On Jan. 15, more than 700 Jews from a mix of backgrounds will head to the Hudson Valley Resort in Kerhonkson for four days of lectures, text-study sessions, performances and workshops at the sixth annual Limmud NY Conference. Inspired by the Limmud Conference in England — which has been around for more than 25 years — Limmud NY has spawned an entire network, with Limmud (Hebrew for “learning”) conferences now in six U.S. cities, including Los Angeles, Atlanta and New Orleans. There are also Limmud conferences in 19 other countries, from Argentina to Turkey to Poland.

This week’s New York event will feature over 130 sessions (including one led by this reporter and another featuring Jewish Week Editor in Chief Gary Rosenblatt) — as well as a 100- participant “Camp Limmud” for children.

At a volunteer event last Sunday to complete last-minute preparations for the conference, The Jewish Week met up with Sissy Block, co-chair (with Rachel Gershman) of Limmud NY 2010. A St. Louis native, corporate communications professional and a member of Manhattan’s New Shul, Block, 39, has been a “Limmudnik” for three years.

Q: How did you get involved with Limmud?

A: I was invited as a presenter in 2007. I’d recently returned from nine years in Israel and was putting together staged readings of a monologue I’d written called “Love And Israel.” I didn’t know what Limmud was, but the minute I got there I was like, “I like this.” It had a good vibe and reminded me of Israel, being immersed in a totally Jewish environment. … I also like that there’s no single agenda for anyone at Limmud, that you choose your own experience there.

So within three years you went from never having heard of Limmud to running the conference.

First, I helped with programming for the “Identity and Responsibility” track. Then, because I work in marketing professionally, I was invited to be co-chair of marketing. Then I was asked, “Do you want to be in charge of the whole thing?” It’s been a blast.

What are the best and worst aspects of the job?

I like working with all the people and seeing how people step up and do things. … But there’s a fine line between asking volunteers to do things and motivating them. You may need X, but if they want to do Y, you have to let them do it.

While scholarships are available, going to Limmud costs a lot of money — almost $700 for each adult. Did the Great Recession make it a hard sell this year?
It was harder, but we sold out anyway. [This year’s conference was restricted to 700 participants.] In not great economic times, people look for experiences, and this provides a lifetime of memories.

Can a four-day conference really make a difference at a time of seemingly growing rifts between Orthodox and liberal Jews?

In England, the chief rabbi actually tells Orthodox people not to go to Limmud … the concern is that Orthodox people who go there will see other ways to connect to Judaism. But some people go and don’t tell their rabbis.

Here, Limmud doesn’t attract very many haredi Jews, but there’s a sizeable number of people (including many teachers) who are observant and open-minded.