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LimmudPhilly 2010 Pushing the Envelope

-- Rabbi Goldie Milgram

The pan-Jewish 2010 LimmudPhilly Conference was delightfully provacative. Opening with the “Kosher Gospel” of black musician and Hebrew school educator Joshua Nelson and backup from traditional gospel singers, every soul present was confronted with their own inner beliefs about Jewish diversity. Nelson’s powerful vocals, gospel arrangements of traditional Jewish liturgy and interspersed vignettes about being a black Manhattan Hebrew school teacher rendered profound the full vision of what a Limmud Conference can be. Having said that, what might have added value would be sessions designed to help participants process the performance.

While some attended a session on the new facility for Philadelphia's Smithsonian-affiliate, the Museum of American Jewish History and others reported delight in a new Jewish opera libretto by Ellen Frankel, my husband went to the screening of a new film on the life of social justice activist Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, of blessed memory, of which he declared “revelatory.” The evening session I attended turned a new light on the Torah. Barnett Kamen, a doctoral student at Gratz College showed us how the Ugaritic Epic of Ba'al when set beside verses in Tanakh reveal God not creating all, but rather conquering seas and sea monsters to rule a pre-existing creation.

At a session where Susan Weidman Schneider, Editor-in-Chief of Lilith Magazine recounted the history and accomplishment of Jewish feminism, the discussion turned to the concerns of the young women, mothers and men present, which primarily proved to be the problem of fertility and finding Jewish partners once one has finished years of serious academic and career development. Limmud Conferences are about learning in the context of mutual understanding and it was affirming to note mothers wearing marriage wigs sharing in the session amongst the college students and young professionals primarily attending. The Limmud ethos of diversity within a context of mutual respect and shared learning really held up. While I did find the perspective of a teacher from the ultra-Orthodox Gateways organization based in Monsey hard to hear on some topics, that too belongs in the mix of an authentic Limmud.

The Limmud Conferences stem from the original conferences founded in England over twenty-five years ago. Philly's second annual Limmud was both powerful and poignant. Powerful because over 600 participants and 60 teachers across the spectrum of Jewish practice gathered for an evening and a day of learning, arts, dialogue and shared meals. Poignant due to the absence of one of its founding visionaries and funders, Annabelle Lindy, who had died suddenly of cancer this year. There were sessions for secular, artistic, spiritual, intellectual, academic, seeking, political and every other kind of Jewishly practicing or questing or protesting Jew and non-Jewish significant others.

A conference on this scale is a huge undertaking and the Limmud model requires a volunteer-intensive committee-based selection process, no selecting your friends to teach. Even those who excel who teach one year cannot do so two years in a row to ensure a diverse annual experience for participants. Committees for LimmudPhilly 2011 are now open to new volunteers, be sure to email info@limmudphilly.org if you are interested.

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