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Overheard (and Learned) at LimmudNY 2008

Two men, looking 70+ years old, sitting at the back of a room where an Israeli film was about to be screened. One grumpily said to the other, "This isn't a film! This is a DVD!"

One adorable four-year-old, on the last day of LimmudNY, to her parents: "I am going to be very sad and cry tomorrow, because there will be no more Camp Limmud, the funnest camp there is!"

From the very young to the old(er), there was something at LimmudNY 2008 for everyone!

Overall impressions and thoughts about LimmudNY 2008:

I did learn one interesting thing about myself.

I walked into the room in which Orthodox services were to be held, right around candle-lighting time on Friday. The room was empty, except for one man. The mechitzah was a huge, navy monstrosity that cut the room in half, with the shat"z standing at the front, on the men's side. It was maybe 15 feet tall, and made of dark fabric. I am generally tolerant of mechitzot, but, then again, most mechitzot I come across are constructed of lattice or semi-sheet material, not dark, heavy, navy blue cloth. Also, most mechitzot I come across seem to be 4-6 feet tall. I felt like I would absolutely not be able to focus on my davening at all if I tried to daven in that room. After waiting for a few minutes, I davened mincha quickly to myself, because I wasn't at all sure that they would gather a minyan before shkiyah [sunset], and then I went to explore other options.

The only other option that seemed doable was the traditional egalitarian service. This is a whole other kettle of fish that I don't think I want to get into now, but, basically, my current position is that I will daven at an egalitarian minyan, not let myself be counted as part of the minyan, and only answer the shat"z when I feel halachically comfortable with the combination of the sex (not gender) of the person up there and the precise prayer that person is leading. Also, I won't daven in an egalitarian minyan on a regular basis, and will basically only do so if I have a good reason (generally, the aufrauf or bris or baby-naming of friends). I am not at all claiming that this position makes any internal or external sense at all, but that's where I'm at right now, at this particular moment in time. As I said, this is for another post.

I left the mechitzah, led-only-by-men minyan and went to the traditional egalitarian service, which also had not started. When they did start, they started with mincha, which was led by a man and was totally fine for me content-wise.

But kabbalat Shabbat, which followed, confirmed my worst suspicions about liberal services in general. The shat"z was facing the congregation rather than the front of the room, and this, as well as the way he was leading, made it seem like he was teaching the congregation a song rather than leading davening (or pre-davening tehillim, which is a more precise definition of kabbalat Shabbat). It irritated the hell out of me. He told us that he was going to teach us a new, special melody and it was one of the Carlebach standards, which, judging from the speech with which the congregants picked up this "new" tune, most people were already familiar. Also, he spoke a few sentences, it seemed, between nearly every chapter of Psalms. Page numbers were definitely called out before each chapter of Psalms, despite the fact that we were going in order, and there was nothing fishy about the page numbers in the texts that most people had. I feel like I would have been able to follow along even if I had not known any Hebrew. Also, he stopped a congregation in throes of singing to ask us to switch the melody to Licha Dodi after every verse or two. It drove me crazy! Licha Dodi is one of the highlights of my week, when I make it to shul in time. (Surely few things exemplify the transition from Friday to Shabbat as well as "קומי צאי מתוך ההפכה"!) I had to walk out two verses before the end. Other people walked out long before that.

This is also an issue for a longer, separate post, but one of several reasons that I prefer Orthodox services to any other service is because I think that Orthodox services aim for the highest common denominator among congregants, rather than the lowest common denominator. It's easy for me to feel this way, because I tend to be among the higher, rather than the lower, common denominator in terms of Jewish education or davening skills in most shuls. If I didn't know Hebrew, or couldn't find my way through any siddur, I'm sure that I would feel differently. But since I do, and can, I have little patience for constantly interspersing commentary and page numbers amidst the davening. It breaks my kavanah [concentration], such as it is. (I don't object to a little introduction to the parsha, or to the haftarah, or calling out occasional page numbers when pages are skipped or things are in a funny order.) People who need help following the davening should be helped quietly by the people sitting next to them. There should be learner's services. Shuls should offer classes on tefillah [prayer]. I'm sure I would gain from such a class. But shul should not become a class. I realize, admit, and partially apologize for my elitist position, which I am only able to hold because I was lucky enough to go to shul from a young age and to otherwise get a good Jewish education. (And, yes, I am well aware that there are liberal services all of Manhattan that have the kind of davening I like, without constant commentary and page numbers. This is not the only reason I prefer Orthodox davening.)

Anyway, so I walked out and went back to the Orthodox service, which had grown so large by that point that it had expanded beyond the back edge of the ginormous mechitzah, so someone had set up a few long folding tables to extend the mechitzah. I davened back there, next to that reasonable mechitzah. Also, the ginormous mechitzah didn't look nearly as stark and awful when the room was full of people on both sides of it.

At the end of davening, someone who was making announcements apologized for the mechitzah, said that it had been set up by the hotel without any input from the minyan organizers, and that its height was not at all reflective of the esteem with which women were held by the male minyan organizers. I was very glad that someone apologized. It mitigated my anger a little. Then someone from the men's section jokingly called out that it should be taller. Then the daveners dispersed.

I went to mincha/maariv during the rest of the conference, and davened beside that ridonkulous mechitzah, and sort of got used to it. I'm sure that the other egalitarian services were more "normal," which I put in quotes as an acknowledgment that I what I mean by "normal" is "more similar to the Orthodox services I frequent."

The same thing happened last year, by the way. At LimmudNY 2007, the mechitzah was also very, very tall. It was white, which made it slightly less obtrusive, and I think we managed to modify it somewhat by replacing some very tall panels (15') with shorter panels (5' or 6').

On Shabbat morning, I went to the "Darkhei Noam style" minyan (my name, not theirs), which had a totally normal, 5 or 6-foot tall, lattice-work mechitzah. Clearly, such a thing existed. Maybe they didn't have enough of it for both minyanim on Shabbat morning, but there was only one minyan on Friday night. Maybe it was too short for the long room in which Friday night davening was held. I don't know. It seems, though, like a Jewish resort in the Catskills ought to have some suitable mechitzah arrangement on hand. If LimmudNY is held there again, I hope they work out something better.

Having said that, I want to report that in terms of logistics, this was the best LimmudNY yet. I was expecting Friday night dinner to be utter chaos (850 people eating together is more likely than not to turn out that way), and it was one of the highlights of Limmud. I ended up at a table with some people I didn't know and some people I knew, but few of whom knew each other. We had a nice, full-table conversation about Limmud and what makes it so awesome. I heard a lot of different perspectives. The facilities (the Nevele) were great. There were no screw-ups, no hitches, and fewer room and program changes than at the past Limmud conferences I've attended. Really, a huge yasher koach goes to all of the staff and the volunteers.

I am hoping to write about some of the very cool Rabbinic texts I learned at some later point.


While I can relate to such frustrations about targeting the least educated section of a particular kahal, learning to daven as an adult isn't as simple as attending a class and/or learner's services until one is ready to graduate to tefillah-addulthood.

Classes tend to focus on the theoretical (structure of davening, basic ideas of each section, specific meanings of important stuff) but less on the practical.

Learner's services do focus on practical aspects, but (in my experience) tend to cut a lot of stuff, since ideally everyone should attend the same kiddush. As such, they hit the major halakhic and structural points, but it's not like it's a full service slowed down so that people can learn it. Pesukei dezimra should ideally consist of ashrei, a halleluyah, and nishmat, so that shema, shemoneh esrei, and kriat hatorah can receive adequate attention.

Learner's services also tend to provide full transliterations. The reasons for doing so seem pretty clear, but unless there is some push to transition to Hebrew text, it is often intimidating to have an all Hebrew text, and practically difficult to follow a much faster service without transliteration.

In the end, to learn the full service, one has to go to it. There is seldom any getting around some initial being lost.

Finally, many adults are self-conscious about having an obviously different siddur from the majority of the tzibbur, about going to a different service, and self-conscious about depending on those sitting close by to make sure they are on the right page. Such things may seem like no matter to those who know how to follow davening, but one who already feels different for not being in the former set is likely to feel the difference keenly.

Not having to ask for help can make a new person feel more welcome in shul while still learning the ropes. Not having to ask for page numbers and having davening go slowly enough to keep up are small things that go a long way toward speeding the learning process and sense of belonging and welcome.
Sorry I missed Limmud NY this year - glad to hear it was good!

And wow that trad egal service sounds lame, but thanks for acknowledging that it's not representative of all egal davening. I heard similarly negative reports from other people whose usual davening habits are staunchly egal.

This is also an issue for a longer, separate post, but one of several reasons that I prefer Orthodox services to any other service is because I think that Orthodox services aim for the highest common denominator among congregants, rather than the lowest common denominator.

There are, of course, Orthodox services that are geared to lower denominators, but the difference is that no one sees this as an essential characteristic of Orthodox services. (It also isn't seen as an end goal, but rather a necessity for kiruv, which will become unnecessary when the people involved are acculturated into the fold.) In contrast, there are many liberal Jews who see this as a defining characteristic of liberal services (rather than one among multiple options). I think they're doing massive harm to liberal Judaism, because they're in effect telling educated laypeople that they don't belong.

(Summary of a possible future blog post: Reform Judaism as it is now is bedi'avad, and there is a lack of vision of what a lechatchilah Reform Judaism would look like; most people in the movement (though they wouldn't say this explicitly) either think that lechatchilah Reform Judaism would look like Orthodox Judaism, or would look exactly like it does now.)
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