The opera world has its Three Tenors. The University of Judaism (UJ) kicked off its day-long Festival of Jewish Learning with three stellar rabbis. The festival, offered by UJ's Department of Continuing Education and The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, partly as a companion piece to the Yesod program (to be featured in next week's Journal), attracted 500 participants who spent last Sunday attending workshops and pondering their own places within Jewish life.
The day began with a panel, moderated by UJ President Robert Wexler, that featured prominent rabbis from Judaism's three main movements: Harvey Fields of Wilshire Boulevard Temple (Reform), Harold Schulweis of Valley Beth Shalom (Conservative), and Steven Weil of Beth Jacob Congregation (Orthodox). The topic was "Where Will We Be in the Year 2010?," but the broad scope and limited time made for colorful sound bites rather than serious debate. Weil maintained his dignity in trying to explain to a highly partisan crowd why, within Orthodoxy, Jewish law takes precedence over human feelings when it comes to the hot-button issue of inclusion.
Course offerings for the morning sessions ranged from "Sephardic Mysticism" to "Was Joseph a Woman?" Rabbi Perry Netter led a spirited discussion on the nature of evil, and Professor Gerald Bubis riled some participants by focusing on the harsh treatment of Arabs in today's Israel. At an open-air lunch included in the $10 admission fee (thanks to underwriting by the Jewish Community Foundation), attendees enjoyed the melodies of a Claremont College quintet known as Klezmont. Over sandwiches, many were avidly discussing Jewish questions: Who is a Jew? Did Jesus consider himself Jewish? Could Jewish dietary laws have averted mad cow disease?
Afternoon workshops, once again conducted by rabbis and scholars, featured Dr. Michael Berenbaum on the Holocaust, Rabbi Mark Fasman on midrash, and Rabbi Edward Feinstein suggesting "How to Argue with God and Win." Attendee Patty Fiden called a meditation workshop "a little too airy-fairy New Age for me," but basically satisfaction ran high. Dave Recht approached Gady Levy, who organized the festival as UJ director of continuing education, with a compliment: "Did you arrange all this? You did a good job. It's unbelievable."
Another happy participant was Scott Kassner, who came because "I've been looking to find a way to make Judaism meaningful beyond going to services, which is pretty much by rote." Kassner did notice that most of his fellow participants were "people my parents' age." Are these, he wonders, "the only people who have time to learn?" He may be right. Festival plans originally called for free childcare, but demand for it was almost nil. Young families, in other words, were spending their Sunday elsewhere.
The fact that the festival was completely sold out is a testament to the L.A. Jewish community's keen desire for study. Now Levy and his team, in planning future events, are giving serious thought to how the age span can be broadened.
Next week: read the Journal for coverage of the University of Judaism's in-depth Yesod study program, as well as a profile of Gady Levy, its organizer.