Limmud attracts Jews across the spectrum

Limmud attracts Jews across the spectrum

From left, Alex Schwarzstein, a member of Limmud NY’s steering committee, and Sivya Twersky, its president; Elana Knoller; and Jackie Brickell Photos by Larry Yudelson

More than 700 people of all ages and streams of Judaism gathered at the Hudson Valley Resort in Kerhonkson, N.Y., over the long weekend to study, sing, and shmooze at the seventh Limmud New York conference.

“The fact that you have over 700 Jews who come together in one site, of all colors and stripes, where their primary purpose is to learn and move forward on their Jewish journey, with respect by everybody to everybody, it’s just incredible. You don’t find this anywhere except Limmud,” said Sivya Twersky, a Teaneck resident who is president of Limmud New York.

With a mission “to celebrate Jewish life and learning in all its diversity,” the Limmud conference offered more than 100 sessions from morning to night from Friday afternoon through Monday afternoon. Presenters ranged from Rabbi Shlomo Riskin to Susan Weidman Schneider, founder of Lilith magazine, from authors to rabbis to graduate students, to artists, singers, and rappers.

Sessions ranged on topics from songwriting to the leader of the 19th-century Slobodka yeshiva to the Jews of Peru to “Miriam the Priestess: What the Bible Doesn’t Want to Tell You (But Does).”

Inspired by the British Limmud Conference, which celebrated its 30th anniversary in December, Limmud NY was started by six volunteers and received its initial funding from the UJA-Federation of New York.

Organizationally, Limmud NY is independent from the British Limmud, as well as subsequent Limmud organizations that now operate in 40 venues around the world, including Israel, the former Soviet Union, and six cities across the United States.

At the center of the Limmud ethos is volunteerism. The conference was organized by committees of volunteers; Limmud NY staff consists solely of one paid conference coordinator. (A search has been under way to find a full-time executive director.) Everything from arranging the catering to coordinating children’s programming to scheduling sessions is done by volunteers.

“It’s totally driven by dedicated volunteers, mostly in their 20s and 30s. The conference chairs are in their 20s. It’s a unique opportunity to give young people a chance to be in a leadership position,” said Twersky.

Presenters are not paid, though those invited to present a program attend the conference for free and have their airfare paid. Many sessions are given by participants; at sign-up, everyone is asked if he or she wants to present a session.

Elana Knoller, an NYU freshman and a graduate of The Frisch School in Paramus, said that Limmud surprised her by offering some of the spirituality she had discovered in Israel.

It was very refreshing to see a group of educated, curious, creative, wholesome, well-meaning people come together and together try to create a universal, just-Jewish feeling, the Teaneck resident said.

She had expected that Limmud’s pluralism would entail “learning about the different opinions in different sects of Judaism. Instead, it was about what we can do as a whole, how can Judaism help each individual in their own certain way, tailored to the individual.

“It impressed me how people who believe the Torah is not divinely given and I, who believe the Torah is divinely given and that is fundamental to my religiousity and my observance – how we could connect on a spiritual level and have the same spiritual connection. We could both listen to a lecture and still be inspired even though we come from two different places,” she said.

“I was very pleased by Limmud,” said Jackie Brickel, another first-time attendee from Teaneck. Brickel, a member of Cong. Beth Sholom there, said she had been a bit nervous at the prospect of “way-out touchy-feely stuff,” but was pleasantly surprised by how much text-based study there was.

“People should come to Judaism with joy,” she said. “This has been a very joyful experience.”

Limmud’s diversity was evident Shabbat morning, when the schedule featured nine worship services – two with a mechitza led by men; one with a mechitza led by men and women in the style of Jerusalem’s Shira Chadasha minyan; and a traditional egalitarian, a Reform, a Jewish Renewal service, and three services for children and families. There was also yoga.

Limmud is proud that it encompasses multiple generations, with special programming for children. Participants bring their infants and toddlers and some special sessions – particularly those involving arts – are singled out for families.

Twersky is very proud of another form of Limmud’s diversity that is not visible on the program: “economic diversity.”

“We increased our scholarship funding tremendously this year,” she said. “I want people thinking of coming next year to know that money is available.

“Even if people have a job and are sending their kids to day school, if the request makes the difference between coming here and staying home, you should definitely ask. The earlier you put in a request for a scholarship, the more likely you are to receive one,” she said.

Twersky represents two minorities at Limmud: New Jerseyans and Orthodox Jews. Participation from both groups has been increasing, she said, with 24 people attending from Montclair this year and “many people from Teaneck who I don’t even know. Every year we’ve attracted more of the Orthodox community.”

“When God looks down, I don’t think He looks and sees Orthodox people and Conservative people and Reform people. I think He looks down at Limmud and says, ‘You are all My people.’ Limmud opened my eyes to teachers who I never would have been exposed to had I stayed within the box of my Orthodox world. It opened my eyes to individuals who were just as dedicated to their Judaism as I was but might not be observant,” said Twersky.

“I just heard Arthur Kurzweil, at a session on ‘Talking With My Children about Death and Dying,’ say that ‘Judaism relates to a person’s essence and not to their shell.’ That’s what Limmud is all about.”

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