If I remember anything about my experience at Pardes it is that I got more than I could have ever imagined. I’m not exactly sure why I decided to go as I look back to when I booked my ticket to Israel just two weeks before Rosh Hashanah in 2008. I had just finished college a few months earlier and right before I went to the Burning Man Festival in Nevada I chose that Pardes was the plan for the next year.
I was a pretty skeptical when I arrived. I had a hard time believing that all these people were uprooting their normal lives to come to Israel and actually study Torah – you know – for real. I kind of felt like a spy – like I didn’t truly belong there. A product of Upper West Side NYC Jewish day school, early on in life I secretly decided that nobody truly cared about learning outside of school – except the future rabbis. At Pardes I found teachers that were extremely passionate about their work, lives, and Judaism in general. The students seemed to catch on to this and take it on themselves. Here we had “regular” Jews studying Torah and some of them were actually pretty darn cool too. I felt myself suspending judgement… part of the time at least.
My reservations melted away little by little as I got to really know and love the diverse student body of all different ages, backgrounds, and differing points in the Jewish lifecycle. I was impressed with each individual and their commitment to Torah and self-expansion. I was moved by the honesty with which students brought their full selves to the beit midrash and I was challenged like nobody’s business by having to pay attention for an entire day and self-motivate.
For the first time in my life I felt like it was ok to let my full Jew out. Yes that’s right. A lifetime day school and Camp Ramah person finally let it all hang out. And that full Jew loved studying Torah and “knowing it all.” Which was perfect because I had come to the right place for me as a semi-rebellious know-it-all. I learned that I was passionate about Jewish topics, commentators, laws, and books I didn’t even know existed! And it was all driven from who the teachers were being and the hunger the students possessed.
Perhaps the biggest surprise about my time at Pardes was the newfound experience of the Jewish holiday cycle. Even in New York City, the capital city of world Jewry outside Israel, I had never experienced anything close to the all encompassing and delicious embrace of the chaggim. It was at Pardes and with my family in Israel that I got a taste of what it was to like to live a truly Jewtastic life. It was awesome. It occurred to me that this was how it was meant to be.
So now that I am back in America almost five years since I left for Pardes to begin with I am still enjoying the fruits of my year there on a daily basis. My observance in Judaism has always oscillated, fluctuated, but my commitment to engage in the conversation has never for a moment wavered. I am always reading books, articles, and opinions on Torah. If I never went to Pardes I might never have gotten the chance to know that there are people like me out there. It’s clear to me that each human being has an expression of Torah to manifest and the kind of experience available at Pardes definitely brings that to light.