Derek Kwait is an alumni from Pardes (Year 11-12, Fellow 12-13), former editor of These and Those, and currently the editor of the magazine New Voices.
Living in New York City surrounded by friends from my two years (Year ‘12, Fellows ‘13) at Pardes, I often feel somewhat spoiled that I get to see my Pardes friends every day and continue building that ideal Jewish community in the real-world with them. So at Sunday’s Pardes Pop-Up Beit Midrash at Park Avenue Synagogue, though I at times felt my spoiledness-level reach rich widow’s French poodle levels, more than anything else, I felt I was coming home.
No sooner did I walk through the door when I was reunited with two old friends and I found I couldn’t turn a corner without bumping into some other favorite person of mine. But it wasn’t until the learning began that I truly felt at home.
I had seen DLK and Yaffa since leaving Pardes, so I decided to go to Meesh’s session even though her topic Jewish and Democratic State–Oxymoron? was one that, frankly, I’m a little burnt out on. But as soon as Meesh said “If the Haredim say a Jewish state can’t be a democracy on one side and [Arab Knesset member] Haneen Zoabi says a democratic state can’t be Jewish on the other, I know I’m going to want to find myself somewhere between those views,” I felt that familiar rush of belonging. The following tour of sources from the Bible, Rabbinic writings, and Rav Kook followed by thoughtful discussion about Israel— the wild black rhino of the Jewish world—was a timely reminder of what makes Pardes so special.
Since leaving Pardes, I have discovered that living an observant life in the working world can be thoughtless; when you’re not careful, even in the very Jewish job I am blessed to have, Jewish practice can sometimes feel like another part of the daily routine. Although I make time for Torah study, it often feels like a short gasp for air in a city that is ever-vigilant in its mission to suffocate me. Further, working in the media, debates too often feel tired and clichéd, with more precedence given to partisan shills than regular people. I miss Pardes every day for so many reasons.
Yet this is what made the second session, a panel discussion between the three teachers: Text Learning ‘For its Own Sake’: Is it Really Possible? What’s the Value? exploring the rewards and difficulties of living an observant Jewish life, so refreshing. Hearing my teachers, who I admire deeply, speak candidly about things I think about all the time, including: how open a Jewish community can really be, the daily challenges of observant life, the mistakes they’ve made, who they’ve offended, how they handle the many ways Judaism is used and abused every day, and what they believe in their kishkes makes it all worthwhile, was more inspiring, and more needed, than any formal class they could have given.
As write this the following day, something occurs to me: When I got home from Pardes in the summer of 2013, the first thing I did after sleeping off my jetlag was crack open a Mishna and start learning. Upon coming home Sunday night, the first thing I did was go to the bookshelf and learn a text, the Ben Ish Chai, which I first learned with my night seder havruta in the spring of 2013. This certainly wasn’t intentional, but thinking about it now, I think it means that the best Jewish experiences are those that motivate you to keep them going once they’re over. That’s what the Jewish conception of revelation is all about, really.
Spending a Sunday afternoon surrounded by friends and texts old and new, mulling over radical new Jewish ideas, feeling the glow of new revelations and excitement about making more on your own…that is what it feels like to come home to Pardes.