In September, the Public Religion Research Institute put out a comprehensive study on the changing landscape of religion in America. Among its many intriguing findings, the report revealed that Seattle has the highest rate of people who don’t affiliate with any religion (40 percent). This statistic shouldn’t turn any heads. Seattle (followed by Portland at 39 percent and San Francisco at 37 percent) has always been known as religiously lacking, an apparent terminus for those running from the constraints of dogma.
Over the years, dozens of programs and organizations have been introduced to attempt to cure “affiliationitis,” with a spotty rate of success. However, affiliationitis is only one strain of a multivalent virus: For ages, Seattle Jewish leaders have attempted to connect the communities entrenched in their own neighborhoods, denominations, and political preferences. Success has been episodic.
Can Limmud be the thing that breaks the pattern? Scheduled for Martin Luther King Jr. weekend next month, Limmud Seattle will feature dozens of learning, conversation, and activity sessions. Speakers billed include Gefilteria cofounders Liz Alpern and Jeffrey Yoskowitz; the Orthodox feminist scholar Blu Greenberg and her theologian husband, Rabbi Yitz Greenberg; and former Knesset member and Talmud PhD Ruth Calderon.*
Started in 1980 in the United Kingdom for Jewish educators, Limmud (“learning”) evolved into a volunteer-led conference with events around the world. Forty-four countries across six continents have hosted Limmud conferences, including Hong Kong, India, and Peru — the latter of which wound up with 400 participants. Limmud has found notable achievement in the former Soviet Union, where young Jews have only recently been connecting to their Jewish identity.
At the helm in Seattle are Robert Hovden and Deb Arnold, a business school graduate ball of energy with cropped bleached-blonde hair. Arnold caught the Limmud bug back in 2011 when she attended one in the UK. “The experience was unlike anything I’d ever had,” she says. “It’s like being in a big, beautiful Jewish bubble with 3,000 people who want to be in the bubble. You enter this Jewish universe where all day, every day, you can have Jewish experiences. You could go to text study, or you could go hear a band from France.”
Arnold hopes that Limmud Seattle, which will take place at the Shoreline Conference Center Saturday night and Sunday, January 13–14, will draw as many as 450 people from all over the community to a range of sessions in tracks that include Torah and philosophy; Jewish justice, ethics, and activism; mindfulness and meditation; arts, eats, and culture; and Israel, as well as musical performances, sing-alongs, and possibly even a Jewish escape room. She recognizes that Limmud can’t reach everyone but hopes she’ll get as much of the bell curve as possible. “When you come to Limmud, it’s like a bulb lights up,” she says. “What’s going to light it up is different for everyone.” Arnold is optimistic that Limmud can pull the corners of the community together. “Once people see that it’s possible to come together and remain true to our identity while experiencing Jewish unity, I think that they’re going to have an appetite for more.” If all goes well, this will be the first annual Limmud Seattle.
Limmud is guided by a comprehensive list of values encouraging participation, empowerment, respect, mutual responsibility, religious inclusivity, and arguments for the sake of heaven. “That’s what Limmud is about — people coming together to explore Judaism, and every person’s way is completely legitimate,” Arnold says. “There are too few ways to do that in Seattle.”
Limmud Seattle takes place January 13-14, 2018 at the Shoreline Conference Center, 18560 First Ave. NE, Shoreline.
To learn more and to register for Limmud Seattle, visit limmudseattle.org. Tickets are $36–$72.
*Yitz and Blu Greenberg are no longer able to travel to Limmud. For a full, up-to-date lineup of presenters, visit limmudseattle.org.