Over Presidents Day weekend last year, nearly 500 Jews of all affiliations holed up at the Hilton hotel in Costa Mesa to attend virtually round-the-clock lectures, workshops, musical performances and more. Volunteers serving as speakers covered the growth of European Jewry, alternative Jewish travel in the West Bank and whether morality can be achieved without God, among other topics. They were all participants of LimmudLA, the annual Jewish conference for study and community.
Then, at the end of February last year, approximately 900 college students and young professionals gathered in the Alpert Jewish Community Center in Long Beach, also for discussions — on topics including the unrest in Libya and Egypt, urban Jewish gardening and oil sustainability, to name a few — and for live music and comedy sets, and, yes, much more. These were attendees of Jewlicious, an annual Jewish arts, culture and music festival geared toward Jewish youth.
On its Web site, LimmudLA advertises itself as a “Jewish celebration of life and learning,” while the Jewlicious site bills its festival as “pluralistic, apolitical and about Jewish unity.” However, LimmudLA could as easily use the Jewlicious description — and vice versa — and both statements would be honest. Both are opportunities for Jewish education and are designed to be experiential, with multiple sessions happening simultaneously, and both cater to all affiliations, as well as the non-affiliated.
LimmudLA returns to the Hilton in Costa Mesa on Feb. 17- 19, and highlights at this year’s conference include discussions led by Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, author and educator Everett Fox, hip-hop artist Y-Love and Israeli academic Nathan Lopes Cardozo. More than 100 presenters, including rabbis, artists, academics and lots of lay people — for instance, an architect will discuss architecture at mikvehs worldwide — will lead the sessions.
Most LimmudLA speakers are local, but a handful travel here, from Israel and other countries. They’re all volunteers — no one is paid — including the out-of-towners. The lineup reflects Limmud’s attempt to be all things to all people.
“We’re interested in creating a space for people to get out of their comfort zone, to connect with other people and to be inspired to transform themselves and their communities,” said Yechiel Hoffman, executive director of LimmudLA.
Jewlicious is entering its eighth year, and fewer presenters are booked for Jewlicious than will be at LimmudLA, but the Jewlicious lineup is just as diverse. Ska and reggae band The Aggrolites are headlining; regulars Moshav and Venice, Calif.-based jazz-fusion band Dustbowl Revival are among the handful of musical performers. Mayim Bialik — the actress who became famous on “Blossom” and who now appears on CBS’ “The Big Bang Theory” — is the festival’s keynote speaker, and discussion topics include alternative health, Israeli politics and relationships, and the entertainment industry. Irreverent stand-up comic Moshe Kasher also performs.
“We put the same amount of effort into both who’s presenting and who’s playing because we want the program to be compelling from a musical standpoint, and we also want it to be inspiring and thought provoking,” said Rabbi Yonah Bookstein, director of Jewlicious Festivals.
True to form, both events are as conducive to letting loose as they are to provocative conversation — and both offer new features this year.
At LimmudLA, an “open space” session will allow attendees to experience “free-form learning,” with participants deciding on topics of interest and forming groups to explore these during two-hour discussions, Hoffman said. Expert speakers will explore their ideas more intensely during TED-talk-style presentations, and attendees ages 18 to 30 will be eligible to receive subsidies for their admission by volunteering three hours each day via the YAD — Young Adult Development — program.
This year, LimmudLA will extend over three days, instead of four, making good on attendee feedback from last year’s conference that deemed programming on Monday unnecessary. This year’s conference begins on Friday and ends Sunday. Various deals are available for accommodations at the Hilton, depending on how many people are booked per room, and day passes are only available on Sunday.
Jewlicious, meanwhile, is undergoing a major venue change. This year’s festival, Feb. 24-26, will take place aboard the Queen Mary, the famous art deco cruise ship, harbored in Long Beach. Jewlicious’ programs will take place in the Queen’s Salon, a 4,600-square-foot room that once served as the first-class main lounge for the ship. Shabbat services will be held on the ship’s sun deck, overlooking the ocean and the bay.
“The move to the Queen Mary was a way of [keeping things] fresh,” Bookstein said. Indeed, it’s the first year that the JCC isn’t hosting the festivities. Festivalgoers staying overnight will get to bunk in cabins and suites on the ship.
Although the two events share characteristics, their origin stories are different. LimmudLA is one of 50 annual Limmud conferences worldwide; Limmud originated in the United Kingdom in 1980, before expanding to cities worldwide.
Jewlicious, on the other hand, is homegrown and one-of-a-kind. The festival began in Long Beach and has been held in that city every year. Bookstein founded Jewlicious as a way of creating community in Long Beach, and it’s the only Jewlicious festival in the world. It should be noted, though, that in a way, Jewlicious’ roots can be traced back to Europe — Bookstein and his wife were living in Poland in the 1990s, and they organized Jewish cultural festivals there, an experience that informed their creation of Jewlicious years later.
The main difference between LimmudLA and Jewlicious is in the ages they attract. Limmud appeals to families. Jewlicious draws college kids and 20-somethings, although all ages are welcome. “We’re on a Boat!” reads the tagline for this year’s Jewlicious, borrowing from a song by “Saturday Night Live” star Andy Samberg, to give one the idea who Jewlicious is targeting.
Distinction in demographics aside, LimmudLA and Jewlicious both are staffed by volunteers who are highly committed — borderline radical — in their love for the events.
A 37-year-old actress from Hancock Park, Debbie Jaffe has been volunteering at LimmudLA since 2008. For Jaffe, fellow volunteers and attendees matter just as much — if not more — than the musical acts or the presentations at LimmudLA.
After attending several LimmudLA conferences, Jaffe realized that “hanging out and getting to know people was actually as important” as attending sessions.
Jewlicious volunteers sound similarly passionate when describing their experiences at the festival.
“I truly believed in what I was doing,” said Daniella Dolgin, who helped with scheduling at last year’s Jewlicious. For Dolgin, a sociology student at Santa Monica College, the best part about Jewlicious is the festival-wide Shabbat dinner. The dinner reinforces that Jewlicious is about community.
“I had never seen anything like that, where you have people from different denominations from different parts of our community, coming together and having a Shabbat meal,” she said, recalling last year’s festival.
Both events expect turnouts similar to those of previous years. Hoffman expects that 500 people will come to LimmudLA, and Bookstein estimates that approximately 800 people will attend Jewlicious.
As with Jewlicious, “community” is a key word for LimmudLA. A core group of dedicated volunteers — about 30 — band together to plan the conference each year, and they work to organize a conference that will allow people to feel united by their shared interest in Jewish renewal.
“The whole notion of Limmud as a movement is about letting each community build something for itself that can be partaken by the wider community,” LimmudLA co-founder Shep Rosenman said in an interview.
Likewise, the loyalty of the attendees who come every year — and bring along with them a few new people each time — keeps Jewlicious going.
“People, when they’re done with the festival, they inspire us to do it again. Their enthusiasm for what went on is great, and we’re like, ‘OK, we’ve got to do this again,’ ” Bookstein said.
It isn’t easy, said Bookstein. “It takes an enormous amount of effort to pull this off.”