Posted on November 4, 2015 by Melinda Jones
If I told you I was going to study in a Yeshiva or a Seminary – or even that I was going to study Talmud – you would immediately make assumptions about the learning environment. First, it would be divided upon strict gender lines. Then there would be a dress code – at least the women would be very conservatively dressed, certainly not in pants or leggings, and possibly cover their hair. Then there would be judgment – not about your level or learning or success in existing studies – but about your level of observance. So before you even consider applying you have to decide how much of you will be checked out at the door.
Returning to Australia after having the most amazing summer of my life learning at Pardes, everyone I spoke with made the assumption that if I was engaged in Jewish learning all of the above would pertain. I can do OK on all the above criteria, so it was one thing for ME to learn – but the assumption was that there was no place for them. So I have slowly been disabusing them of these assumptions.
It is also true that I have wanted to learn more Jewishly for a long time. So the opportunity provided by receiving the Rejewvenate Grant was life-changing. The level & quality of the teaching and the scholarship of the staff was as exceptional. There was a range of classes in every slot that made the question of prior learning a nonissue – at both ends and across the spectrum. (use for rejewvenate) There was no one whose learning needs weren’t accommodated.
But I really have to say that even beyond this – for which I am very grateful – I had no idea about what to expect about the learning environment. Not only was there no need to check our identities in at the door – the diversity of the learning community was welcomed. Male or female; young or old; Orthodox, secular, Reform or anything else; straight or gay; black or white – there was only one criteria of entry – the desire to learn.
The open learning environment, where no question was wrong, no perspective belittled, no assumptions about people made and no judgment, was something almost impossible to imagine until you have been there. Working with different classmates, chevrutah style, from class to class allowed for bonding as learners but also as friends. We were from such diverse backgrounds and different ages, but none of that mattered. The enthusiasm and thirst; the fact that at the end of the three weeks almost all of us felt we were just at the beginning; the reality that people come back year after year is evidence of something special going on here.
We all want Pardes to come to our communities and offer ongoing programs so that we don’t have to pigeon-hole our Jewish learning. There is, of course, Limmud – which is always a festival of Jewish learning. If you haven’t experienced it, you must. Limmud is held in lots of cities around the world and in my experience is full of great classes and lots of surprises. But this is also one or two days in most places. In many ways, Pardes is like Limmud on steroids. There is an idea in the world of ecommerce and social marketing that the way to success is through brand evangelism. The idea is that you sell your product in such a way that users become enthusiasts and try to convert their friends and colleagues to your brand. Well, I am a Pardes evangelist. I’m sure many of the wonderful people I met over summer are, too. What could be greater sign of the passion for Jewish learning that Pardes contains and maintains in us all.