Guest Column by Edward Queen
Getting away for the Labor Day weekend conjures, for many, visions of beach, mountain or lake, cookouts, and football. For about 300 or so people this past Labor Day, it also meant a trip to the mountains.
We went seeking not merely the serenity of a hilltop retreat, which we got, but also an opportunity to spend four days and three nights engaged in Jewish learning, prayer, art, music and community. We found it at LimmudFest 2016 at Camp Ramah Darom.
An annual gathering organized by Limmud Atlanta+Southeast, LimmudFest brings together a remarkable spectrum of participants: Orthodox, Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, humanist, secular, seeking, Jewish Renewal and unaffiliated.
While the overwhelming majority of participants are recognized as Jews by at least one movement in the United States, non-Jews also attend. Most are either partners of Jews or individuals whose religious journey has begun to lead them on a Jewish path, but some are just there with friends and for the learning.
LimmudFest is families with children, singles, retirees, couples of all forms (the youngest attendee this year was 2 months old, while the oldest was 90) and seeks to create an engaged and welcoming environment where everyone is valued for what they help build and contribute to the shared learning and experience of the community.
At LimmudFest a Lubavitcher can unself-consciously describe his conversation with an out lesbian as simply “two Jews talking Yiddishkeit.”
The Limmud movement (limmud is Hebrew for “learning”) began in England in the 1970s and has spread throughout the world. The essence of Limmud is that it is a volunteer-driven movement (Limmud Atlanta+Southeast has one half-time paid administrative assistant) committed to the vision that everyone is a learner and everyone is a teacher.
Additionally, Limmud presenters receive no payment, and titles are not used. Everyone is there to share, to build and to grow.
Limmud came to Atlanta in 2008 and for several years was a one-day event held at Oglethorpe University before moving to a multiday event over Labor Day weekend at Ramah Darom. As one of the few multiday Limmud gatherings in the United States, LimmudFest has drawn the attention of individuals hoping to establish Limmud programs in other cities and countries and has become a model for programming throughout the Limmud world.
In fact, preceding this year’s LimmudFest, Limmud Atlanta+Southeast hosted representatives from several Limmuds in the United States and Canada to discuss the creation and structure of a Limmud North America umbrella organization.
LimmudFest is klal Yisrael at perhaps its best, a community engaged in learning, sharing, eating, drinking and talking. It is driven by dozens of volunteers, most in their 20s and early 30s, who spend hours planning the programming, organizing the davening, coordinating the schedule and handling the myriad of details the weekend requires.
Led ably by this year’s chairs, Sandrine Simons and Whitney Kweskin, the volunteers delivered a weekend of fun and meaning.
The learning at LimmudFest is intense, deep and eclectic. This year’s sessions addressed a diverse array of subjects and themes — contemporary and timely, historical and universal.
Several sessions took on the issues of mental illness and addiction in the Jewish community. Some sessions asked what makes a text sacred or cheese and wine kosher. Still others examined the history and halachah of Jews and agriculture, and yet others invited us to examine the daily life of the Safed kabbalists.
An entire series of sessions was dedicated to the topic of Zionism, including an examination of the founding documents of Zionism and the struggle within Zionism to define and create the new Jew to populate the restored homeland. We made cheese from goat’s milk and tallitot from duct tape while children and youths were engaged in their own camp within a camp.
We enjoyed Jewish-themed music from the Cohen Brothers Band and Joe Buchanan, whose roots and Americana-based songs gave us reflective and meaningful insights into Judaism and our religious journeys. And we laughed along with Amanda Marks, whose stand-up routine reflected on the life complexities of a modern Jewish woman.
We also prayed. Three formal minyanim, plus options incorporating yoga, chanting and nature walks. We said Kiddush and Motzi, and, yes, we joined with those who needed to say Kaddish.
We sang and talked. And we celebrated our Judaism and our Jewishness in all their forms and all their glories. We did it with joy, we did it with seriousness, and we did it together, a community where Jews of all beliefs, ages, colors, genders, families and commitments lived and learned together in joy and hope.
Edward Queen was a program co-chair at LimmudFest 2016.