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Getting to Know Judaism Without an Agenda

Republished: November 1, 2010

Limmud NY is a four-day Jewish festival that takes place every year Martin Luther King Weekend in the Catskills. I first discovered Limmud when I was invited to perform there a few years ago in a theatre production I created called Love and Israel.

Love and Israel was my attempt to make sense of my relationship with Israel--particularly as it related to pursuing human love relationships. The result was a collection of monologues by different authors, performed by a group of actors including me.

In my monologue "The Great Israel Love Triangle," I talk about how when I moved to New York after living in Tel Aviv, it was important to me that any love interest I'd have would understand my love for Israel. Here's a line that often got a laugh: "I'd go on dates with perfectly acceptable Jewish guys who'd say things like, 'I have no desire to ever go to Israel.' It's like telling me my baby's ugly. How could I get involved with someone who would say such a thing?"

Israeli band plays Limmud
An Israeli jazz band plays Limmud NY 2007.

Well, these days the joke's on me. You see, for nearly two years now, I've been happily dating my boyfriend Mark who is not Jewish and "has no desire to ever go to Israel."

Before Mark I never imagined I'd date someone who wasn't Jewish. But, after living in Israel for nine years, I often say I feel like I'm "Jewish enough for everyone." The fact that he doesn't want to go Israel also isn't a problem for me. It seems that after getting Love and Israel out of my system, I don't feel the need to go Israel anytime soon. Besides creative catharsis, the other thing that contributed to me "getting over" Israel is Limmud NY.

When I first heard about Limmud NY, I was skeptical. It sounded like a good place to perform Love and Israel--1,000 Jews in a hotel in the Catskills. But beyond that I couldn't imagine why I'd be interested. What I didn't expect was the feeling I had the moment I got there. I felt like I was in Israel.

Just as I was in Israel, at Limmud NY I was totally immersed in a Jewish environment. Everything at Limmud is Jewish in content, or examined through a Jewish lens. There are more 300 sessions to choose from--up to 15 at any given moment-- including lectures, open forums on hot topics, music, film, yoga and crafts. Even during the Friday night/Saturday morning time slot when the conference offers Shabbat services, there are several non-service options for people who aren't into prayer. There's also an indoor pool, an ice skating rink and a café where you can meet new friends, network and of course eat.

Everything at Limmud NY is organized and run by community of hundreds of volunteers. One of the reasons I moved to Israel was that I wanted to be part of something bigger than myself. When I lived in Tel Aviv, I felt like everything I did had a higher meaning because I was doing it in Israel. I immediately asked how I could get involved with Limmud for the following year.

I joined the programming team and helped bring over a friend from Israel to talk about her center for at-risk youth in Jerusalem. I also got to invite the rabbi from my synagogue to speak about "Gonzo Judaism." I even presented two sessions myself--one about marketing and the other about doing what you love for a living. I had a great time at Limmud NY and came back and told Mark all about it. He thought it sounded fun and wanted to go the next year.

This year I got even more involved as co-chair of marketing and outreach. In getting started marketing the festival, I met with a long-time volunteer who talked about the different people he'd like to see more of at Limmud NY. When he mentioned interfaith couples and families, I stopped him.

I knew Mark was planning to come to Limmud. And I knew other volunteers who were either dating or married to non-Jewish people who had come to Limmud NY in the past--and were coming back this year. I knew another long-time volunteer who had converted to Judaism and liked that she could take a leadership role in this emerging Jewish community. But, I wanted to know why Limmud NY wanted people who are not Jewish to come to Limmud?

Yoga at Limmud
A yoga class at Limmud NY 2007.

I was bracing for the kind of answer that creeps me about being Jewish--something to do with reversing the rising intermarriage rate, the importance of raising children to be Jewish or anything to do with "Jewish continuity." But his answer was nothing like that.

"I want people who aren't Jewish to experience what I would want anyone who is Jewish who comes to Limmud to experience. I want them to see the huge variety of ways people connect to being Jewish," he said.

I thought to myself, "Now that's exactly kind of Jewish organization I want to be involved in." I am not in the business of changing people, and it is not my intention to get Mark or anyone else to become Jewish. I like that Mark can come with me to Limmud NY just because he wants to be there. I like that he doesn't have to have any specific agenda in coming to Limmud NY, and he can feel comfortable knowing that Limmud NY doesn't have a specific agenda for him.

[Updated] The annual Limmud NY festival will take place January 14-17, 2011, at the Hudson Valley Resort in upstate, N.Y. There are also many opportunities to get involved in Limmud NY throughout the year. For more information about Limmud NY and to register for this year's festival, go to: www.limmudny.org or call (212) 284-6968. 

Derived from the Greek word for "assembly," a Jewish house of prayer. Synagogue refers to both the room where prayer services are held and the building where it occurs. In Yiddish, "shul." Reform synagogues are often called "temple." The Jewish Sabbath, from sunset on Friday to nightfall on Saturday. Hebrew for "my master," the term refers to a spiritual leader and teacher of Torah. Often, but not always, a rabbi is the leader of a synagogue congregation.
Sissy Block

Sissy Block is a writer, performer and marketing professional living in the West Village in New York City. She is the co-creator of Love and Israel, a theatre production that explores different people's personal relationships with Israel.

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