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Learning Something New

“I’m going to tell you two completely contradictory ideas, and I want you to understand that I believe both of them with every fiber of my being.” So said Rabbi Daniel Gordis, the popular, American-born Israeli educator and author, attempting to explain the divisions in Israeli society to a rapt audience of 50-odd New Yorkers at a Catskills resort last weekend.

While he spoke, the same theme — the passionately contradictory diversity of contemporary Judaism — was being echoed by a dozen other speakers throughout the sprawling hotel where some 700 people had gathered for a long weekend of learning known as Limmud New York. Modeled on a popular adult-learning retreat begun in Great Britain a quarter-century ago, the seminar reached across denominational and age barriers to create a sort of Jewish Woodstock, where study took the place of music.

More than 100 “presenters,” as the teachers were called, taught in round-robin fashion, with as many as a dozen classes at any given hour. Topics during Gordis’s time-slot alone ranged from “Awareness Through Movement” and “Forgiveness — A Complex Human Drama” to “The Origins of the Final Solution” and “The Death of Volunteerism in the Jewish Community.” Participants and teachers alike represented a broad cross-section of New York Jewry, from middle-class suburbanites with children in tow to college students and rabbis of every denomination.

Most unusual of all, the program was almost entirely volunteer-planned and volunteer-run, with only one paid staffer to coordinate it all.

“Limmud is a postmodern shtetl,” said Nigel Savage, an environmental activist and British Limmud veteran who helped initiate the program’s New York incarnation. “For the first time since before the French Revolution, we have put three generations and a wide range of denominations to live and celebrate together.”

Though born in Britain, the idea for Limmud originally came from America. Its inspiration was the Conference on Alternatives in Jewish Education, an annual study retreat for young American Hebrew-school teachers that was launched in 1975 as a direct outgrowth of the 1960s counter-culture. The original American conference has evolved into a relatively staid, button-down event (even reflected in the toning down of its name, now the Coalition for the Advancement of Jewish Education), but the Woodstock-like feel of its early years captivated a group of British Jews who, after attending in 1978, decided to create something similar back home. Since England does not have enough professional Hebrew teachers to support a retreat of that size, they decided the British version would be “open to anyone who felt responsibility to transmit something Jewish to someone else,” co-founder Clive Lawton said.

The idea of bringing Limmud to New York had been discussed for several years by locals who had attended or heard about the British festival. The project began after Savage moved here five years ago and met Karen Radkowsky, a New Yorker who had attended Limmud UK and currently chairs an education task force at UJA-Federation of New York. With seed funding from the federation, a director, Abi Dauber, was hired, and a volunteer steering committee was formed. Radkowsky was a co-chair.

Planning the event was a complex undertaking. “We grappled with how to create the most diverse open Jewish bubble we could,” Dauber told the Forward.

The hardest issue, said volunteer coordinator Lisa Tannenbaum, was “how to include everybody without offending anybody. A diverse group of people required a lot of thought about how things would be issued.”

Unlike Limmud UK, the organizers of Limmud New York decided to hold Limmud during the Sabbath. In order to do so, they had to define inclusiveness. An early division came over whether or not to hold a disco on Friday night. An even more heated debate erupted over whether to offer a Friday afternoon bus that would arrive after the Sabbath had started, so that participants who could not leave work early could be serviced.

The decision-making process was complicated by the early determination to operate in a non-hierarchical fashion, with all committee members equal and no individual having the final say. The result was repeated impasses. Dauber eventually called in an arbitrator to help the steering committee define the parameters of the Sabbath. The arbitrator, unable to resolve the dispute, finally withdrew and declined to accept payment, leaving the committee to work out its problems by itself, Dauber said.

The committee eventually came to a consensus on most issues. All activities were to be both inclusive and educational; the disco idea was discarded because it did not add to the Sabbath experience. Instead, the movie “The Chosen” was shown Friday night for those who chose to watch. To maintain inclusiveness, the film was shown again Saturday night, making it the only repeated session.

Dauber said the planning discussions typified the purpose of Limmud: different people coming together and discussing their differences. “Limmud New York can and should serve as a microcosm of the greater Jewish community,” she said.

In one breakthrough, a group of New York University students, representing separate Reform, Conservative and Orthodox campus groups, met at Limmud New York and managed for what one said was the first time in the university’s history to hold a joint Friday night celebration.

“At any conference, 20% of the attendees show up for educational purposes or to support the cause of the conference, and most of the other 80% are there to meet other people or to be fed. When a conference can fulfill the needs of both groups, it has been successful. Limmud New York has accomplished both,” said attendee Jason Brzoska, director of learning communities and marketing of MyJewishLearning, Inc.

In addition to the diversity, the lack of paid employees, aside from Dauber, has made Limmud unique. More than 80 volunteers had helped plan the conference for more than a year and more than 300 participants — nearly half of all attendees — volunteered their time during the conference. “I think the number of volunteers is phenomenal,” Dauber said. “If half the Jewish community always participated, Jewish communities would be phenomenal.”

Graduate student Michael Oskin said he was one of many who asked how they could volunteer, and ended up working at the information desk and in the dining hall, and making photocopies for presentations. “It is nice to make sure it runs smoothly, because it is all volunteer-driven,” he said.

Lawton, the Limmud UK co-founder, said he anticipates Limmud being re-created throughout the United States. “What I really hope for is that the half-dozen people here from Baltimore and the handful of people from California and the group from Washington will create their own Limmuds. We can measure our success by how much it travels across the United States.”


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