By Derek Kwait (First published on his blog for “The Jewish Chronicle” of Pittsburgh, Yinzer in Yerushalayim, 9 September 2011)
Sunday was orientation at Pardes. The getting-to-know-you introductions at the beginning made one thing clear straight-away—this is a place of diversity. The students at Pardes range from future Open Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform rabbis, to a dude who’s a few weeks away from becoming a Reconstructionist rebbetzin (and with all due respect to Dave Barry, “The Reconstructionist Rebbetzins,” would be an excellent name for a rock band), to middle-aged people, to camp councilors, to current and future Jewish day school teachers, to people like me.
The ideological diversity is matched by the geographic—we have students from Canada, Australia, Russia, Argentina, New Zealand, Germany, Hungary, the Netherlands, all-over America (including another Pittsburgher), and new olahs. The teachers stress that Jewish texts are the inheritance of every Jew regardless of personal belief—more important than observance is literacy: Read the texts and draw your own conclusions.
Also strongly emphasized is the importance of learning in chevruta, or pairs. And it only took one chevruta session to experience how right they were: Learning a text through a respectful but honest back-and-forth with someone else lets you better express, accept, reject and invent ideas and textual interpretations, and it’s a great way to form intimate relationships, not only with your chevruta, but with the text. One person alone cannot handle the Rambam. Two can’t either, but it’s still twice as good as learning alone.
Classes at Pardes are nearly all based around chevruta. In my thrice-weekly Tanakh class, and twice-weekly Mishna, Social Justice, and Rambam classes, we come to class, get introduced to the texts and ideas for the day, then get assigned texts, go to the Beit Midrash, and learn them in chevruta for about an hour and fifteen minutes. Then we come back to the classroom and have deep discussions of them.
I guess this is as good a time as any to tell you my schedule: Sunday, Tuesday, and Friday, I have Tanakh level Bet, where we will be spending the year studying the Book of Exodus in Hebrew. Sunday and Tuesday afternoons, I have Social Justice, where we learn and discuss how Jewish texts from all eras relate to various social justice issues. This class also includes lots of guest speakers and field trips. Monday and Wednesday mornings I have Mishna, where, until after the holidays, we will be learning Tractate Rosh Hashana.
After Mishna I have Turning Points in Modern Jewish History, the one class without chevruta. Monday and Wednesday afternoons I have Rambam, where we’re learning the laws of teshuva. It’s wearing, but rewarding. Tuesdays before lunch we have a school-wide speaker, Thursday afternoons (but not this week) we volunteer in Jerusalem. This week it felt like more chevruta time was spent looking up Hebrew words in the dictionary than anything else, but after class, damn if my chevruta and I didn’t feel like we accomplished something. The teachers are amazing: They are all knowledgeable, open, challenging, fun, and above all else, passionate and that passion rubs off on us even when lack of Hebrew skills gets frustrating.