As we approach Yom Ha’atzmaut, my thoughts return repeatedly to a different Yom Ha’atzmaut two years ago. It was on that day when, with hope in my heart and tears in my eyes, I made the difficult decision to take a new position at Pardes that would mean moving to the United States for an extended period of time.
Those who know me know that I am deeply in love with the Land of Israel. Israel is the place where my soul thrives, my lungs expand more fully and my heart is happiest. It is not overtly political or religious; for me living in Israel is physiological. It is home.
I am blessed that there is another place like that for me in the world – the beit midrash, the house of study, at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies. I walked through these doors for the first time when I was 23 years old, a young Modern Orthodox woman on a path to understand Judaism more fully.
What I found was another place to call home. This was a place where teachers encouraged students to question, where students brought themselves fully to Torah study, where Torah embraced each one of us, no matter how much of an outsider we may have felt, and welcomed us in with open arms.
It is in this room that I learned how to be a student, and it is in this room that I learned how to be a teacher. I learned to help my students find their questions, to hear their own voices and to listen deeply to the truths of their fellow students.
Leaving both of these homes was an incredibly complicated decision for me. So why did I do it?
Over the last decade working for Pardes, I traveled a great deal between Israel and North America to help recruit students and build partnerships with key Jewish organizations – such as Hillel, Moishe House, Limmud and others.
The sweetest moments of these trips were meeting and reconnecting with Pardes alumni across North America. More often than not, the things our alumni shared were the same; a mixture of nostalgia for their time at Pardes, guilt over not keeping up with their Jewish learning due to other demands on their time, and a deep desire for the kind of warm, open, diverse community, and rigorous learning they had found at Pardes.
Of course, many alumni I met were leaders and community organizers, and they themselves had built or were building these kinds of spaces for their communities. So many of the most exciting learning and prayer initiatives being created in communities across North America were founded by Pardes alumni looking to build Jewish spaces that could recreate their experience at Pardes.
However, many felt they did not have the time or the resources to recreate their experience, and were looking for guidance, resources and support in building communal learning spaces that could include a multiplicity of voices and divergences of opinion, something that is perhaps more necessary in today’s global climate than ever before.
And so, the Pardes Community Beit Midrash initiative was born. It comes to answer a growing need of our alumni and to encourage them to continue their learning and their leadership in their home communities. It was born to help incubate, create and strengthen batei midrash in North America and ultimately transform North American Jewish communal life.
And we’re already well underway.
In Brooklyn – the Brooklyn Beit Midrash was founded a year ago by five local Brooklynites, four of whom were Pardes alumni who had experienced the deep and intensive beit midrash of Pardes. Pardes helped to incubate this beit midrash, sharing resources, content, Pardes faculty and best practices, and now the Brooklyn Beit Midrash is an independent entity creating rich co-educational and cross-communal learning for their local community.
In Nashville – the Nashville Pardes Learning Group was founded by alumni of the Pardes Executive Learning Seminar. Every other week, a committed group of diverse learners, from all backgrounds, came together to study, combining havruta learning with lectures by a Pardes faculty member.
In Pittsburgh – Kulam: The Pittsburgh Community Beit Midrash in Partnership with Pardes, was founded by alumni of the Year Program, and the Pardes Lishma program, with the help of generous local funders.This interdenominational and intergenerational Beit Midrash is being taught by Pardes alumnus, and adjunct faculty member Rabbi William Friedman, and is creating an innovative learning space in Pittsburgh.
I have walked into each of these rooms, at times as the teacher, and at times as the student. Each and every time, something remarkable happens. A young woman experiences havruta study for the first time, two Jews who may never have spoken find a spark of connection over a text, an older gentleman reconnects to the Talmud study of his youth, or two siblings deepen their relationship through learning. Each community is different and unique, but each has created a home for Torah, and for a diverse group of Jews to encounter one another. I am amazed to discover that I experience that feeling of home once again, when I walk into the batei midrash that are being built and created around North America.
This is just the beginning. The dream is to have a Pardes Community Beit Midrash in every city in America. While we are still at the initial stages, we are thrilled to be working with our passionate alumni and our many excellent educational partners in the field, to create strong vibrant learning for all Jews.
Without a doubt, “my heart is still in the east” (paraphrasing the medieval poet and philosopher, Yehuda Halevi), yet I am hopeful that by continuing to build beautiful, bustling batei midrash filled with transformative Torah study across North America, our hearts are not separated by an ocean, but rather – in Pittsburgh, Nashville, Brooklyn, Detroit, Miami, Palo Alto, Toronto, and Jerusalem – our hearts become one. They all beat to the same rhythm of inclusive, diverse, and deep Torah study and community.
Rabba Yaffa Epstein serves as the Director of Education, North America, for the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies.
THE PARDES INSTITUTE OF JEWISH STUDIES is an open, co-ed and non-denominational learning community, based in Jerusalem and with programs worldwide. Pardes offers a variety of short- and long-term learning opportunities, including a Year program, Educators programs, summer programs and events throughout the year. For more information see www.pardes.org.il.