It is clearly only a coincidence that two major conferences are drawing crowds to Philadelphia this weekend, but when analyzed together, they speak volumes about where we and our community are today.
The convergence of the second annual LimmudPhilly, billed as a "learningfest," with a gathering of international scholars of the Holocaust and the Church, to be held at Saint Joseph's University, may at first glance appear to have little in common. One focuses on our painful history, the other our promising future. One is the purview of high-level academics, the other intentionally reaches out to the masses; no prior experience required.
LimmudPhilly, taking place Saturday night through Sunday at the Gershman Y, is the local manifestation of one of the most dynamic enterprises in Jewish life today. Launched three decades ago as a grassroots operation in England, the concept has spread like wildfire. Interestingly, Central and Eastern European nations, craving Jewish programming to reignite largely assimilated communities, were among the first to catch on to the idea of bringing together Jews across the political and religious divide for volunteer-led workshops that focused on everything from martial arts to Talmud study.
It took a little longer for Limmud to reach American shores, in part because non-traditional Jewish learning opportunities were already de riguer in many of our major metropolitan centers. But the concept of reaching out to all, especially unaffiliated, younger Jews, was too enticing to ignore. Soon, even Los Angeles and New York were boasting their own brand of Limmud.
Locally, the late Annabel Lindy returned so inspired from a Limmud gathering in Germany that she made it happen here. Today, in Philly as elsewhere, the grassroots leadership is partnering with the establishment. The Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia is a major sponsor of the event. It's a win-win for all.
The real power of Limmud lies in its pluralistic nature. The idea of multiple learning, with teachers and students from all backgrounds, shows that pluralism "is not a dilution but the opposite; it deepens the learning and growth of all those involved," in the words of Rabbi Irving Greenberg, the New York-based thinker and scholar.
Greenberg won't be at Limmud this weekend but he will be keynoting the final event at the Holocaust scholars' conference. For him, the same pluralistic principles that bind Jews at Limmud play a critical role in Jewish-Catholic relations when scholars confront historically painful issues related to the Church's view of Judaism and its role during the Holocaust.
In both spheres, we see the growth of new, refreshing Jewish sensibilities: the willingness to cross the divide, to stake out opportunities for learning, to explore uncharted -- and often challenging -- terrain in an intellectually honest and pluralistic way.