."

Limmud was founded 25 years ago in England, where each December more than 2,000 people gather for a five-day conference. In the last six or seven years, the Limmud model has spread around the world, with conferences in Russia, France, Canada, Turkey, Israel, Germany, Australia and New York.

The goal of LimmudLA, slated for Febrary during President's Day Weekend at the Costa Mesa Hilton, is to bring together the broad spectrum of Los Angeles Jewry to experience the richness of Judaism through intense days packed with the arts, shared meals and conversations, and a quirky and diverse offering of text studies, lectures and workshops. At Limmud, all the teachers are participants, and many of the participants are teachers, so everyone learns from each other.

"It has no objective -- not to make you leaders, not to make you more religious, not to make you act politically, not to make you give -- other than for you to grow and learn as a Jew," Holocaust scholar and self-described Limmud addict Deborah Lipstadt told The Jewish Journal.

Organizers are hoping that the non-hierarchical, unifying model will leave a lasting imprint on a community that is geographically and ideologically diffuse.

"I think this is going to be an amazing thing for L.A.," said LimmudLA co-chair Linda Fife, an educator turned full-time volunteer. "What excites me most is that I don't think there is any place else where we are coming together in cross-communal conversation."

The conference, including hotel and all meals, will cost $500 per person (lower for kids), a price tag that covers about two-thirds of the actual costs of hotel, food and programming. Scholarships are available, because organizers don't want cost to deter people. Attendance is capped at 600, to keep things manageable in the inaugural year.

Organizers are hoping the energy of the conference will counteract the leave-in-the-eighth-inning culture that often plagues Los Angeles events.

Programming from 8 a.m. to 1 a.m., with about 10 sessions offered simultaneously, might include a jam session led by Jewish singing icon Debbie Friedman; a cholent cook-off; yoga; a class in theology with a Reform lay person and another in Jewish history with an Orthodox woman; nature walks; text studies of everything from Genesis to the Talmud to kabbalah; and workshops in bibliodrama, Jewish songwriting or Judaism and astrology. Babysitting, kids programming and teen programming will give parents freedom to attend the sessions, and family programming will offer time with the kids.

But much of the program won't be set for a while, since most of the presenters, artists and teachers come from the ranks of the conference goers. Online registration, which opens this week at www.LimmudLA.org, will ask for attendees to present sessions in their area of expertise -- and that will determine most of the programming.

Some more well-known presenters -- many of them fans who attend Limmuds all over the world -- have already signed on: Rabbi Danny Landes of the Pardes Institute in Israel; Bible and law teacher Arna Fisher; Chabad philosopher Rabbi Manis Friedman; Holocaust scholar Deborah Lipstadt; David Solomon, who has made his name by teaching things like "The Whole of Jewish History in One Hour"; and Jewish World Watch founder Janice Kaminer-Reznick.

But even professionals on the Jewish scholar circuit will not get paid, and will in fact have to pay their own way for the conference. Only a select few -- a list that remains secret and is never the same two years in a row -- get their travel and conference fee comped.

Many point to this militant egalitarianism, along with souped-up volunteerism, as the key to the sense of ownership that gives Limmud its aura.

"It's fluid in a very real way," Fife said. "The definition of what we are about is developed by the people sitting around the table, and they represent a whole conglomeration of the different segments of the community."

Everything, from fundraising to catering to programming, is handled by volunteers, about 20 of whom are putting in second-job type hours. Only one paid professional, executive director Ruth Rotenberg, pulls the pieces together.

Despite the challenges volunteerism brings -- conflicting visions, flakiness, lack of time -- organizers say the sense of ownership and diversity of input is what makes Limmud work.

"One of the most meaningful conversations we had was about Shabbat and what Shabbat would look like," Fife said. "You're sitting around a table with people for whom the definition of Shabbat is very different from your own. We tend to stay within our own silo communities and throw around vocabulary and terminology and we think everyone understands it the same way we do -- and that's not true. This is wonderful opportunity to really understand others."

After hours of discussion, the steering committee decided traditional halacha, Jewish law, would be observed in conference-wide venues, such as the communal Friday night dinner, but that smaller venues would have more freedom. Sessions or services with activities that might offend some but are key elements of celebrating Shabbat for others -- such as the use of musical instruments or microphones -- will be clearly identified, so people could opt out of those."Limmud is a movement where you need to meet people where they are, and engage with each other in respect," said Shep Rosenman, an entertainment lawyer and LimmudLA co-chair, paraphrasing a favorite aphorism of Limmud founder Clive Lawton (who will be attending LimmudLA). "Since this is the condition precedent to walking into the room, it means you approach these debates differently -- everyone is heard, and it becomes incumbent on everyone in the room to not only represent their own point of view, but everyone else's."

That message, and the possibility of it resonating beyond the confines of three days in February, has spread far since Rosenman, Fife and 10 other Angelenos brought the idea back from Limmud New York in January 2005, when the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation invited groups to explore the possibility of seeding Limmuds in their own communities.

LimmudLA has raised about half its $793,000 annual budget, and has also raised funds for an infrastructure to take the organization beyond the year-one conference to anticipated year-round programming.

Some money has come from individuals and family foundations, and in-kind donations have covered office and computer use, as well as some food and items for the conference. LimmudLA secured a $250,000 grant from the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles for overhead for the next three years. The Jewish Venture Philanthropy Fund of the Jewish Federation awarded LimmudLA up to $75,000 to pursue strategic planning and evaluation. And The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles came up with $50,000 to attract and integrate 20-somethings. Grants are in the works to cover college kids, and to get programming tracks -- the arts, Jewish Life in Los Angeles, Israel -- sponsored by foundations.

Funding co-chair Alan Paul says raising money hasn't been a struggle, once supporters recognize that the Limmud model of transdenominational, nondogmatic and exciting Jewish learning, coming from the grassroots and not from establishment organizations, can go a long way in fixing what is wrong with the Jewish community.

"It took us a long time to get people to realize that this is not about putting on a conference -- the idea is to build relationships and connections among all the elements of our community, so that whatever we do is self-sustaining and durable," Paul said. "We are helping the community develop mechanisms for learning and growth."

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