February 21, 2008
That's the profound message of this column: Thank you. The instigators, organizers and volunteers who brought Limmud to Los Angeles last weekend deserve our gratitude for challenging one of the long-held orthodoxies of the L.A. Jewish community: There is no Jewish community.
It's something I hear myself saying to people who ask me to describe L.A. Jewry. It's something the leaders of our putative community bemoan when trying to explain their lack of success in galvanizing widespread support or funding for their causes: We are divided; we are spread out; we are the Balkans. Tosh, as Limmud's British founder, Clive Lawton, would say.
The idea of LimmudLA, which came to the Costa Mesa Hilton last weekend, was to bring L.A. Jews together to study and learn. Man, did it work.
"I get tears, really, just walking the hallways," said Moshe Shapoff, an outreach coordinator for the Karlin-Stoliner Chasidic sect who flew in from Jerusalem for the conclave. I met Moshe just after dinner Saturday night. He was still wearing his traditional Shabbat outfit: black ankle-length satin frock and a shtreimel.
I told him how unusual it is for Jews anywhere to mix it up like this, for the secular feminists to learn beside the Chasidim, beside the Conservative academics and the unaffiliated and undeclared. For someone like me to be spending a weekend with someone like him.
But that's the essence of Limmud -- not just Jews learning from other Jews but experiencing the breadth and depth of tradition, culture and spirituality in one place, in a weekend. One Limmudnik looked over some 700 people, mostly Angelenos, in the dining room Saturday night: "This is going to save me returning a lot of calls," he said.
That evening, Moshe and other Karlin-Stoliners led a post-Shabbat course in traditional niggunim, or songs. I couldn't make it, but I heard a schnapps bottle made rounds between tunes, and the 12 or so Jews who showed up -- mostly non-Orthodox -- got pretty joyous.
I was in another session, hearing four stand-up comedians, including a Chasid, a Palestinian and Aaron Freeman, a black convert to Judaism, joke about all the hilarious stuff that happens in the Mideast. That was after a full day spent dipping into one class on the teachings of Rabbi Joseph Solovetchik, another on the meaning behind the Hebrew calendar and innumerable hallway and, yes, barstool discussions and debates with everybody from the Russian scholars to Hollywood players to major philanthropists to street-level activists to post-denominational observant Israeli American rock musicians (they were in the hot tub with me, along with a brilliant Reform aerospace engineer from Manhattan Beach -- go figure).
The vast majority of Jewish conferences set a bar that excludes the vast majority of Jews: The Wexner Program skews toward upscale leaders-in-the-making; the various movement gatherings stick to their movements; gatherings of Jewlicious and Reboot skew young; too many other Jewish conclaves skew old.
But Limmud succeeded in breaking down those barriers for a long weekend. Much credit goes to volunteer conference organizers Shep Rosenman and Linda Fife, who tapped their personal networks to ensure diversity from the start; Executive Director Ruth Rotenberg, who got what will surely become an annual event off to a smooth start; and the Jewish Community Foundation, which gets kudos for kicking in $250,000 (to be paid out over three years) to help it all happen.
Sure, everybody had suggestions for improvements: better outreach to the Reconstructionist, Reform and secular communities; more involvement of the many superb Jewish academics and rabbis in town (Where were Stephen S. Wise, Wilshire Boulevard and Sinai Temple?); more outreach to Los Angeles' Persian and Israeli Jewish communities; more teen activities; a venue that offers some outdoor opportunities.
Do all this, and the consensus was next year's Limmud will double in size. But last weekend no one was complaining (let me rephrase: I heard a near-miraculous lack of complaining, considering the sheer mass of people with a, um, propensity for critical analysis).
Instead, people were urging Limmud on, hoping next year would be bigger and the year after that bigger still. For the individual Jew, it's a chance to learn about the widest variety of Jewish topics from a wide variety of teachers. For the community, it offers, among other benefits, a prophylactic against the kind of communal divisions that come when you simply haven't met, learned with or shared a Shabbat meal with, your neighbor.
Limmud won't make us all agree or stand united, but it will help us all learn more about the people with whom we disagree, and it will enable us to treat them with the kind of familiarity that breeds respect.
At the Middle East comedy night, I heard Freeman tell a joke that, in its twisted humor, perfectly explained Limmud.
"When I converted," Freeman said, "they said, 'You have to look into your heart and ask, "Do I love Jews?" If the answer is yes -- you are not a Jew.'"
Or perhaps you are -- a Limmud Jew.