Limmud uncorking new venue for its flock of learners

Some 500 Jews who live in the Bay Area are expected to head to Sonoma County next month for a couple of days — and not to visit wineries, relax at spas or enjoy the beautiful scenery.

Instead, they will learn how to make kosher sushi, how to get grandparents talking and how to help “green” the Jewish community. Others will hear about the history of winemaking, the finer points of Jewish politics and the practical art of beekeeping.

Limmud Bay Area 2012 at the Asilomar Conference Center in Pacific Grove

And some will seek out talks on rabbinical radicalism, mindful movement and Jewish humor.

These topics and more than 80 others will be explored at the third annual Limmud Bay Area, a grassroots, volunteer-led conference set for July 13 and 14 at Sonoma State University in Rohnert Park. Lodging is available to make it easy for people to attend, whether it be for one night or a longer stay starting July 11.

“We are able to offer something for everybody, all in a wonderful setting,” said Mila Wichter, founder and president of Limmud Bay Area. Wichter, a project manager at Genentech, lives in Walnut Creek.

Of the several musically inclined events, the highlight will be a Sunday night concert on July 13 by Neshama Carlebach, who began her singing career performing with her famous father, the late Shlomo Carlebach. Joining Carlebach on stage will be Josh Nelson, a composer and singer known as “the prince of kosher gospel.” The two also will take part in a session titled “The Sound of Light.”

Abraham David Sofaer, a former federal judge for the U.S. District Court and a legal adviser to the State Department, will lead a discussion about Syria and the Middle East. Other sessions include: a look at how the discovery of natural gas off Israel’s shores may change the regional balance, “Community Organizing in the Talmud,” learning how to create a copper hamsa and “New Paradigm for a Post-Modern Judaism.” There will also be a three-hour, non-strenuous hike led by a rabbi who is a Torah Trek guide.

Rick Dinitz leads a session on “Sing It into My Soul: Mussar Meets the Blues” at Limmud Bay Area 2013.

The variety at Limmud, which means “learning” in Hebrew, is what makes the freestyle conference so much fun, said Ellen Bob, chair of the event and executive director of Congregation Etz Chayim in Palo Alto. The conference is not tied to any denomination of Judaism.

“Two people can go to Limmud and have totally different experiences by creating their own curriculum,” Bob said. “You don’t have to pre-register for any session. That means you can make a plan — and then ignore it.”

Sessions will begin each day at 9:45 a.m. and end about 4 p.m., with each running about 70 minutes.

As of last week, about 300 people had signed up, with space available for up to 500. Several pricing packages are available, and most include lodging, as people are encouraged to stay so “they don’t miss the late-night fun,” Bob said. A $150 local/commuter ticket is available to people who live within 15 miles of the university.

Limmud began 34 years ago in England and now takes place in more than 60 locations worldwide. This is the first year that Limmud Bay Area will be held on a college campus, with classrooms, nearby lodging and recreation areas. For its first two years, in 2012 and 2013, Limmud Bay Area was held at the Asilomar Conference Center in Pacific Grove.

“I think a campus will really suit us best,” Wichter said. “It will lend a kibbutz feel to the conference, but also, so many of our presenters are from the academic tradition.”

Another change: This is the first time Limmud Bay Area is not taking place over a three-day weekend, with a holiday on Monday. Bob said she does not believe that will be a problem. “Jewish learning is worth taking a day off for, and besides, many people take vacations in July.”

Wichter emphasized that Limmud builds community. “This is the only conference that brings together people from all denominations and people who are not affiliated anywhere, people of all ages,” she said. “You will come and be happy to see familiar faces, but you also will see many other Jews you don’t know. One unique quality is that because of the overnight stay, many people will sit up late and visit, discussing the topics they heard about during the day.”

And for kids, there is Camp Limmud, with counselors providing storytelling, crafts and music programs for three age groups: 18 months to 4 years, 5-9 and 10-14. Last year, about 50 children attended Limmud Bay Area, along with about 500 adults.

Limmud Bay Area, July 13-14 at Sonoma State University, Rohnert Park. $150 for local/commuter ticket, $185-$295 with lodging, discounts for young adults and children. or