Sarah Tuttle-Singer, wearing fishnet stockings and black high-heeled boots, perched on the edge of a table in a classroom in central Tel Aviv and sighed.
“My feet are killing me,” she told the crowd. “I’m so glad I don’t have to stand.”
She was in Tel Aviv for a conversation on her book, “Jerusalem Drawn and Quartered,” in which she spent a year living in all four quarters of the Old City.
“Could I have a glass of wine,” she asked?
Outside in the lobby, the Golan Heights Winery was pouring a cabernet and merlot.
“Just bring the whole bottle,” joked journalist Matthew Kalman, who led the conversation with Tuttle-Singer.
Once it arrived, he poured and then said, “Anybody want some?”
The event was part of Limmud After Dark, sponsored by Limmud-Israel. It was held in English as it coincided with the General Assembly of Jewish Federations (the GA), which brought thousands of active American Jews to Tel Aviv.
Like all of Limmud, which holds conferences in 90 communities in 42 countries, the tone was informal. Attendees could choose from three simultaneous events each session, including wine tasting by the Golan Heights Winery, and a lecture by former Jewish Agency head Natan Sharansky.
Tuttle-Singer, who also blogs for the Times of Israel, told the story of a kitten caught in a drainpipe in the Muslim Quarter of the Old City. Jews and Muslims came together to rescue the kitten, which was eventually adopted by a “cat lady” in the Jewish Quarter.
“These are moments of holiness and even though they don’t happen often, we have to notice them, and enjoy them,” she told the crowd, which skewed young and hip. As it was in English it attracted a large crowd of young English-speakers, including the entire group of a gap-year program called Kivunim.
The idea behind Limmud is to bring together Jews from all backgrounds to learn together and from each other. It is a volunteer-driven organization,with just a few paid professionals, CEO Eli Ovits.
“Limmud says everyone who wants to learn is welcome,” Ovits said in an interview. “We are not going to ask who you are, and we are not even going to ask if you are Jewish. However you define yourself, you are welcome to Limmud.”
It began in the UK in 1980 over Christmas weekend after a group of British Jews got together to find a place where Orthodox, Conservative and Reform Jews could learn together. It has since grown organically and new groups are opening all of the time from Beijing to Barcelona, and from Jerusalem to Johannesburg.
Limmud aims to “enable every participant to take one step further on his or her Jewish journey,” and aims to “ensure that there is always something for everyone, no matter what their level of Jewish knowledge or commitment to Jewish life,” according to its website.
Topics at Limmud run the gamut from politics to Jewish texts to food to history to Zionism. There are usually multiple talks for each session, often making it difficult to choose. Smaller gatherings take place for one day; larger ones like the one in the UK last several days.
Limmudniks, as they call themselves, sound almost cult-like when talking about the organization, which can attract thousands of people to each gathering.
“Limmud is what I hope is the future of Judaism, which is basically bringing together Jews of all types and all ages without focusing on the things which divide us, which are labels,” Israeli tour guide Joel Haber said. “When we look at our history, when we’ve been divided, we’ve fallen. It doesn’t matter where you are, what type of a Jew you are, we come together and that’s what I love about it.”
He was active in Limmud LA before making aliyah, and is currently active in Limmud Jerusalem. He also presented recently at Limmud Berlin.
Presenters are not paid for their time, although their flights and accommodations are covered. Gil Troy, an Israel-based historian and author of “The Zionist Ideas
,” says he is a big fan of Limmud.
“I love Limmud! I went with the whole family to England once and am returning this, ahem, Christmas,” he said. “One of my favorite things about Limmud was the food (years ago, I am sure it’s changed) – it was awful. Summer camp awful. But like summer camp, you didn’t care because it was all about the people, the vibe, the learning, the experience.”
He said that Limmud helps spread Jewish learning around the world.
“Limmud shows that even in the Age of Facebook, we remain the People of the Book – it’s as grassroots as Woodstock, as intense as yeshiva, as hip as Burning Man, as substantive as Oxford,” he said. “And the fact that these learning festivals are popping up all over the world shows how hungry modern Jews are for serious learning, how much you can rely on volunteerism and goodwill rather than big budgets, and, frankly, how many of our more formal, better-funded, institutions are letting us down, not giving us the quality, sophisticated, educational experiences we desire and deserve.”
Limmud recently brought dozens of volunteers from around the world to Israel to meet and network. Some, like Leon Fentster, a Beijing-based, British-born artist, live in small communities and help organize relatively small gatherings
For him, coming to Israel was an opportunity to connect with other Limmudniks and recharge his batteries. He has helped organize Limmud Beijing.
“Limmud plays a very important role in the building of new communities in Asia. As new communities we lack established institutions, but have a wealth of enthusiastic, adventurous Jews,” he said. “Limmud China reveals the talents, knowledge and vibrancy of our communities’ members. Because we are all far from home and building something new, it is not surprising that everyone has a story to tell.
Finding other Jews in China interested in Jewish learning is exciting, he said.
“The beautiful incongruity of it all adds to the excitement. Singing niggunim and baking challah in the shadow of the Great Wall, one senses that we are building a new frontier of Jewish life.”
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