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Eat, pray, learn
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Eat, pray, learn

At a performance on the last night of Limmud NY, emcee Molly Livingstone had only to mention the words “New Jersey” to get a laugh from her audience. We’re used to this: As Conan O’Brien once said, “The results of a new study are out this week saying that New Jersey is one of the most livable states in the country. The study has a margin of error of 100 percent.”

You can blame New York snobbery or the New Jersey Turnpike, but ours is the little brother of major states, desperate to be taken seriously but kicked around by its big brothers and the cool kids. But for at least one weekend, the cool kids came to New Jersey, filling the Hilton East Brunswick with four days of Jewish study, prayer, performances, and conversation. Limmud NY’s decision to hold its annual conference in New Jersey over the Presidents’ Day weekend apparently paid off: The conference sold out and the reviews were excellent.

Admittedly, informal Jewish study is not everybody’s idea of cool. And “kids” in no way describes the wide mix of ages represented by the Limmud crowd. And yet Limmud feels young and innovative in ways that other Jewish gatherings usually don’t. For every veteran of the synagogue “scholar-in-residence” circuit there’s a 20- or 30-something entrepreneur discussing a new idea in Jewish organizing or giving.

This was my third Limmud (counting the UK version I attended last December). As usual, themes emerge, although because there are dozens of simultaneous sessions given by people from a range of Jewish, political, and professional backgrounds, your mileage may vary. This time I noticed a lot of discussion of Israel and the Diaspora — historical attitudes toward them, current relations between them.

Rabbi Ethan Tucker of Mechon Hadar set the stage with a close reading of the work of the 19th-century rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin. The long-standing argument in Jewish history, said Tucker, is between those who think the Diaspora was a 2,000-year distraction from the real work of nationhood, and those who think that the genius of Judaism is its portability. The “Natziv” suggested, instead, that Jewish wandering was essential in both spreading the Torah’s message as well as in preparing the Jews for the return to Zion.

Rabbi Daniel Gordis, the prolific American educator and author who moved to Israel 15 years ago, also spoke about the tug between Israel and the Diaspora. Israel’s gift to the world, he said, is a reminder that nationhood matters. Peoples are able to express themselves most fully in a land to which they have an emotional attachment and in which they can take full responsibility for their politics and culture. Here Gordis quoted Rousseau: Only when Jews have a free state, he wrote, “shall we know what exactly they have to say.”

That extends to Palestinians as well, Gordis acknowledged, although he said he doubted that even the youngest person in the room would live to see a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

In a Saturday night panel discussion, four veterans of the Israeli-Diaspora conversation debated the right and wisdom of Diaspora Jews to criticize the decisions of an Israeli government. Historian Deborah Lipstadt urged American Jews to raise their voices, especially in defense of religious pluralism. Steven Bayme of the American Jewish Committee said the issue had long been settled in favor of those who would criticize Israel, but defended the decision by the Jewish establishment to seek consensus when lobbying the powers that be.

Things got heated when an audience member demanded to know why American Jews were “silent” during the evacuation of the Gaza settlements. Bayme patiently explained that Jewish leaders deferred to the Israeli government on a security matter, and other panelists pointed out that the majority of Jews agreed with the policy in the first place.

The Jewish relationship to land — or better, The Land — also was central to a discussion of religious calendars by British educator and raconteur Clive Lawton. There isn’t really an American-Jewish figure quite like Lawton. A founder of the entire Limmud enterprise, he has been a principal of a Jewish high school, a BBC presenter, and a director of municipal education in Liver pool. He also looks a bit like Jesus, right down to the sandals (and had Jesus been allowed to go gray).

Lawton noted how the Jewish year aligns with the agricultural seasons in Israel. However, ours is also the only religious calendar that calculates the year according to the creation of the world — and not according to a milestone in the calendar makers’ own history. The implication — both that we are particular and that all peoples have a share in creation — is a profound lesson for Jews and non-Jews alike.

There was no reconciling these tensions — between Israel and the Diaspora, the particular and the universal. But that’s the beauty of Limmud. Because the conference has no other agenda than Torah lishma — learning for its own sake — participants are free to dream of ways of bringing what they learned back home, instead of reaching for an elusive “consensus” or passing a policy platform.

It’s a little like that old state tourism slogan: New Jersey, Come See For Yourself.

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