From October to mid-December I worked part time for LimmudNY. Since mid-December, it’s been a full-time occupation. I’ve made copies, field angry phone calls, fielded confused phone calls, registered people for the conference over the phone, co-ordinated our wonderful volunteers, handed out money to our student fellows, and done just about everything else that happens behind the scenes that no one else wanted to do. And I’ve loved it.
LimmudNY is the oldest American extension of the the nearly thirty-year-old British conference called Limmud. It is a grass-roots, fiercly independent move amongst Jews across the spectrum to connect for a weekend at a time all over the world to learn together and experience Jewish culture together. There are now Limmud conferences in the UK, Argentina, Atlanta, LA, Toronto, Chicago, Philly, Turkey, Israel, South Africa, France, Australia, Colorado, and at least a half-dozen other places.
I went last year as an ordinary participant and it was a life-changing experience, opening my eyes to the possibility for Jewish practice that exist in the grey spaces between denominational Judaism.
This year was the fifth LimmudNY and it looked to be our best. 900 people registered and our presenters included the heads of at least four major Rabbinical schools, which is a bit of a coup. Our volunteers worked for a full year to prepare the conference. For the first time, LimmudNY would be returning to the same hotel for a second year. Last year, the Nevele Grand Hotel and Resort, a sort of molding relic of the Borscht Belt, was nostalgic, if dingy. It was not the prettiest hotel in the world, but nothing went wrong.
This year, as I headed up to conference with a group of our volunteers, volunteers and staff members already on-site alerted us to the fact that the boiler at the Nevele was broken, but that is was being fixed. That was Thursday morning.
By 3am on Friday morning, we were all still awake and pretty freaked out. It looked as though the boiler would not get fixed in time for most of our participants to arrive on Friday and we weren’t about to put people up in a cold hotel. That night, we had shuttled the participants who paid for the four-night option, which begins on Thursday night, to a hotel next door, the Falls View. While they went to bed in a warm hotel, a very testy group of Steering Committee members, Board members, and staff members gathered in a hotel room heated by a couple of space heaters to discuss whether or not to cancel the conference. A major concern was Shabat, of course. If we decided to cancel at noon on Friday, would people have time to get home before Shabat? It was the most difficult meeting I’ve sat through.
But we trudged ahead. We communicated regularly to participants about the progress all day on Friday via e-mail and once via robocall. We kept preparing while wearing five layers of clothing. It was 7 degrees out and only maybe 35 inside. But we kept on. Some people didn’t come and other left after having come for a only a few hours or half a day. Those who chose to leave, we helped to leave.
There was one crisis after another all weekend. The programming team had to re-arrange rooms constantly to fit as many sessions as we could into the rooms that were bearably heated.
And the people who stayed the whole weekend are the most jazzed people I’ve ever seen. The prospect of Limmud being cancelled was the most saddening thing I’d ever heard. By the this harrowing fifth LimmudNY was over, I think most were able to depart in good spirits, with a renewed commitement to this amazing organization.
As we packed up on Monday afternoon, the hotel was finally warm all over and you could tell due to the unexpected water features appearing all over the decrepit hotel. As ice in the hotel melted, impromptu waterfalls sprang forth from the ceiling all over.
The best image I have of this disastrously wonderful weekend is the following: Most participants had already been shipped off to the Falls View, the hotel next door for Thursday night. Perhaps 20 or so were left in the frigid lobby, awaiting room assignment. A fairly typical looking chasidic guy, Josh Alpert, stage name Mr. Shabbos, whipped out his banjo and began playing Jewish songs on it and singing. People danced and sang along. And it looked as though, despite everything, Limmudnyks will be Limmudnyks and Limmud would go on.
Long live LimmudNY! Rest in peace, Nevele.