Our Limmud experience began on our ride up to Stamford, Conn., where the conference took place at the Hilton. Unexpectedly, we had a very full car — we were six Jews, religious and secular, New Yorkers and Brits, a rabbi, a cantor and a musician, with three presenters, two reporters, several jokesters and lots of lively conversation, a taste of what was to come.
The common thread at Limmud NY — a three-day fest of wide-ranging Jewish study, now in its 10th year — is that everyone feels a stake in the Jewish present and future, however that might be imagined. The atmosphere is one of decided enthusiasm, openness, warmth and respect.
“Limmud is like a giant, rich buffet that nourishes my thinking and friendships,” Mimi Pauker of Westchester says. “It’s such a fun, thought-provoking mix of spiritual wisdom, textual analysis, diverse opinions, and entertainment woven with philosophical insights.”
Sessions included talks by Israeli journalist and author Ari Shavit and Anti-Defamation League head Abraham Foxman, films, discussions of Jewish comedy and, at night, stand-up comedy, Israeli dance, liturgy and text study; there was also a performance by Jake Goodman of Nobel Prize-winning writer Imre Kertesz’s novel “Kaddish,” conversations with former haredi Jews finding a new course in life, an insider’s guide to Israel with El Al pilots and stewardesses and, of course “Analyzing the Pew Study.” This year, for the first time, Limmud established a Holocaust Education track, with sessions like “21st-Century Shoah Storytelling.”
Between sessions, participants continue conversations around a central café, offering coffee, snacks and gluten-free cake. On Sunday, there’s a marketplace with booksellers, venues of Jewish study and a Yiddish Farm table, taking orders for kosher organic shmurah matzah.
“What amazes me about the experience isn’t the incredible learning opportunities — which is pretty jaw-dropping — but rather how normal it seems to have such a broad range of Jewry under one roof and how inclusive the whole experience is,” Richard Skeen of Montclair, N.J., says. “Last year my daughter swam with new friends who wore long sleeves in the pool and thought nothing of it.”
This year’s more than 700 participants — fortunately, they’re all wearing name tags — included about half that number of first-time Limmudniks, 30 eightysomethings, college and high school students and several families spanning three generations (including former U.S. Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut and family). A Long Island woman walking with a cane who has been to all 10 conferences takes food from breakfast so that she can skip lunch and attend sessions straight through the day. Kids in oversize electric orange T-shirts attend Camp Limmud, for the first time organized by Camp Ramah. And young people often considered absent in communal life seem to be running the place.
Poet Aaron Levy Samuels, whose debut collection “Yarmulkes & Fitted Caps” was just published, led a poetry writing workshop, a discussion on identity triggered by his poems and a late-night Spoken Word performance. The son of a white Jewish mother and a black father, he says his poems are a byproduct of growing up in both black and Jewish communities. While he frequently reads and teaches among people of mixed backgrounds, poets or high school students, it was unusual for him to be in a room full of Jews.
“One of the most illuminating conversations I had was about the nature of passing within the Jewish community,” he says, referring to people hiding their Jewish identity at moments, and also broadcasting it in subtle ways. Later he opens his performance with a high-energy rendition of his poem, “Special Delivery,” about experiences at Hebrew School in Edgewood, R.I., navigating the racial divide, as the only one in class who really knows how to dance.
“As to the major issues facing the community today, Limmud provides at least part of the answer — whether you’re talking about identity, breaking down denominational, generational or hierarchal silos, creating nontraditional points of entry, developing new leadership; that is Limmud NY. Here, we shed the dividers at the door, we are just Jews who are seeking to further our Jewish journeys.”