These and Those

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

The Mirrors and Windows of the Beit Midrash: Encountering Many Faces

Posted on February 23, 2020 by Rebecca Swartz

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Rebecca Swartz traveled to Jerusalem for the first time in twenty years to participate in the Pardes Winter Learning Intensive. In a week dedicated to exploring Identity through Jewish texts, Rebecca uncovered the power of seeing her full self.

What did I expect to discover during my time at Pardes for the Winter Intensive? While a week in the beit midrash is not enough time for anyone thirsting for Torah to really have their thirst fully quenched, it was a wonderful opportunity to take a pause and think about how Torah learning fits into my life, as I consider my many faces and identities as an early childhood teacher educator, parent, and religious school teacher, among others.

Reminiscing and Preparing to Travel

I came to the Winter Intensive following the encouragement of friends, colleagues, and Jewish teachers who knew that I had long wanted to study Torah in Jerusalem, but that life had taken other turns that kept me from pursuing this path. This trip was a return to Israel after a twenty year gap. The last time I was in Israel, I was a day camp counselor for elementary school children in the Kefiada program in Kiryat Gat, which is run by the Jewish Agency in partnership with the Jewish United Fund of Metropolitan Chicago. My father’s illness and passing when I was twenty two caused me to change my plans to study in Jerusalem. This trip, I was inspired by the story of Rabbi Akiva, who was also forty years old when he entered the beit midrash for the first time, and I came to study in honor of my fortieth birthday.

Tchotchkes – keepsakes – from Jerusalem

In the weeks leading up to my departure, I dug up a memory box and photos of the day camp that I had taken during my last trip that I hadn’t opened since the days I was teaching preschool in a Jewish day school in the states. My children and the children in our local synagogue school were curious to look at the tchotchkes (keepsakes) that I had saved. Seashells from the Mediterranean shore, shekels, random keys to some door at a hostel that didn’t get returned… each prompted me to share a different memory of my time in Israel. Several of the parents in my parent-child class are Israeli or had been to Israel more recently than me, and this box led to rich conversations and stories of their connections to the land and people.

The most talked about item among the children was the popsicle stick with Hebrew that translates to, “Little moments of happiness, Strauss Ice Cream.” Inquiring little minds wanted to know… what flavor was that ice cream, and would I have it again? I told them I remembered that Kiryat Gat in July was so hot, and the popsicles did make me very happy after long days at day camp! I gave the children little slips of paper to write a prayer for the Kotel. The children in the primary grades were so excited to send their note with me, just as I had been when I was about their age. I thought I was so prepared for my trip. Though saying goodbye to my family was emotional, I was so excited for the journey ahead, and wrote furiously in my journal about what I hoped to see and learn during my travels.

Little moments of happiness, Strauss Ice Cream.

Arriving in Jerusalem

As soon as I arrived, I realized, nothing could have prepared me for how much Israel had changed during the time I was away. Everything looked different, beginning with the terminal at Ben Gurion Airport.  I spent the Shabbat before the Winter Intensive reconnecting with friends and colleagues who I had known throughout my schooling and professional life that I had not seen for a decade or more. I took note of the little details of these changes I wanted to share with everyone at home and as I came upon each new thing–the train station in Tel Aviv, the medical center in Ashkelon, the biotechnology center in Kiryat Malachi, I was simply stunned by the changes around me.

Old Meets New. Light rail, Jaffa St, Jerusalem

Entering the Beit Midrash

The winter intensive classes started on Sunday, and with the theme being, The Many Faces of Me, my thoughts started to turn inward. I realized how much I had changed in twenty years. So much life lived. The last time I lived in Israel predated my father’s passing, my marriage, kids, professional career, my doctoral studies. Just as the scenery had changed, I had changed. Yet, my ear was tuned in and listening to the Hebrew words around me, I was eager to try to tackle the texts with my rusty skills. I realized this part of my soul that loved Jewish learning was still present. I alternated between elation and crying. Sunday night, I felt what a caring kehilah (community) Pardes is, as the Pardes faculty and staff made sure I was ok as I was getting through the emotional ups and downs as well as the jet lag.

I have lived in relatively small Jewish communities, having taught in a small day school and lived in university towns my entire adult life. I was pretty overwhelmed by the intensity and passion for Torah learning that the kehillah had throughout the week, and haven’t been in a Jewish learning group as large as the minyanim I experienced during my time at Pardes in quite some time. I wanted to daven (pray) and wanted a quieter space, and I ended up in the ‘learners’ minyan’ (prayer group). I don’t think I have felt as much kavvanah (focus, intention) reading the Ashrei prayer since I was teaching in the day school and looking at each line closely with elementary school children, or joy in singing Shomer Yisrael to myself since I was a young child in junior choir in the synagogue.

Each class, each teacher, each chevruta (learning in pairs) was inspiring and challenging in a different way. I am very grateful for the patience and kindness showed to me by the faculty, staff, and fellow students (too numerous to name or everyone would be reading this blog post until the next winter intensive!) whom I encountered in the classes, hallways, and on walks around Jerusalem as the week of learning unfolded.

Shabbat Before Departure

With an unexpected change in plans, I ended up spending Shabbat near Tel Aviv with friends who had recently returned to Israel after being in Champaign Urbana for a period of doctoral studies. The Shabbat with them was what my soul needed after an intense week of learning and reflection. Though we had known each other in the synagogue during their time in Champaign-Urbana, the chance to connect over Shabbat provided a deeper opportunity to share what I had learned during my week at Pardes, about myself, and learn more about their journeys.

As I read the weekly Torah portion, the parsha (Vayigash) when Joseph reveals his identity to his brothers, I started to make connections with the learning I had done previously in the week, with my chevruta and classmates when we talked about the story of Ruth. Tovah Leah, our teacher, taught us that the story of Ruth is considered to be a tikkun, or a repair of the terrible events from the book of Shoftim – Judges, in part because of the strong character traits and kindness that Ruth embodies in the story. As I read the story of Joseph revealing himself to his brothers and his ability to forgive them for selling him, I started to wonder, is this a tikkun, too, but of sibling relationships? What other tikkunim are there in our stories?

I wondered, was my travel to Israel and to Pardes, a tikkun? Was I coming to repair the turns in my own Jewish journey after my father’s passing? I carried regret for not coming to learn in Jerusalem for so many years. This trip gave me a chance to reconnect with the deep desire of my soul to learn Torah in the beit midrash. I thought about what our teacher, Yiscah, had said to me over tea, about the soul’s purpose coming into the light with time. So for now, I say yes, this is a tikkun in my own story, because I can feel that the little hole that was torn in my heart when I didn’t come 18 years ago is finally mending. I know because I am once again able to enjoy the Torah learning I am doing on my own and feel new kavvanah (intention) for sharing that with my own children and with my community at home.

Reflecting and Looking Forward

I have reflected on my journey each day since my return, and started this blog post numerous times over. Coincidentally, I was given a paper that likens curriculum to mirrors and windows (Style, 1988) to read on the plane as a possible framework for an article in an early childhood journal that I have in the process. Style (1988) likens the topics a curriculum presents to mirrors, that help us see ourselves more clearly, and windows, that help us make lookout and make sense of the world around us. She argues that both elements are necessary for a rich curriculum that helps learners see themselves and understand the other. Both mirrors and windows must be present for the learner to really appreciate the diversity of the people they encounter. Looking back, I realize that I encountered both mirrors and windows in my learning at Pardes, but the curriculum was not only the text. It was also interactions with people – chevruta and teachers- about these texts that turned my eyes outward toward the windows of new understandings and have helped me to see all of the faces of me more clearly than I have in many years.

A favorite quote that inspires my work as a teacher educator is from Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. He says, “What we need more than anything else is not textbooks, but text people.” This statement rings true when we come together in the beit midrash. Each chevruta holds up a different mirror to their partner and takes their partner to look out a different window, and in these moments, our understanding grows exponentially. Through these mirrors and windows, we see not only our minds but also connect with the faces of our souls. One week drinking from the well of Torah learning in the Beit Midrash is not enough to sustain another forty years, but it is enough to refresh my soul and reignite my passion for Torah learning.