Whether by dissecting the prayer book, discussing suicide prevention, teaching children about Jewish dance, or learning how to cook Jewish-French cuisine, a sellout crowd of more than 800 experienced a world of Jewish learning over the Presidents’ Day weekend.
The ninth annual Limmud NY conference at the East Brunswick Hilton was the first to be held in New Jersey. The festival of Jewish learning and culture drew a cross-generational and multi-denominational crowd — about 50 percent of them first-time participants — for sessions conducted by close to 170 presenters, including some who came from as far away as Australia and Israel.
“If this isn’t the largest, it’s one of the two largest we’ve ever had,” said Limmud NY’s executive director and only full-time paid staff member, David Wolkin. “Everything has been wonderful. It seems to have been a good idea holding it here.”
Beginning with classes and workshops on Friday afternoon, the festival ran nearly nonstop until Monday afternoon, with religious services catering to the full range of denominations, nightly entertainment, and sing-alongs lasting far into the night.
Every 90 minutes, participants made their way to one of up to 23 learning sessions taking place simultaneously. Some were so eager not to skip a session that they took their lunch and dinner “to go.”
At the Feb. 17 program, young children in “camp” sat in a circle in the hallway as an adult read to them. A group of teens stopped to grab a nosh at tables where fruit, vegetables, and sweets were continually set out.
Meanwhile, adults browsed through tables set up by local Jewish federations, day schools, yeshivas, and other Jewish learning institutions.
Among the well-known presenters were cookbook author Joan Nathan, historian Deborah Lipstadt, actor Stephen Tobolowsky, and the former refusenik Rabbi Leonid Feldman.
Based on the annual Limmud conference created in England in 1980, Limmud NY is part of a network of such festivals held around the country and around the world.
Clive Lawton, a British educator and cofounder of the first Limmud, said that the idea came about “because British Jewry had become so dull and boring.”
“We felt we could learn from each other,” said Lawton, after leading a session on religious calendars. “It’s worked out wonderfully. There are now Limmud programs in 60 different places around the world, and 50,000 people have attended a Limmud event.”
Limmud board member Corrine Kohlmeyer-Hyman said she was in the process of converting to Judaism when she attended her first Limmud conference.
“I was not yet Jewish and was trying to find a community to fit into,” said the White Plains, NY, resident. “It wasn’t just about beliefs or Israel, but I got to see what being Jewish meant to different people. I really connected, not just through study of text, but through art, music, and stories.” Kohlmeyer-Hyman went on to cochair the fifth Limmud conference.
David Wilensky of South Orange, the 23-year-old executive director of the Jewish Student Press Service, was back for his fifth Limmud. “You get to hear and meet this whole range of people you don’t normally get to meet or hear,” he said. “You get to learn about holidays and lots of other things, but the real learning is in the hallways. It’s a unique community.”
Chloe Arons, 11, of Montclair said she had come with her family to every Limmud NY conference. She said that as a public school student, participating in the gathering gives her an opportunity “to get a real Jewish experience.”
She also learned another vital lesson from attending Limmud: “You need to get the snack food quickly on the first day before everyone else grabs it — and they keep extra stashed under the tables.”