SAN FRANCISCO — Journalist and author Lisa Alcalay Klug flew across the country this month to present at Limmud NY, the annual New York version of the worldwide Jewish learning extravaganza.
The Jan. 14-17 conference in upstate New York will be Klug’s seventh Limmud gathering in 12 months. Like the hundreds of other Limmud presenters whose paths she crosses, she doesn’t get paid for her time.
“I’ve met amazing people, developed new friendships and reinforced past relationships,” said Klug, who splits her time in California, New York and Israel. “My world has grown exponentially because of it.”
Limmud, which started out 30 years ago in Britain as a conference for professional Jewish educators and has burgeoned into the world’s largest network of gatherings promoting informal Jewish education, has become a creative and professional hub for presenters, some of whom have become regulars on the Limmud circuit.
More than 35,000 people took part in one of 55 Limmuds held last year from Siberia to South Africa, according to Limmud. As more branches opened in more countries – there are eight now in the United States alone – it has become a collaborative opportunity for musicians and visual artists, who meet at Limmud and begin working together.
Some performance acts formed for a Limmud event continued afterward, including Los Desterrados, a British band that sings in Ladino, and the klezmer-house dance mash-up project Ghettoplotz. Limmud gives writers an opportunity to promote their books and educators a chance to try out new topics. It also puts Jewish organizations in front of new audiences and potential donors.
Much has been written about Limmud’s impact on those who attend — the celebratory atmosphere, the array of learning opportunities, the radical egalitarianism of its all-volunteer structure that encourages participants to present and presenters to participate.
That was all intentional from the beginning, says Raymond Simonson, the project’s Britain-based executive director. But what he and other organizers didn’t foresee was how Limmud would become a networking tool for presenters.
Unlike most festivals and conferences, which tend to invite experts, anyone can apply to be a Limmud presenter — a big draw for inexperienced presenters and established professionals wanting to try out new material.
“We tell them, you don’t get money, but there’s an opportunity for people to have access to your merchandise,” said Karen Radkowsky, founding president of Limmud NY, which in 2005 became the first Limmud in the United States. “It’s an opportunity for them to be exposed to other thoughts and ideas. When they’re not giving their own presentations, they go to others.
“It’s very different from the GA, where you might fly in, speak, and then leave,” she said, referring to the annual General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America.
The Limmud structure facilitates this cross-pollination, says Uri Berkowitz, co-chair of Limmud International, which oversees all branches outside the UK. Last month, some 2,500 people went to Coventry, England, for the 30th anniversary Limmud Conference.
“Each Limmud is its own community, with a fresh audience, but they’re still part of the same family,” Berkowitz told JTA. “That’s why presenters can go from one to another. Now that there are enough of them, they’ll often know at least one or two other presenters, and can continue the conversations and collaborations.”
That’s what happened to Klug. In February 2009 she went to Limmud LA on her own dime to talk about her new book, “Cool Jew,” and was spotted by friendly spies from Limmud UK. They invited her to present at Warwick in December 2009, which led to invitations to Limmuds in Atlanta, Berlin, Amsterdam and Budapest. Next month she’ll be back at Limmud LA, then on to Winnipeg in March for that Canadian city’s first Limmud.
Limmud usually covers travel and accommodations for invited presenters but does not pay them for their presentation.
Klug’s experience is not atypical, according to Radkowsky. Core volunteers from the British, New York and Los Angeles Limmuds attend each other’s gatherings to poach presenters.
Arthur Kurzweil, a well-known genealogist, educator, magician and former book publisher, has presented at four Limmuds in New York and is headed to his first Limmud LA next month. Like Klug, he is an invited presenter. An experienced public speaker, Kurzweil gets more invitations than he can accept. Limmud is one to which he says yes.
“These are my people,” Kurzweil said. “It’s what I do. Limmud is one more great opportunity to teach and share my interests.”
Joel Chasnoff, a stand-up comedian and author of “The 188th Crybaby Brigade,” the story of his experience in the Israeli military, has presented four times at Limmud UK. Last year he led Limmud sessions in New York, Philadelphia and Atlanta, and this February he’s headed to Los Angeles.
“The first time I went, I had no idea what it was,” he said. “I love it. It’s like summer camp. In terms of the audience, I find them smart and interested in Jewish thought. They’re in tune with what I talk about.”
A number of Jewish organizations have latched onto Limmud as a way to present their message before a self-selected, motivated Jewish audience.
Marc Rosenberg directs One Aliyah, the singles and young professionals department of Nefesh B’Nefesh, which sponsors North American immigration to Israel. He’s presented at Limmud UK the past three years, and this year will be his second at the New York one.
“Since Limmud draws such a strong crowd from across the Jewish spectrum and Israel is a central topic, it seems a natural fit for our organization,” he told JTA. “By attending Limmud we are able to increase our exposure, tap into trends inside the community and answer anyone’s aliyah questions.
“It’s a great place to meet activists and information-seeking Jews,” agreed Ruth Messinger, president of the American Jewish World Service, who has presented or sent staffers to New York, Philadelphia, Colorado, Los Angeles and Boston, as well as Turkey and three Limmuds in South Africa.
“You can assume the people who choose your session are really interested in what you have to say. And we get to determine, or at least influence, the structure of the presentation, which is not true of most conferences.”
Best of all, Messinger added, “It’s fun.”