Kerhonkson, N.Y. — A few days before welcoming 600-plus participants to the Hudson Valley Resort for its eighth annual conference, Limmud NY welcomed something else: a Covenant Foundation grant.
One of the foundation’s nine “signature” grants in Jewish education announced last week, Limmud NY’s $173, 950 (payable over three years) will enable it to “establish a diverse community of emerging Jewish educators for professional development within the Limmud model of engagement, learning and growth.”
“Limmud is a community in which everyone is both a teacher and a student,” says Sivya Twersky, Limmud NY’s president. “We are confident that the added value of the educator track to Limmud, and of Limmud to these educators, will be measurable and successful.”
David Wolkin, Limmud NY’s new executive director, says the hope is that the educators who participate will benefit from “a range of learning partners” and “levels of exposure they might not get in other professional development.”
The Limmud model is, for its many fans, a veritable vision of paradise. Begun in England in 1980 with a retreat for 80 participants, that weeklong conference now held on the campus of the University of Warwick annually draws about 2,500 participants. It has spawned, in addition to Limmud NY, conferences in more than 60 communities in 24 countries — all run primarily by volunteers. (Several “sister” Limmuds elsewhere in North America will be partnering with Limmud NY on the Covenant project.)
Limmud International’s credo is “Wherever you find yourself, Limmud will take you one step further on your Jewish journey.”
At Limmud NY, the atmosphere is casual but high energy, filled with earnest conviviality. The crowd mixes Brooklyn hipsters, babies, spiritual seekers, machers, activists, artists, Russian immigrants, outspoken teens, Hasidic New Wave musicians, men and women with kipot and without, organic farmers, mother-daughter and father-son pairs as well as three-generation families.
Participants pick and choose from a great variety of sessions, and some opt to hold court in the lobby.
In a ballroom that once featured the stars of the Catskills stage, Daniel Cainer plays the keyboard and sings “A Tale of Two Tailors” and other bittersweet ballads chronicling his own return to Jewish life. (“I had a non-Jewish wife, non-Jewish children, a non-Jewish divorce,” he told a reporter.) Cookbook author Tina Wasserman, whose recent “Entrée to Judaism: A Culinary Exploration of the Jewish Diaspora,” is the first comprehensive cookbook published by the Reform movement, tells her audiences that “our stories are recipes and our recipes are stories.”
In a more intimate session, Rabbi Claudia Kreiman of Brookline, Mass., shares her own experience of tragedy, as she leads a study of texts addressing loss. Her mother was killed in a 1994 terrorist attack in Buenos Aires. Rabbi Kreiman describes how she ultimately came to chose to live her life in joy rather than pain. Her efforts to find meaning inspire others in the room to speak openly.
In conversations in meeting rooms, hallways and at meals, Limmudniks have opportunities to listen to stories of each other’s life journeys. Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg of London screens a new documentary film, “Carrying the Light,” about his walk from a shul in Frankfurt, where his grandfather was rabbi until 1939, to London, bringing a flame from that German shul to light the Ner Tamid, eternal light, in his own shul.
Participants choose from a menu of Jewish law, ethics, biblical tales, Talmudic stories and midrashim — and a presentation by Rabbi Shmuley Boteach about his newest book, “Kosher Jesus.”
When asked in a session called “Judaism On One Foot: Your Most Pressing Questions” about different interpretations of Jewish teachings, Rabbi David Ingber of Romemu, a renewal community in Manhattan, replies, “The more voices, the better. It’s harmonic.” He could be talking about Limmud.
“I’m not that knowledgeable about the Torah. When I see black, I see black. Now I’ve started seeing some more gray,” Beverly Peress, a retired publisher, says. She came to Limmud with a group from her synagogue in Sands Point, L.I., ranging in age from 20 to 86. “Anything that’s spiritual, I think is good,” she adds.
Her friend Irene Helitzer, a potter who specializes in Jewish themes, says, “I’m so charged. I have all these new ideas and am ready to get to work on them.”
Among other choices, participants can learn about challenges facing Israel, art inspired by the Book of Esther, gay marriage, recent Hungarian history (from a Jewish philosopher involved in bringing Limmud to Budapest). Or they can wrestle with “transhumanism and the dystopian Jewish future” with Daniel Siedarski, a writer and media entrepreneur who is a co-organizer of Occupy Judaism, the Jewish counterpart to the Occupy Wall Street movement. With enthusiasm, Siedarski describes the prospects of advances in neuroscience and technology jumpstarting a very brave new world for Judaism and for humanity.
Animation artist Hanan Harchol adds a visual element to the great Limmud mix – he uses family stories to convey Jewish wisdom in an animated series, “Jewish Food for Thought.” In a world premiere, he shows his very smart, funny and provocative short film on gratitude. When a viewer asks if the teachings are actually Buddhist, he assures the audience that his work is grounded in Jewish texts. Harchal, who became interested in Jewish learning after a very secular upbringing, is wildly passionate about making Jewish wisdom accessible.
Long periods of sitting are broken up with folk dance sessions, yoga and meditation, and optional prayer services three times a day — with separate Orthodox, traditional egalitarian and more liberal minyanim.
Wolkin, the executive director, comments, “I think of positive unintended consequences. You get all these people learning and celebrating, you don’t know what will happen but you know incredible things are going to happen.”
A company member of the biblical theater/education troupe Storahtelling, and a former educator at Manhattan congregations, Wolkin led a session with his dad, a Conservative rabbi, titled, “I Love You, But You’re Wrong About Everything: A Father and Son Seek Common Ground on Judaism.”
Dasee Berkowitz, an educational consultant and writer, mentions the importance nowadays — when so much interaction takes place on Facebook — of having real face time with people, and of the possibility for profound interactions.
A six-time Limmudnik, Moises Cohen, 22, of Boston says, “Everyone who comes here really wants to learn and really wants to meet other people. It’s a perfect environment to meet people who want to grow and expand their horizons.”
Cohen was among many Limmud veterans, and a number of them have also traveled to Limmud UK. Eleanor Radzivilover, a Manhattan lawyer who has been to every Limmud NY, says, “Every year I say I’m not going to come back, but I do. I’m very glad I do.”
Throughout the weekend, participants describe moments that could happen in no other place — whether studying, sharing a meal or dancing at Havdalah, the conclusion of Shabbat, with people they would not otherwise encounter. One presenter, Louis Ferrante, the author of “Unlocked: The Life and Crimes of a Mafia Insider,” spoke about his years in federal prison and his decision while serving time to convert to Judaism, had a true Limmud moment. In the audiences at one of his talks, he discovered someone he had corresponded with in prison about Judaism — author and educator Arthur Kurzweil. Here, they met in person for the first time.