The Learning Express
08/20/08
Staff Writer
Houston — In a schoolroom of Congregation Emanu-El, a Reform rabbi is leading a seminar on patrilineal descent. Down the hall, a discussion on Jewish mysticism is taking place under the direction of a Conservative rabbi. A few doors away, an Orthodox rabbi is talking about Ahavat Yisrael, love of one’s fellow Jew. Elsewhere in the synagogue, the largest Reform temple in the Houston area, two dozen other classes and meditation sessions and song-composing workshops are taking place at the same time, led by a cross-section of rabbis and teachers and political leaders. It’s a typical Yom Limmud morning. For 15 years, Yom Limmud (Hebrew for day of learning) has drawn more than 1,000 members of the city’s Jewish community (and some Judeophilic non-Jews) for a full day of intensive Jewish learning (there’s also a concert and exhibitors’/vendors’ fair), more than a dozen concurrent sessions held each hour. Representatives of the Jewish spectrum, from secular to chasidic, participate in the classes as leaders and students. Houston’s Yom Limmud bills itself as the largest-such enterprise in the United States outside of New York City’s that carries the Limmud label. Yom Limmud was formed in the spirit of England’s 27-year-old Limmud movement, which has spread to some three dozen countries around the world, but it is not officially affiliated with the Limmud movement. Houston’s Yom Limmud, and those that grew out of LimmudUK — including New York’s three-year-old Limmud effort — share a few common elements. Either one-day long, like Houston’s or similar initiatives in San Diego and San Antonio and San Francisco and several other U.S. cities, or multi-day events like England’s or New York’s, they are massive educational undertakings that cross denominational or generational boundaries, bringing together community activists and nominally identified Jews for intensive-but-eclectic Jewish education. While the programs are subsidized by local federations, registration generally costs several hundred dollars. Limmud is patterned after the popular CAJE conferences that serve as an annual study session and reunion for Jewish teachers, with the difference that it is open to everyone. The volunteer-led-and-driven Limmud movement, Jewish educators say, is offering a new model of Jewish education and of Jewish activism. “It’s a formula that seems to be clicking,” says Jonathan Woocher, chief ideas officer of the Jewish Educational Service of North America. “It allows people who perhaps never before saw themselves as being able to exercise leadership in Jewish life to do so. People are always excited by what they helped to create. “It’s tremendously important,” says Woocher, who calls Limmud “an opportunity to experience Jewish learning on an adult level. A lot of people feel that they didn’t get a chance as children to really understand what Jewish heritage is all about.” But the Limmud approach raises the question of how much education or inspiration can take place over one day or a few days. “How do you carry this back so that it’s not just a once-a-year phenomenon?” Woocher asks. “That is the big issue,” a challenge faced by such high-emotion, short-term educational experiences like Birthright Israel and summer camps. “The jury is still out,” he says, but Limmud supporters in New York say participants often enroll in other Jewish education courses and become involved in the wider Jewish community after their initial exposure to Limmud. “We hope that Limmud will just be the start of people learning through the year,” says Karen Radkowsky, a founder of LimmudNY. “We find that Limmud often leads to people getting involved in other aspects of Jewish life.” Woocher says Limmud appeals to the same type of people — adults interested in advanced Jewish learning — who take part in such programs as the Wexner Foundation fellowships, the Melton Adult Mini-School network, and the Meah adult Jewish learning program. “People are begging for quality Jewish educational experiences,” says Barbara Loeser, community outreach coordinator of the Bureau of Jewish Education of the Jewish Federation of Greater Houston, which sponsors Yom Limmud. “The appeal of Yom Limmud is ... an opportunity to learn from so many people.” Loeser says Houston’s Yom Limmud was developed at the suggestion of a cross-denominational group of local rabbis who wanted an annual, large-scale, joint educational project. Yom Limmud, which now alternates among three major Houston congregations, is one of the most anticipated events on the Houston Jewish community calendar; the conference is mandatory for religious schoolteachers, whose classes are cancelled that day. “One of the secrets is that it crosses denominations. You have almost every rabbi in town presenting, and planning the event,” Loeser says. “There’s a sense of community that goes through the year.” LimmudNY offers the same atmosphere, of unaffiliated Jews schmoozing outside of classes with chasidic Jews, sharing kosher meals, sitting until late into the night at the Limmud Café. “It’s true pluralism,” says Orley Denman, a native of Great Britain who has served as a Limmud volunteer there, in Los Angeles and in New York City. The Limmud ethos has spread to the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. “It really is a global movement,” says Ruthie Warshenbrot, director of LimmudNY, which meets for five days each at a Catskills resort over the extended Martin Luther King Day weekend. To pique interest throughout the year, LimmudNY (www.limmudny.org) sponsors Taste of Limmud meetings in the greater New York area. Information about the meetings, and about the annual conference, registration for which opens next month, are available at the Web site; the phone number is (212) 284-6968. LimmudNY started in 2005 with the support of UJA-Federation and the Picower Foundation and Bikkurim: An Incubator for New Jewish Ideas, under the direction of Radkowsky, who had attended LimmudUK in 2000. “I was totally blown away by the experience ... the size of the conference ... the variety of course offerings ... the breadth of presenters who donated their time,” she says. New York needed its own Limmud, she determined. “There was nothing else that was truly multi-day, cross-denominational, cross-generational.” Attendance quickly reached 1,000, where it will stay until a larger venue is found. “We pretty much have to cap our attendance at a thousand,” Radkowsky says. LimmudUK, which draws 2,000 or more participants to a college campus each year, now has offshoots in Australia, Russia, Germany, Hungary, Turkey, Scotland, etc. There are two in Israel. About a dozen more countries are on the way. Each local Limmud is autonomous, creating its own curriculum and atmosphere in its own image. “Limmud is not a kiruv [outreach] organization,” Radkowsky says. “There are no right or wrong answers” to questions asked at Limmud conferences. “It’s not a franchise,” with strictly delineated operating procedures, Radkowsky says. “Each one has a different feeling.” Atlanta’s is folksy, Los Angeles’ has an artsy flavor, Colorado’s is influenced by the indigenous Jewish Renewal movement, she says. Houston’s recent Yom Limmud, for example, featured a session entitled “A Torah Perspective on Roger Clemens and Steroids.” Clemens is the city’s baseball hero who has come under a cloud of suspicion for using banned substances to improve his pitching performance. Yom Limmud, unlike the conference under the philosophical aegis of the LimmudUK movement, pays for five prominent out-of-town speakers, subsidized by Yom Limmud’s sponsors, who double as scholars-in-residence at area synagogue over the previous Shabbat. Houston, geographically isolated from such large Jewish population centers like New York or L.A., lacks a large number of high-profile, indigenous Jewish leaders. “It’s a nice addition to the day to bring in big-name people from out of town,” Loeser says. LimmudNY, which can draw on a large reservoir of prominent members of the Jewish community who live in the area, also offers distractions — the city and its cultural treasures — to the conference participants. That’s why the conference takes place upstate, in an isolated, rural setting. “We don’t want people to drop in and out,” Warshenbrot says. As at any “retreat experience,” their undivided attention is expected. LimmudNY’s core group of 100 volunteers meet regularly during the year, starting a few months after one conference, to plan the next one. “We are creating a whole new approach to volunteerism — you get to be a leader with increasing recognition and responsibility because of how hard you work.” Friendships — and some marriages — have grown out of the volunteers’ Limmud work. They celebrate Shabbat and holidays together, and attend each others’ simchas. “For some Jewish people,” Radkowsky says, “LimmudNY is their Jewish community.”
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12/17/2009 - 10:45

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