Limmud learnathon offers some salve for a bloodied Jerusalem

From feminist stand-up to hardcore Jewish text study, slew of study sessions strive to bring estranged communities together

Elhanan Miller is the former Arab affairs reporter for The Times of Israel

Presenters speak to their audience at Limmud Jerusalem, May 22, 2012 (courtesy/Warren Burstein)
Presenters speak to their audience at Limmud Jerusalem, May 22, 2012 (courtesy/Warren Burstein)

Jerusalem, its residents and advocates will readily admit, can often be a difficult place. Israel’s ethnically and religiously diverse capital has erupted in tragic violence more than once, this summer being no exception. But an international Jewish conference is returning to the capital this month, and is hoping to offer a respite from conflict.

One thing Jerusalem doesn’t lack is Jewish learning opportunities. From Orthodox batei midrash to secular yeshivas, the city seems to provide a space for every intellectual or spiritual flavor. What is more difficult to come by, the organizers of Limmud Jerusalem argue ahead of a conference August 27-28, is a framework for all these streams to come together under one roof. Limmud’s unique pluralism can go a long way in bridging the city’s divides, they say.

A grassroots Jewish learning movement founded in the United Kingdom in 1980 as a teachers training conference, Limmud now takes place in 80 Jewish communities and 40 countries worldwide. Operating according to a unique model in which volunteers (including this writer) both help organize events and present their own sessions to participants, Limmud gatherings have long been happening across Israel, from the Arava region in the southern Negev Desert to the Galilee in the far north. But only once before has Limmud come to intellectually saturated Jerusalem, in the spring of 2012.

Nadia Levene, co-chairperson of Limmud Jerusalem, says the religiously motivated stabbing at Jerusalem’s pride parade on July 30 — and the apparently nationalistic fatal firebombing at a Palestinian home in the village of Duma the following day — highlight the need for a space in which Jerusalem residents can unite around culture and intellectual vigor.

Participants gather at Limmud Jerusalem in 2012 courtesy/Rocco Giansante
Participants gather at Limmud Jerusalem in 2012 (courtesy Rocco Giansante)

“Especially now, I feel we all need to come together, learn about our similarities and discuss our differences,” Levene says. “It’s a grassroots attempt to find solutions amid the hatred and animosity plaguing the various sectors of Jerusalem.”

The only agenda of the conference, Levene adds, is “the greater good of Jerusalem and its people.”

The word limmud means learning in Hebrew, and Levene hopes the event will show that there are many different ways to learn. Indeed, Limmud’s provisional itinerary promises to showcase the best of the city’s creative energy: from a session on the new concept of female Orthodox rabbis to a guided tour of landmarks along Jerusalem’s light rail line.

Maya Boodaie-Freedman, 31, decided to offer her feminist stand-up comedy show in Hebrew after seeing Limmud’s call for presentations on Facebook. A high school civics teacher, she said Limmud is a well-known institution in Jerusalem’s world of Jewish revival, to which she belongs.

Maya Boodaie-Freedman preforms feminist stand-up comedy in Jerusalem, April 2014 courtesy/Elior Ben Haim
Maya Boodaie-Freedman preforms feminist stand-up comedy in Jerusalem, April 2014 (courtesy/Elior Ben Haim)

“Humor is an essential part of our culture,” Boodaie-Freedman says. “It serves both as escapism and entertainment, especially at a horrible time like now, but beyond that it also has a healing and educating function. The things we choose to laugh at, and the way we laugh at them, can help rehabilitate and unite us.”

Some would dub Jerusalem a pluralistic society while others would say it’s fragmented, she notes. “What’s for certain is that we’re very diverse. This eclectic group can laugh together, both at each other and at ourselves.”

Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo, dean of the David Cardozo Academy in Jerusalem, is a veteran Limmud presenter. An Orthodox rabbi, Cardozo said he habitually takes advantage of Limmud’s diverse presenter body to challenge his own worldview.

“I go to listen to people I do not agree with, but who have a lot of very important things to say which I learn from,” Cardozo says. “I often do that at the beginning of Limmud, so that later on, when I speak, I’m able to respond.”

“That’s very special about Limmud, and as far as I know you don’t find it anywhere else,” he says.

This summer, Lopes Cardozo will speak about the concept of divine revelation in the writings of 17th century Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza and 18th century Hassidic rebbe Menachem Mendel of Rimanov. He said that the question of the origins and authenticity of the Torah is on the minds of many religious and nonreligious Jews today.

Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo courtesy/Nathan Lopes Cardozo
Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo courtesy/Nathan Lopes Cardozo

“Spinoza was an outstanding thinker, but had it wrong on Jewish tradition,” says Lopes Cardozo, himself a Dutch Jew, promising to elaborate further in his talk. “The Limmud audience generally struggles with its Jewish identity, so this topic is central for them.”

Yiscah Smith, a Jerusalem-based educator and “spiritual activist and mentor,” will offer a less intellectual session titled “Getting to know you, aka getting to know me.” Using the late Michael Rosen’s 2008 book “The Quest for Authenticity: The Thought of Reb Simhah Bunim” as her textual framework, Smith will utilize the writings of 18th century Hasidic thinker Simcha Bunim of Peshischa to discuss her own “spiritual journey,” marked by her gender transition in 2001.

“If there’s any place that can inspire about being honest and being authentic, about being real about oneself, I would think it’s Jerusalem,” Smith says.

Jerusalem’s holiness, coupled with its strong creative energy inspired Smith to write her 2014 memoir “Forty Years in the Wilderness: My Journey to Authentic Living,” she says.

Jerusalem-based educator Yiscah Smith (courtesy/Yiscah Smith)
Jerusalem-based educator Yiscah Smith (courtesy/Yiscah Smith)

“The world today, for the most part, does not really support people being true to themselves,” she says. “Much of Western culture, instead of promoting diversity, promotes a homogeneous type of living where it’s more important that your neighbors like what you’re doing than you believe that what you’re doing has an integrity to it.”

Smith was elated by the sense of spiritual revival she encountered at Jerusalem’s pride parade last month, just moments before Yishai Schlissel pulled out his knife and began stabbing marchers.

A group of women belonging to the lesbian religious group Bat Kol began distributing packets of Shabbat candles at the parade, Smith says. “I was remarking to some of my students that not only is this a pride parade, but it’s really celebrating light. Literally. No more than 20 seconds later, we started hearing sirens and seeing policemen galloping on horses.”

“It was divinely ordained that in the middle of all this light there be this darkness,” she says. “For me, it was less about LGBT as such and much more about being immersed with a group of people celebrating authentic living. The status quo of any group is not a way of authentic living, which is everything Reb Simhah Bunim talked about.”

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