Why (not) Pardes?

Pardes Logo – Post by Melissa

Since moving to Israel nearly nine months ago, I cannot count the number of times I have had the following conversation with people I meet once it has been established that I am learning at Nishmat….

NewPerson: And your husband? What is he doing this year?

Me: He is learning at Pardes.

NewPerson: Why aren’t you also at Pardes?

The answer is simultaneously incredibly simple and incredibly complex: Nishmat was the right fit for me for this year. I wrote about it when I first posted that I was coming here, so I won’t get into all those details again now. However, I have felt all year that I could have been just as happy at Pardes, and I would have grown just as much – though perhaps in slightly different ways and speeds.

On the surface level, the two institutions appear so very different from one another. Nishmat is an Orthodox women’s midrasha and Pardes is a pluralistic co-ed yeshiva. But realistically they are both serious places of learning with a diverse faculty and student body, where students learn Gemara, Tanach, and Jewish thought. Both are places where “young adults” take a year (or more) out of their lives in order to learn more Jewish text and explore the land of Israel.

While I’m on the more “liberal” end of the spectrum at Nishmat and more “traditional” end of the spectrum at Pardes, I am definitely on the spectrum in both places and love the different conversations and learning that come from that. (I use quotes there because I’m not really sure how to define it and that seems a good option without getting into too many labels, which you know I am not into!)

I have friends from both places and can speak about anything with any of them – from obscure things in the Gemara to the bizarre thing I saw in the shuk. Yes, some of those friends are guys and/or future rabbis of both genders and all denominations at Pardes, but that only adds to the experience. Its nice to interact with people who bring a different perspective to the table. Not that it doesn’t happen at Nishmat too (after all, my “super chevruta” this year is a 19 year old who made aliyah on her own last summer but more about her later), but its on an even larger level at Pardes.

So as this year started to wind down and I had to make my plans for next year, one thing really stood out to me. Why (not) Pardes? I knew I wanted to continue learning full time for the next year (and beyond), so I needed to be someplace with serious learning for a 30 year old English speaking woman, and I knew I wanted more Gemara. With those factors, plus what I know about the amazing community that is Pardes, it became clear that there was only one right choice. I spoke with some of our friends there and got more excited about the possibilities that would await me, and then broached the topic with my mentor who also agreed that for what I wanted, it is really the best option here in Jerusalem, and I applied.

And I am now happy to say that next year I will be joining the Pardes community, not as a wife or a Monday night seder attendee, but as a student.

M & D learn together on Monday nights at Pardes already, and are excited to do it more next year!

M & D learn together on Monday nights at Pardes already, and are excited to do it more next year!

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L’shana Haba b’Yerushalyim

Pesach as always been an emotional time of year for me, but this year it went to a whole new level. This year, I knew that when we said “L’shana haba b’Yerushalyim” it meant something tangible. Next year, I will (iy’h) be in Jerusalem.

Holy crap, did I just write that? Did I really grin like a crazy person at the sedar singing L’shana haba b’Yerushalyim? (Chaviva can confirm I did, I’m sure.) Is this real life?

Why yes, yes it is. And honestly, we all knew this had to happen at some point, right? I mean how can we change the world without having spent some time doing serious torah lishma in Israel. So, off we go!

I will be at Nishmat for at least one year doing general studies and hopefully alongside the Yoetzet Halacha program. Having spent the past few years working as a Jewish professional while interacting with so many of you via this blog and the social media world it connected me to, I have found a space which calls to me in a deeper way. Discussing these topics feels natural for me, and like a perfect coalescence of my social worker, health educator, and Jewish communal worker selves. Ultimately, I hope to be able to use social media to make taharat ha’mishpacha (the laws of family purity) less scary and more meaningful and accessible.

Meanwhile, D will be at Pardes for the first year and the time thereafter will be determined as it grows closer. He may stay at Pardes, learn in the Beit Midrash at Bar Ilan, spend some time at HaMivtar, or explore a yeshiva we don’t know about yet. Only time will tell how the specifics all shake down. He does have conditional acceptance to what seems to be a perfect fit for a rabbinical school, however we are always exploring the programs we may not have previously known about or considered so that we can both make our dreams come true.

I have to thank you all for your support and discussions. I only look forward to seeing where this next step of the journey takes us, and hope you’ll stick along for the ride.

(Also if you know of any grants, scholarships, etc that we should apply for beyond what MASA promotes please let us know!)

How I Learned to Love the Megillah

When I announced that I wanted to study in Israel at a school that self-defined as Orthodox, my parents were suitably concerned for their daughter whom they had raised Reform. Although Pardes is not well know for brainwashing it’s students, it is an Orthodox institution and I understood their fears. I really looked forward to my year of study there, as well as living in Jerusalem, but I wondered how exactly my egalitarianism would fit with what I was being taught. For the most part, on Shabbatot and holidays, the students were left to our own devices, and so it was up to us whether or not we went to any synagogue at all. There were, however, a few occasions in which Pardes was interested in hosting holiday events, and Purim was one of them.

Considering Pardes has coed classes and even coed chavrutot (study partners) if you so choose (R and I had a lovely ongoing chuvruta on the laws of weddings), I wouldn’t have been surprised if Pardes sponsored a women’s reading, in which only women read for an audience of only women. This is an accepted practice, although still not common, but this wasn’t how Pardes approached it. Instead, Rabbi Daniel Landes, the Rosh Yeshiva (Religious Dean) of the institution has written a teshuva (found here) on the reading of the megillah on Purim evening, the result of which is that Pardes sponsors a megillah reading in which men and women both read and both men and women both attend the service.

Aside from the actual content of the teshuva, which continues to be unique, I found their approach to it unique as well. Starting at the beginning of the year, a class taught any interested student the Megillah trope and the special verses in the Megillah reading. Towards the end of the first semester, each student was assigned a part in the megillah reading. We practiced hard, even having a dress rehearsal, and did the most professional job of reading as we could. I was assigned the first half of chapter nine, in which the death of Haman’s sons is described, which is generally read incredibly quickly and in one breath. As I prepare to do it for the fourth time, I can tell you that it’s a tough bit, but makes Purim for me.

The amazing thing about that reading was the two-fold approach to it. First, we had this co-ed reading with a co-ed audience in an Orthodox environment with a mechitza, and second, the majorityof the readers were reading megillah for the first time and were able to do a great job of it. The approach of teaching an al most entirely new crop every year means that not only does the Pardes community benefit from an amazingly high quality reading (if I do say so myself) and all of us go out into the world knowing how to read megillah, and importantly, megillah trope, well. It has totally changed my experience of the Megillah, and I continue to enjoy reading, although since we’ve gotten back, it’s been at a women’s reading at the local Modern Orthodox synagogue, rather than such an innovative reading.

Jessica’s Story II: Stranger in a Strange Religion

It was the strangest feeling in the world to arrive at Hillel for a Friday night service and feel as though I had dropped into Wonderland. It wasn’t just the feeling of things being strange, but the knowledge that this was Judaism and I had very little idea what was going on. It started innocently enough – the Reform services at Hillel were really enjoyable, and very similar to the NFTY services I had participated in, which was a great point of connection. The problem? Everything else.

Shabbat dinner was an experience. Signing in without writing (they used index cards), singing Shalom Aleichem (which I had only ever sung at services), hand washing (huh?!), and lots and lots of people running around in kippot and tzitziot. I was so intimidated and confused, and yet there were glimmers of hope from a few people that I met. Still, I didn’t start to get involved until almost the end of the semester, when I randomly showed up at a meeting for something at Hillel that sounded interesting. That was the beginning of my involvement in Hillel, which built and built until it culminated my junior year when I became co-president of Hillel. During those two and a half years, I had had a crash course in Jewish religious pluralism. I learned about hand washing, kashrut, being shomer negiah, how to chant Torah, the differences between Reform and Conservative services, and more than I ever hoped to know about what made Hillel tick. My practice hadn’t changed much though. I ate a lot of kosher food, since I was often at Hillel for dinner, but just as often I would run across to the Panera for lunch. At some point, I started hand washing before Friday night dinner, and gradually began increasing my observances.

I was moving towards increased practice, but I’m not sure what exactly would’ve happened if it hadn’t been for R. We started dating late in my junior year, and my friends were worried. He was modern Orthodox, and at that point, I hadn’t even really stopped identifying as Reform. We didn’t think we were serious at the beginning, so it wasn’t of much concern. Soon though, as we became more serious, we began to discuss our religious attitudes and ideas. I was learning about the basics of halacha and living a Modern Orthodox life, and he was learning about what it felt like to be a woman in Judaism.

By the middle of my senior year, we started talking about marriage and all that would entail given our differing levels of observance. We got engaged a few weeks after I graduated from college, and spent the year we were engaged at the Pardes Institute in Jerusalem. It was that year in Jerusalem that helped us grow together in practice as a couple. We still have our differences of observance, but we make it work. And I still remember what it feels like to feel like a stranger in a strange religion – even when that religion was my own.