Beyond the Classroom: Limmud Prompts Food for Thought

Five minutes into a discussion on the intersection of Judaism and technology, LimmudPhilly presenter Sam Zitin tossed out an aside comparing the sometimes cacophonous interplay of voices and ideas found in the Talmud with the hyper-linked, user-generated content on Wikipedia.

But before Zitin, director of information management for the fraternity Alpha Epsilon Pi, could get any further, J.T. Waldman, an author and Jewish educator who happened to be sitting in the audience, raised a few objections to the analogy. People log on to Wikipedia to find answers as quickly as possible, but they study Talmud to become immersed in thought, not to find easy solutions to questions of Jewish law, said Waldman.

Then, another participant sitting in the Gershman Y classroom, a woman in her 70s, raised her hand and asked a bit timidly: Just what exactly is Wikipedia?

Limmud means "learning" in Hebrew, and part of the idea behind the movement is that Jews of all religious affiliations and backgrounds should gather in one setting to engage and challenge one another. (In this instance, certified techies and Internet neophytes found themselves in the same room, examining the growing impact of cyberspace and technology on Jewish life and community.)

The breakdown of the traditional barrier between student and teacher, the encouragement of free-flowing discussion and the idea that no topic should be off limits are all part of the Limmud conference model.

"We are all students, and we are teachers," said Robert Neff, who sits on the steering committee of LimmudPhilly, which, on Feb. 21 and Feb. 22, held its first of what he and organizers hope will become an annual event in Center City.

Limmud began 27 years ago as a grass-roots-organized learning fest in which a cadre of volunteers selected the topics with the aim to rejuvenate, if not partially reinvent, the notion of communal Jewish learning. Locally, more than 600 people attended more than 70 sessions.

Topics ranged from the U.S.-Israel relationship and the challenges to the Jewish community posed by intermarriage to more off-beat subjects like "Die Another Day: Madonna, the Kabbalah Center, and the Question of Authenticity in the Study of Jewish Mysticism," "Moses in a Mega Church" and "The Gradual Disappearance of the Sacred Female From the Hebrew Bible."

Beyond the Classroom

According to Ross Berkowitz, executive director of LimmudPhilly, part of the ethos is all about expanding the definition of learning to go beyond just the classroom, so a Yiddish theater performance, jazz enable and a "Torah Yoga" session were also included on the bill.

Berkowitz, who has traveled to Limmud conferences in England, Atlanta and New York to learn more about events, also stressed that they're meant for the entire community, and pointed out that they'd even had a day's worth of children's activities run by volunteers.

Josh and Tracy Maleef, a couple in their 30s from Ambler, explained that they often find Jewish events off-putting, especially when tied to a particular denomination or synagogue.

They said they were drawn to the event by the absence of any "label," coupled with the fact that it included secular and cultural topics.

Nevertheless, they wound up attending a rather religious-sounding topic: "Do I Believe in God Is the Wrong Question: Moving From God to the Godly."

Discussion leader Rabbi Michael Uram cited a passage from the book of Kings that seems to place less emphasis on miracles — like the Burning Bush or the splitting of the Red Sea — and more on an individual's understanding of God.

Tracy Maleef seemed to have relished the chance to explore such an issue, as well as the debate over faith and belief.

She added: "The question of whether or not there is a God — you wouldn't typically have that conversation in synagogue."



Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here