These and Those

Musings from Students of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem

End of the Year Reflection 5779

Posted on May 28, 2019 by Alex Griffel

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Over the last few weeks, a palpable depression seems to have set in the 3rd floor of 29 Pierre Koenig. Maybe depression is too strong of a word; melancholy might be better. Perhaps that’s just me, but everyone I talk to about it concurs that things have felt different.  

The year is ending, and most of us will be going back to the United States to resume our careers. Many students are going to work in camp over the summer before starting jobs or continuing grad programs. We’ve formed a community together, quite a special one actually, and the slow realization that our time together is dwindling has put everyone on a bit of an edge.

I was asked to make this blog post about the closing shabbaton. I recall thinking on the Friday before that I wasn’t really up for a shabbaton. It’d been a long mentally draining week, and in any case I don’t like when there’s pressure to be on. I wanted to be present and fun and… there for my friends, but I didn’t think it was going to be in the cards. I wanted that to be okay, but wasn’t sure if it would be. What I did know, thank god, is that I’ve made amazing friends who care about me, and that if I was checked out, they’d notice.

Shabbos morning after kiddush, we had processing sessions to discuss takeaways from our experiences at Pardes. I’m sitting there, trying to come up with something to say: a moment that stuck with me, a lesson I learned, a way my jewish practice has changed. The truth is that there are too many moments to pick out and they’re all of smiling compassionate faces, I’ve learned too many lessons to pick just one, and that my Jewish practice changed very little, because I started the year comfortable in my level of practice.

But as I was sitting there listening to my friends describe how special Pardes is, all I could think about was how my life has changed over the course of the year. My family had a traumatic health scare in late December that required me to go back to New York for a month, and my year is divided quite neatly into a “before” and an “after”.

When I stepped back into my life at Pardes, it was both as though I’d never left, and as though things would never be the same. My classes were the same, my teachers were the same, and yet they all seemed to understand that I wasn’t the same, and treated me accordingly. They respected me enough to give me the space and time to process my family situation from 6000 miles away. My attendance in class wasn’t stellar to begin with and definitely declined, and it took time before I was able to focus at all when I was in class.

However, and this is the important point, I never once felt like the expectations on me were any different than they’d been previously. Our teachers demand our full effort and focus at all times. They would never do any less for us, because we’re all here by choice. As long as we’re sitting in class, the expectation is that we want to learn, and that we are devoting our full selves to it. And so they devote their full selves to being the best teachers they can. If I’d left Pardes, no one would have taken it personally. But as long as I chose to stick it out, no teacher would dare disrespect that choice enough to expect any less of me than they had before, even while being accommodating.

Undergirding the special nature of the Pardes community is this mutual respect. We all recognize and take seriously that we’re all in the building to better ourselves as Torah learners, as educators, as Jewish professionals. Every student, and every teacher. Dean Bernstein says at the beginning of every semester that now that we’ve been at Pardes, we will each find ourselves in spaces where we are the most knowledgeable Jew in the room. In every class, the most knowledgeable person standing behind the desk models what can achieved when that imbalance is treated as a mutual opportunity to grow.

So as we leave Pardes, even more committed to lifelong Torah and Mitzvot, the ties that bind us are not just our shared learning, laughter, tears, and memories. It’s the deep and abiding esteem with which we now hold every Jew we meet. Everyone is trying to grow, in their own way, and everyone can be reached through the medium of Torah. Recognizing that truth; that’s what Pardes taught us, and what first and foremost allowed us to accomplish as much, and become as tight a community, as we did.

So the pressure is off during the final Shabbaton. I don’t feel as though I’m seeing any of these people for the last time. When you’re as deeply committed to growth through Torah as we are, you find yourself involved in, or creating, spaces where that will happen. And that draws others who feel the same. Plus like, with half of us going to be Jewish teachers and most of the other half going to be Jewish professionals, I’m sure we’ll run into each other at conferences anyway.