In discussing the topic “Is spirituality Jewish?” the four panelists agreed that being spiritual but not religious is a Christian concept; Judaism requires practice, not only feelings. The panelists included Dr. Devora Steinmetz of Drisha Institute in the United States and Israel, Rabbi Ethan Tucker of Hadar, Rabbi Leon Morris of Pardes, and Rabbi Nahum Twersky, a marketing executive.
At the conclusion of the session, a Brown University professor and rabbinical student who grew up in the chasidic community stood in the back of the room and discussed their refutations of that position.
As they talked, the room emptied as everyone else moved on to the next lecture: perhaps a policy discussion on Israel, text study on death in the Zohar, a Talmudic debate on disgust, or a conversation about God in the Torah. Other offerings included Jewish meditation led by Montclair resident Beth Sandweiss, yoga, Israeli dancing, and a film screening.
That eclectic variety is Limmud NY, the 15-year-old smorgasbord of learning for Jews in the tri-state area, this year held Feb. 15-18 in Manhattan. Some 20 percent of the 750 participants were from New Jersey.
For the first time, it was an à la carte affair, not a weekend commitment. Shabbat programming was available, starting with Kabbalat Shabbat at the nondenominational Romemu and Havdalah and a concert at the Reform Congregation Rodeph Sholom, but most of the learning sessions took place on Sunday, Feb. 17, and Monday, Feb. 18.
For Ruth Margolin of Westfield the one-day option “made all the difference,” she said. She attended with husband Michael and their chavurah, a group that has been studying together for 30 years.
“We would not have made a whole weekend adventure of it but being able to come for a day opened it up,” she said.
Limmud NY is part of a global Jewish festival of learning that started in the United Kingdom in 1980 and now takes place in cities around the world and on eight continents.
The crowd was an older set with plenty of GenXers and baby boomers, though some millennials also came with children in tow. In addition to tri-state residents, some came from as far afield as Michigan, Minnesota, and even London. The crowd skewed liberal in terms of denomination, if not politics, but still had a considerable 16 percent who identified as Orthodox. And while classes ran the gamut from arts, culture, and movement to policy, text study, and history, pointedly absent was anything focusing on the political climate of the moment, like the growing anti-Semitism on both the right and the left, although there was a session about the 2019 Women’s March.
The new format, requiring less commitment both in time and money, brought in some new participants.
Randee Solomon of West Orange told NJJN, “I’ve always wanted to go to Limmud,” but it was too expensive and she didn’t want to leave her four kids for a full weekend. Calling the day she spent “wonderful,” she said she especially liked a session on books rescued from the Vilna ghetto led by David Fishman, professor of Jewish history at the Jewish Theological Seminary.
But there were also downsides to the new format. As Treasure Cohen of Maplewood, who attended the full weekend in Princeton last year, pointed out, “When it’s a whole weekend you become part of a family.” By comparison, this year, coming for just the day on Sunday, “We’re not immersed in the community,” she said. “It’s just all these people are strangers.”
Udi Shorr of Highland Park was among those who decided to make the weekend commitment, staying in a hotel in Manhattan. The variety of topics and speakers is what attracted him to the conference.
His favorite takeaway? A course on race in the Jewish community. “We’re insular,” he said. “We grow up in these Jewish communities and we’re kind of all learning about ourselves.” He appreciated having the opportunity at Limmud to consider “people who are not necessarily the mainstream” of Jewish life or who “don’t fit the stereotype of who is a Jew, or what a Jew looks like.”
The event attracted some of New Jersey’s familiar faces. Among them were Rabbi Gerald Zelizer, who retired from Neve Shalom in Metuchen in 2015, and Rabbi George Nudell, who retired in 2017 from Congregation Beth Israel in Scotch Plains. “I love being a fly on the wall,” said Nudell, who moved to Minnesota but was in town with his wife, Linda Casson, for a family event.
Perhaps Richard Cohen, Treasure’s husband, summed up the day best when he said, “I just love the kaleidoscope of everything here.”