What first attracted Rob Kistenberg to his wife Amy were her chickens. When they first met, they were both attending the annual LimmudFest, a long weekend of Jewish learning and outdoor living that is held at the Camp Ramah Darom retreat center in the North Georgia mountains over Labor Day weekend.
“I was interested in having chickens and she had backyard chickens. So I went over to her house, met her chickens and here we are.”
Six years later they live on a quiet cul-de-sac street in Chamblee near the Peachtree-DeKalb airport. They are proud parents of a 4-year-old son and eight chickens, and they are still are big fans of Limmud.
On a recent Sunday afternoon last month about two dozen people crowded into their home to hear how couples like the Kistenbergs can have a strong Jewish home life, and a strong attachment to nature.
“I feel like I’ve always been very close to nature,” Rob Kistenberg said. “I think you can find that kind of spirituality and attachment to your religion anywhere in nature. You can find your faith anywhere.”
On their nearly ¾-acre property, they have a chicken coop with a solar-powered door to allow their chickens space to roam, two massive beehives and room for the herb seedlings that Any raises for the garden at Ramah Darom.
The Sunday afternoon with the Kistenbergs is part of an effort to diversify Limmud’s programs and make them more personal. According to Adina Rudisch the Southeast director of Limmud, the organization wants to expand its reach beyond once-a-year “marquee” events to create learning opportunities throughout the year.
It’s an idea that has gained greater urgency in recent weeks as the effects of the coronavirus pandemic take hold.
“During this time when everything around us appears to be changing, Limmud in Atlanta and in the Southeast is also getting its bearings and finding new ways to be flexible in order to better meet the needs of our Jewish community in Atlanta and beyond,” Rudisch said.
On March 29, the North American Limmud organization and its 19 regional affiliates, including the one in Atlanta, held what they called their first ever EFestival, a five-hour online educational program.
Participants had a choice of 50 one-hour learning opportunities in subjects that ranged from the ethical Jewish questions posed by toilet paper hoarding to what was described as a “cholera wedding – a magical ritual to end an epidemic.”
The virtual program, like all Limmud programs, including the annual event at Ramah Darom, was run entirely by volunteers under the broad principles that have made Limmud one of the biggest success stories in the Jewish world over the past 40 years.
There are now over 80 communities in 43 countries on six continents that have active Limmud Jewish learning groups. All of them are non-denomination and intensely democratic. Among the basic principal they follow is that no one is more important than anyone else and everyone should be a student and anyone can be a teacher.
According to Leslie Anderson, the Limmud Atlanta & Southeast board member, much of the appeal of the organization is its inclusiveness.
“What I love about Limmud is that there’s something for everybody,” she said. “It allows you to define what Jewishness is to you. And that it offers an entry point, no matter how you define that connection to Judaism.”
Anderson, who is also executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Atlanta, spent a lively afternoon tramping through the Kistenberg’s backyard. She hung out on a pleasant spring day with the chickens and the bees and reflected on her love for Limmud and Judaism.
“Limmud takes you in new ways that you may not have even anticipated or thought about before, because you just thought it was just this way. In fact, there’s this whole wonderful world of learning and living available to you.”
For now, Limmud Atlanta’s main event, LimmudFest, is on the schedule at Ramah Darom for Labor Day weekend, Sept. 4-7. The organizers of the event are confident that when and if the event takes place, everyone will have much to celebrate.