December 7, 2011
On a particularly beautiful day like last Sunday, I, to be honest, had a hard time facing the prospect of spending the afternoon in windowless conference rooms at the Sheraton Universal Hotel. The draw, however, was “Imagining Our Future: A Day of Jewish Learning & Culture,” organized by The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. And in introducing the event, Federation President Jay Sanderson promised that different kinds of windows would be opened in the course of the conference.
Urgent self-reflection has become a staple in the Jewish world, so much so that we might think it’s universal in all cultures. However, my Jew-by-choice husband assured me just before he dropped me off at the hotel that “they don’t do ‘Imagining the Catholic Future’ ” back where he came from. Certainly, most Christians are not gripped by the same fear of being lost in the march of time. Maybe we shouldn’t be either — we’ve got a few thousand years on them, haven’t we? And we’re still here.
We clearly can be loyal, though. In fact, an impressive number — about 500 — of Jews turned up for Sunday’s conference, helped no doubt in part by the fact that the six-hour event went from being low-cost ($36) to free in the days running up to it. The participants ran the gamut from the usual suspects to some unaffiliated who don’t usually come to any Jewish event. For one, I met a woman at lunch whose work took her to Israel recently, leading her to want to find a Jewish home for herself.
The lineup was alluring, too, including showcases of quick Bible study sessions pairing some of the region’s foremost rabbis — Rabbis Elezar Muskin and Zoë Klein first, followed by Rabbis Sharon Brous and Chaim Seidler-Feller — as well as a few short-form, think-on-your-feet improvised sermons by yet another set of clergy. The lesson here might be that these rabbis are smart (not news), can be funny (good news), and willing to be brief (when asked!).
Rabbis Susan Goldberg, Ed Feinstein, Marvin Hier and Steven Carr Reuben stood up well to the Improv test, dubbed a “Sermon Slam,” on audience-suggested topics ranging from sex to good-versus-evil. A friend noted to me that 20 years ago, you would not have seen Reform and Conservative rabbis — let alone women rabbis — interacting so easily with Orthodox ones, so if a window has been opened in that sense, it was a refreshing sight. Still, the dexterity of our rabbis should be a given by now, and there might have been more to chew on had they been allowed to reflect more thoughtfully.
A group discussion by Jews working in Hollywood included writer Michael Tolkin, producer David Knoller and talent manager Danny Sussman, led by The Journal’s Hollywood Jew columnist, Danielle Berrin. The heartening news was that more entertainment-industry folks want to travel to Israel than ever before, and that they’re bringing back from trips a new fervor for telling the Jewish story.
Breakout sessions highlighted some of the rich offerings of groups from throughout Los Angeles, including a Chanukah storytelling session by the burgeoning social/spiritual/learning group known as Eastside Jews and, at the same time, a discussion of new rituals by veteran feminist Rabbi Laura Geller, along with rabbinical yogi and Jewish Journal blogger Marcus J. Freed and artist/graphic designer Eileen Levinson, thoughtfully led by Rabbi Feinstein. It was in this latter session that I witnessed the day’s best imagining of the optimal Jewish future — it will be diverse, mindful of both body and spirit, take place online and in community, and it will, hopefully, be artistic. It will happen in synagogues and at unaffiliated Shabbat dinners – and it will include study of Jewish texts, even if via Wikipedia.
Other sessions included a taste of Limmud — the weekend-long learning session that convenes every February following a similar format to “Imagining” — as well as a session about creating a greener future and even a teens-only session. The day ended with a reverential closing concert celebrating the words and music of Leonard Cohen, organized by Craig Taubman and featuring a panoply of voices.
The purpose of the day was for Federation to bring Jews together, not just in times of emergency, but for Jewish learning, and to get us to share ourselves more. This, indeed, is useful, particularly for the more insular among us. Sanderson also told me he hopes to do days like this more often — annually, at the very least — to create a kind of “TED Conference,” where bright minds can share their visions.
Probably the edgiest element of the day was unintentional. As you entered the conference space at the bottom of the hotel staircase, the sign greeting attendees with “Imagining Our Future: A Day of Jewish Learning & Culture” happened to stand beside a gaudy Christmas tree. The signal: You can reimagine the Jewish world all you like, but we’re still in Los Angeles. (No chanukiahs in sight, thank you very much.) And that may be one of the many points I found missing in the day’s explorations.
Let’s think about this for a future event: How do we fit into the world of Christmas? Should we enclose ourselves in windowless rooms or could we seek more ways truly to share our Jewish strengths and pride with the larger community.
How are we, as Jews, promoting to others the joys of our faith and our values?
Displays of Jewish pride shouldn’t just be limited to those of Chabad or Chanukah sing-alongs at the mall. When will we go public again with the kind of self-confidence that brought a sukkah to Occupy Los Angeles — out in the open and welcoming to all? Perhaps an upcoming consideration of the Jewish future could imagine a truly better world where we won’t worry about assimilation, but rather examine with confidence how we fit in.