Time seemed to slow as a lone actor in a stained tallis commanded the Gershman Y auditorium, beseeching God — in Yiddish — not to break the souls of his people as they died fighting the Nazis in the Warsaw ghetto.
An hour later, the somber mood lifted as a Turkish/Eastern European-infused harmonica ensemble took over the stage.
This was LimmudPhilly, the annual panoramic Jewish learning festival that somehow manages to be deeply emotional, educational, spiritual, entertaining and thought-provoking all at once.
For arts lovers, the festival was a gold mine of creativity. True to its founding aim, however, the conference had a little something for Jews of all religious affiliations and interests. Altogether, the weekend included more than 75 classes on Jewish history, culture, text, spirituality, social justice and Israel.
In its third year, the annual learning fest drew a bit more than 400 people to Center City. Though the crowds appeared thick, the number was down nearly 200 from last year, despite the addition of a Shabbat program. About 150 people registered for the Friday-night and Saturday classes.
The expanded hours came at the request of participants who said they were running around so much during past Limmud Sundays that they didn't have the time to meet others who were there, said Ross Berkowitz, executive director of Tribe 12, the nonprofit organization that oversees LimmudPhilly and other independent Jewish programs.
"It's that extra learning that you do when you talk to someone who's in the session that's so important," he said.
Limmud festivals in other cities, including the original conference volunteers started in England in 1980 in hopes of rejuvenating communal Jewish learning, solved that problem by hosting overnight retreats. That kind of immersion is ideal for building Jewish identity, Berkowitz said, but organizers worried that the increased cost would make the local conference less accessible. Offering sessions over Shabbat — even though observant Jews who didn't live within walking distance would have to make special arrangements to attend — seemed like the next best thing, he said.
The Shabbat experience felt so welcoming to Mount Airy social service project manager Aviva Perlo that she was moved to deliver an improvisational spoken-word performance during a session on arts activism.
"I felt called to take it to that next level," said Perlo, 36, who also gave a presentation on the intersection of mental health and Torah at the conference. "Merging art and Judaism is the most powerful thing."
When you get Jews from various denominations who often disagree to come together "to celebrate artistically, it helps us to strengthen community."
Not only was it a chance to let out her artistic energy, Perlo said, but it created connections with other attendees. Afterward, she said, a man came up to talk to her about incorporating art in his volunteer work with at-risk youth. A fellow presenter invited her to lead a story during her session the next day.
On Sunday, a bustling crowd of volunteers and participants replaced the calm of Shabbat. Inside the Y, rabbis expounded on religious texts, while in a building across the street, another presenter led a discussion on being gay and Orthodox. Some sessions took participants out of the classroom for a beginning folk-dance lesson or a walking tour of the Philadelphia mural-arts program. On top of all the adult classes, a few guest artists were also tasked to lend their gifts of story, song or crafts to the 10-and-under set participating in a Young Limmud program.
Upwards of 200 volunteers came together over the course of the year to select presenters, set up the logistics and assist during the actual event, said Berkowitz.
While several genres, including Yiddish theater, musical ensembles and meditation, appeared on the program last year, no sessions were exactly the same.
In fact, Berkowitz said, organizers also have a rule against inviting the same presenter two years in a row.
At lunchtime, three young men wandered the auditorium, looking in vain for a place to sit.
The lack of seating didn't bother Edward Melman, who came from Cherry Hill, N.J., to attend Limmud for the second year with his wife and children. Like the sessions, he said, "it's something that gets me out of my comfort zone. I wanted to go from table to table; I wanted to talk to people I may have shared a class with."
For Center City resident Vicki Nathan, the weekend marked her second time going through the offerings at Limmud on a mission to add depth to her spiritual relationship with Judaism.
"It's hard to pick what I want to go to," said Nathan, 60, a life and creativity coach.
"I'm just now picking up on some of the text, some of the important parts that I missed," she said. Limmud has become "a part of my personal growth."