Jan. 21, 2005
Insider Judaism

By URIEL HEILMAN
NEW YORK

Last weekend, some 650 or so Jews from metropolitan New York decamped to a resort in the Catskills for a weekend of earnest discussion, debate, reflection, celebration and even meditation on all matters Jewish.

For the price of a trip to Europe, you could go to frigid upstate New York in the dead of winter to attend Limmud NY, billed as "a conference, a festival, a gathering of hundreds of Jews from all walks of life, all Jewish backgrounds, all lifestyles, and all ages." Using that unique feature of modern Jewish life, the "session," Limmud offered courses on Jewish music, texts, holidays, history, current events, storytelling and community service.

But with a price tag of $450, the retreat inevitably drew a self-selective group of insiders-just the type you'd expect would choose to attend sessions like "How to create and lead your own Tu B'Shvat Seder," "The origins of ancient Israel in archeology," and "Where are the boundaries between liberal Orthodoxy and observant Conservativism, and does it really matter!?" than sun themselves on the beaches of Southern Europe or Latin America.

Not that there's anything wrong with that.

Limmud was full of well-meaning, high-minded Jews, from kippah-clad women with tzitzit dangling from their hips to, well, kippah-clad men with tzitzit dangling from their hips. Some Jewish organizational officials came, as did rabbis, journalists, scholars, authors and entertainers.

And though Limmud officials took pains to point out that the bulk of attendees were "just Jews," it was clear that these were people already very involved in Jewish life-whether as students, synagogue leaders or community activists. About 30 percent of those attending worked for a Jewish organization, about 48 percent were from Manhattan and more than a third hailed from the Upper West Side, a bastion of Jewish communal life.

That begged the question posed by one conference presenter, Peter Joseph, chairman of the board of the Jewish Community Center of Manhattan, also on the Upper West Side. "The big question is whether we've engaged new people, or whether we're engaging the same cast of characters," Joseph said.

Given the price tag, location, and background of attendees at the retreat, it's safe to say it was the latter.

"To imagine that someone who isn't involved in Jewish life at all would come away for three and a half days to be with 600 to 700 Jews is a little scary," acknowledged Abi Dauber, director of Limmud NY.

But if a Jewish learning retreat showcasing the diversity, depth and dynamism of American Judaism does not draw those who could learn most from it, then who will reach America's unengaged Jews?

American Jews will continue to decline in number, affiliation and religious identification so long as these unaffiliated and uninterested Jews are not brought into the fold.

Attracting them is no doubt a great challenge. So far, only Birthright Israel seems to have managed to come up with a formula for drawing unaffiliated Jews out of the woodwork, and it has had to offer free vacations to Israel to do that.

A Jewish retreat in New York's Hudson Valley clearly does not have the same cachet, but if American Jews don't do more in America to attract-or at least expose to Judaism-those Jews who know little to nothing about their Jewish heritage, then American Jews will continue to shrink in size and vibrancy.

For their part, American Jewish organizations seem ill-suited to tackle the challenge.

That was evident in a Limmud session called "The death of volunteerism in the Jewish community." Tellingly, conference presenters talked not about how to get Jews to volunteer their time to Jewish causes, but how to sustain their organizations financially.

This misplaced focus is typical among American Jewish groups. They are founded to promote a grand ideal, but as the years pass and the group evolves from a grass-roots effort into an established organization, the focus shifts away from sustaining the ideal and onto sustaining the organization.

Perhaps if American Jews went back to the basics and talked about why it is important to be Jewish, the money-and the unengaged Jews-would follow.

With demographic data showing American Jews continuing to abandon the millennia-old Jewish practice of passing on their Jewish heritage to their children, American Jewish groups need to articulate an attractive vision for why Jews should stay Jews.

Until they do that, insider retreats like Limmud will continue to be fun, educational and interesting-and mostly irrelevant.