Limmud NY Notes: Communal Kiddush

I went to Limmud NY 2011 and wrote a lot of posts about it. Here’s a guide to them.

At Limmud NY, we have had a communal Friday night Kiddush some years and not others. This year we did. We also had a communal Shabbat morning Kiddush this year, which I believe was a new thing.

I think this was a major mistake.

The way meals work at Limmud NY is that all meals take place at the same time as sessions. Each meal is served buffet style for about two hours. People can skip a session and relax over a meal or they can get a to-go box and grab food to eat in their next session.

The only exception to this is Friday night dinner. There are no sessions going on simultaneously and the meal is seated rather than buffet. In some years, there has been a communal Kiddush and in some, there have been various benchers on the table for people to lead their own table-by-table, if they choose to.

At my table, which had a few Limmud NY regulars at it, we assumed that there were benchers on the table because we were doing Kiddush table-by-table. I was asked to lead Kiddush at our table and I did so. Just as I finished, three of the musicians at the conference came to the center of the room, the crowd was shushed, and they led Kiddush.

All three, as you might have guessed, were men. Overall, everyone seemed to like it. Indeed, their voices were great and it was nice to do it communally.


Here are the three problems. After these, I’ll outline my potential solution.

  1. A woman will never be able to do it. At Limmud NY, there is not one single other ritual event that takes place communally, except for Havdalah. There is a big communal, concert-y Havdalah, but there is also Havdalah in the Traditional-Egalitarian minyan and in the mechitza minyan so that those groups can do it according to their standards before the communal one. Kiddush is problematic because a woman cannot lead it ever. Limmud NY is run entirely by volunteers, but we’ve created a volunteer opportunity that 60-70% of the Limmud NY population may not do because a minority will be offended by the woman’s voice, Kol Isha. I would rather forgo the the community-building opportunity presented by Kiddush than either turn off people who think women should be able to lead it or turn off people who would be offended by a woman leading it. In this problem, we fall prey to frummest common denominator pluralism, which is a style of pluralism that Limmud NY has generally succeeded in avoiding. (I’m intentionally staying away from the fact that we forbid the use of electronic devices in communal spaces on Shabbat. That’s an issue for another post.)
  2. We’re imposing ritual. This is the only time at Limmud NY when we force ritual on people. Like Friday night dinner, communal Havdalah is scheduled such that there are no sessions at the same time. The difference is that people are essentially forced to sit through communal Kiddush before they can eat. The majority of Limmud NY-goers fall somewhere between Modern Orthodox, Open Orthodox, Conservadox, Trad-Egal, and Conservative. (I put that clumsily, but you see what I’m saying about the religious nature of the community.) Despite this, we cannot ignore that there are secular and cultural Jews at Limmud NY who do not want ritual imposed on them. They are a relatively small group at the conference, but they shouldn’t fall prey to the tyranny of the majority. The community’s communal spaces need to be as welcoming to as many Jews as possible.
  3. It makes everything take forever. Between Handwashing and Motzi, some Jews won’t talk. When 700 people need to wash, this stuff starts taking forever, the niguning goes on and on and I get hungry. This is a minor issue in the grand scheme and doesn’t bother me overly much so I won’t try to solve it here. However, it was pointed out as a problem by a few people who feel strongly about not talking during the period between Kiddush and Handwashing, so it seemed worth mentioning here.


We have other semi-communal ritual moments at Limmud NY. Every year, after the opening event and before people trickle off to the various Kabbalat Shabbat options or to a session, there are tea lights and matches set out on tables in the lobby so that everyone who wishes to can light candles on their own time and in their own way. (Note that we offer not only a wide range of services, but a couple of sessions during services for folks who don’t want to go to services.) If people want to light candles, they do–if they don’t, they move on with life. It’s nice because it is communal, but you can opt out.

Shabbat morning kiddush was a little different. It was led by a man, but it was done in the lobby before going into lunch. I certainly couldn’t hear him and it bore a stronger resemblance to our semi-communal candle lighting because it was in a space that people could wander in and out of if they wanted. There was also a table full of little glasses of wine and grape juice that reminded me of the table of little candles, which made me think of two solutions:

  1. The best solution: We can do communal candle lighting, Friday Kiddush and Saturday Kiddush all in the same way. We can do each one in the lobby, communally. The explicit ritual itself–as well as all details of the ritual–becomes entirely optional, but the overall event is communal. There is nothing being done by a volunteer in an official capacity that is potentially exclusive. This solves both of the major problems identifies above: the problem caused by the divisiveness of Kol Isha and the problem of imposing ritual on non-religious Jews.
  2. An adequate compromise: We could also do Friday and Saturday communal Kiddush the way we did Saturday communal Kiddush. If we did that, we would solve the issue of imposed ritual, to some extent. Though people who did not want to be involved in the ritual would be unable to be in the lobby, it would be more like Havdalah, when they would be free to go somewhere else in the hotel, without forcing them to sit through Kiddush so that they can eat.

Thoughts, Limmud NYks? Thoughts, anyone else? Thoughts, BZ?

BTW, BZ, I see Hilchot Pluralism: The Limmud NY Edition in your future. Eh? Eh?

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9 Responses to Limmud NY Notes: Communal Kiddush

  1. Larry Yudelson January 19, 2011 at 1:12 am #

    At our table, we made a table kiddush also. There may be people for whom a communal kiddush is a necessity because they’re not comfortable doing it themselves? Maybe there should be sheets on the table for “HOW TO DO KIDDUSH” for people not comfortable paging through a bencher? But then, do you put the traditional nusach, or the Renewal “ashar bachar banu IM kol ha’amim”?

    • David A.M. Wilensky January 19, 2011 at 11:33 am #

      Another idea then, maximizing choices: Have each service do Kiddush at the end before they head to dinner. In addition, have materials out in the lobby so that people can do it there too, if they want. And have materials on the tables at dinner so people can do it there too.

  2. Brandeisian January 19, 2011 at 11:44 am #

    Having a woman chant Friday night kiddush shouldn’t be a problem. At the Brandeis Hillel Friday night dinners kiddush is led by both men and women but bentching only by men.

    • David A.M. Wilensky January 19, 2011 at 1:25 pm #

      My understanding is that there are some who would not be OK with a woman leading Kiddush. In any Jewish pluralist setting, decisions are made, whether consciously or tacitly, about what range–or what plurality, if you will–the pluralist setting is going to accommodate.

      My guess is that at Brandeis the choice was made that the space would accommodate as to the ritual right as those who are willing to have a woman lead Kiddush, but not B”H. Why such a line might exist, I’m not sure.

      Also, you mention that the Kiddush is led by men and women. Do you mean that it is led by a man sometimes and a woman other times? Or do you mean that it is led by some men and some women together every time? Because I believe that some will tolerate a women’s voices mixed in, but not a single woman’s voice.

      • BZ January 19, 2011 at 2:50 pm #

        Because I believe that some will tolerate a women’s voices mixed in, but not a single woman’s voice.

        There are two separate issues in play: kol ishah, and being yotzei from the leader’s berachah. For the former, multiple voices are less problematic than a single voice. But for the latter, multiple voices (regardless of gender) can be more problematic than a single voice.

        (However, kol ishah is a bigger obstacle to pluralism, since the latter issue can be remedied by anyone who wants making their own kiddush.)


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