When Jenna Citron’s family moved from Manalapan to Florida, she found herself one of six Jews in a high school of 3,500 students. “I think that was the moment of my life when I realized I was Jewish and that I was different,” Citron, who lives in Astoria, Queens, told NJJN by phone. “That forced me to figure out where I fit into the Jewish world. If I wanted Jewish friends, I had to be active.”
So she became a member of USY, the Conservative movement’s youth group, even though that meant a two-hour drive to meetings and events. And as a student at Florida State University in Tallahassee, she said, she learned “what it means to be a community builder”; with little organized Jewish activity on campus, “we had to build it ourselves.”
But even after a life steeped in Judaism — for two years she was Jewish student life director at Florida State before moving to New York in 2012 to become director of Jewish student life at Queens College Hillel — she said, “I really had a hard time figuring out where I fit in in a very large Jewish community.”
Then in 2013 one of the students at Hillel encouraged Citron to attend the Limmud NY Conference held in East Brunswick, and that’s where she found her Jewish home.
“It was the first time I went to a place and said, ‘That’s where I fit,’” she said.
Citron, now assistant director of Queens College Hillel, is cochair of this year’s 14th annual Limmud conference, subtitled “Jewish Learning Without Limits,” which will take place Friday-Monday, Feb. 16-19, at the Hyatt Regency Princeton. Her cochair is Ilana Gatoff, a teacher of English as a Second Language and social studies at The High School of Language and Innovation in the Bronx.
Citron remains committed to the open-mindedness she found at her first conference. “I wasn’t expected to think one way or another, to join or not join,” she said. Instead, she was encouraged to try out many different things and talk about them with other conference goers. Citron was previously the conference’s marketing chair in 2015 and 2016, and programming chair in 2017.
She said Limmud is “an opportunity not to have to make a hard choice about where you are, but have conversations about where you think you are and grapple with that in a space that’s not intimidating — nothing’s expected of you but to be a full participant.”
The event, she explained, attracts participants from across the spectrum in terms of age and denominational affiliation to grapple with important questions and learn new ways of exploring their Jewishness. It is driven almost entirely by volunteers who not only provide ideas and vision but also make things happen. The conference committee starts planning the summer before each year’s conference by asking friends and stakeholders to answer the question: What keeps you awake at night in the Jewish community in New York, good and bad?
The responses are used to develop five “essential questions” to serve as scaffolding for the conference, “a way for you to guide your experience,” Citron said. This year’s questions focus on disagreement in Jewish life, innovation, and tradition in Jewish practice; the value of Jewish learning; one’s responsibility to the Jewish people and the world; and the intersection of diverse identities in creating Jewish life and culture. The 300 or so conference sessions are connected broadly to these questions, and separate panels offer diverse answers to each one.
Citron — as part of the panel treating the question, “How do our diverse identities intersect to create Jewish life and culture, and what impact does this have on our communities?” — will look at struggles faced by Jewish women in leadership. Her three copanelists, representing diverse experiences within the Jewish community, will be Manashe Khaimov, a Bukharian American and Sephardi-Mizrachi Jew, who will share what it means to be a first-generation Jewish American and a minority in the Jewish community; H. Alan Scott, who will share his experience as a Jew by choice; and Yehudah Webster, who will talk about being a Jew of color.
Conference attendees this year will also have opportunities to attend classes with well-known teachers like Steven Greenberg, senior educator for CLAL, a faculty member at the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, and director of Eshel, an LBGT support, education, and advocacy organization; Elie Kaunfer, CEO of Mechon Hadar; Gary Rosenblatt, editor and publisher of The Jewish Week; and Jonathan Sarna, professor of American-Jewish history at Brandeis University and chief historian of the National Museum of American Jewish History.
At Limmud, said its executive director, Daniel Infeld, “we are not just bringing together people who are different from each other — we believe that the act of sitting down and learning together is a transformative process, because in learning together, we are going to engage with each other in ways we wouldn’t otherwise.”
Limmud also offers a range of prayer opportunities, from traditional and partnership Orthodox services to yoga, and even conversation groups in lieu of formal worship.
Infeld said, “With Reform and Orthodox services across the hall from each other, it makes it really easy for people to explore new ideas and different ways of participating in Jewish life, and to find what they are comfortable with.”
“What’s special about Limmud is striking that balance between what’s personally comfortable for me and what I used to do and finding places where I can learn new things and push myself in different ways,” Infeld said.
Citron said that one particular area of concern for her — finding ways to grapple with important issues and ideas respectfully despite deep disagreement — will be tackled in another panel. Such disagreements can involve challenging Jewish communal norms. “I see Limmud as a space to be free to make those challenges without the constraints of an institution that has a single set of beliefs,” she said.
Citron is looking forward to taking part in such discourses, she said, “because everyone is going in for having arguments for the sake of heaven, not for the sake of winning, so we have deep and meaningful conversations.”