Christine Cotter / Los Angeles Times
Maayan Weitzman, 8, holds a candle during the Havdalah ceremony, marking the end of the Sabbath, at the LimmudLA conference in Costa Mesa. At the conference, Jews of all stripes come together for three days to learn from one another and from sacred texts.

Bible, yoga and YouTube: all part of Jewish identity

LimmudLA
Christine Cotter / Los Angeles Times
Maayan Weitzman, 8, holds a candle during the Havdalah ceremony, marking the end of the Sabbath, at the LimmudLA conference in Costa Mesa. At the conference, Jews of all stripes come together for three days to learn from one another and from sacred texts.
At LimmudLA conference in Costa Mesa, Jews gather to teach one another about the personal ways they relate to their faith.
By Ari B. Bloomekatz
February 16, 2009
To start their morning Sunday, about 20 Jews attended a Mechitza Minyan service in a ballroom of a Costa Mesa hotel, praying in Hebrew, with separate seating for men and women.

A few doors down, a group wearing sweat pants and T-shirts began their day by breathing deeply and twisting their bodies in a class titled "My Body, My Temple: Yoga for the Jewish Soul."

 
A couple of hours later, a third group engaged in a discussion about Israel's national security agenda.

The sessions, part of the second annual LimmudLA conference, brought more than 700 Jews together over the weekend to learn from each other and from their sacred texts. The idea behind Limmud -- a Hebrew word that means "learning" -- is to break down barriers that often divide Jews of different religious affiliations.

"The goal was to get people to own their own Jewish experience in the context of building a Jewish community where everyone comes together regardless of their denominations," said Shep Rosenman, an entertainment lawyer who founded LimmudLA and is a co-chair of this year's event. "The vehicle we use is Jewish learning, but not only classic Bible study."

The approach resonated with Ida Unger, a yoga instructor from Tujunga who led one of the morning classes.

"There's a diversity of spiritual practice within modern Judaism, and coming here to this conference, it's an opportunity to get a taste of many, many different things," Unger said.

The first Limmud conference took place in England about 25 years ago; it was brought to Los Angeles last year after a group attended a similar conference in New York, according to organizers. There are about 40 Limmud groups around the world, they said.

The local Limmud gathering began Friday and continues through today, with about 150 people presenting material on Jewish topics ranging from the upcoming Birkat HaHammah, a ritual blessing for the sun once every 28 years, to a performance by Matisyahu, an Orthodox Jewish reggae singer.

Although most of the conference participants came from Southern California, some traveled from other states, as well as Mexico, England and Israel.

"It's been an amazing weekend. It's very relaxed, and you're meeting all these new people from different areas and different parts of Judaism," said Ari Averbach, 25, who works with Los Angeles-based Jewish World Watch, an organization focused on ending genocide.

Averbach said he shared his own views at the conference, but also tried new things.

"It's a very safe place," he said. "I usually go to a Conservative service, but I decided to go to an Orthodox service" at the conference, he said.

Most of the conference sessions were rooted in Jewish traditions with modern adaptations and messages.

At a session titled "What Inspires Me: Musicians," Brooklyn folk-rock singer Michelle Citrin played guitar and sang a song called "Someday." Citrin, who has earned a measure of fame as "Rosh Hashanah Girl" for her YouTube videos "I Gotta' Love You Rosh Hashanah" and "20 Things to Do With Matzah," said the song was influenced by a famous saying from the Talmudic sage Hillel. The chorus goes: "Someday I'm gonna make it happen, but if not now, then when."

Citrin said her purpose "is to make this ancient wisdom accessible."

At a session led by writer Tom Fields-Meyer, participants chose a lesson they had learned at the conference and wrote a summary of it at the center of a blank piece of paper. The lessons were passed to other participants, who jotted comments and responses in the margins, mimicking a page of the Talmud, which features commentaries from prominent Jewish scholars.

Roy Schwartz, a 38-year-old musician and salesman who lives in Mar Vista, wrote: "There is a community larger than the one I allow myself to be part of in Los Angeles."

Another person responded by adding: "And why would you allow yourself to be part of this L.A. community? Does it matter that it is larger?"

A third followed up by writing: "Yes, but even our own L.A. community is so big. I barely know my own -- the Orthodox community -- let alone the wider L.A. community. It would be great to branch out and make more connections. . . . We can learn a lot from one another."

Avram Mandell, 36, who also attended last year's LimmudLA conference, said he enjoys the opportunity to connect both with Jews who are strictly Orthodox and those who affiliate with other denominations.

"We're all having lunch together, talking about Judaism and movies," Mandell said. "It's an amazing experience that you just can't have anywhere else in terms of the people you're exposed to and the learning. No one's name tag says 'doctor' or 'rabbi.' Just their name."

ari.bloomekatz@latimes.com




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