Posted on January 26, 2022 by Bracha Lieberman
This post was written by PLS participant Bracha Lieberman. To learn more about the Pardes Learning Seminar program, which runs during the summer and winter, please visit www.pardes.org.il/seminar.
I grew up Modern Orthodox and studied in Orthodox schools through high school. My mother had wanted me to learn about the Jewish people, Jewish values, the Jewish way of life, and Israel. Additionally, I am directly descended from the most well-known Torah commentator, Rashi, on my mother’s side of the family, so I felt innately connected to Torah study. Being a Pisces and spiritually inclined by nature, I remember at age 12, waking up with this thought, “If I were to wake up one day and find out that there was no such thing as G-d, I would still believe in G-d!
In college, through Rabbi Meir Fund, I began studying Chassidic perspectives on Judaism. I also had a chance to experience events and services connected with the Chavurah and Jewish Renewal Movements, deepening creativity, community spirit, and spirituality in Judaism. I was deeply committed to leadership in some social action projects at Lincoln Square Synagogue. Between synagogues, I got deeply reconnected to community and Torah study, through a weekly class, given by Rabbi Tsvi Blanchard. His inspiring focus on psychology, Jewish values and connection to G-d, kept me going on that half-hour walk every Shabbat, even though the winter of 17 snowstorms! I have since connected with the Carlebach Shul, which reflects a modern Chassidic approach, and emphasizes the joy, singing, spirituality, unique Chassidic insights of Torah study, stories, reaching out to others and appreciating each person. I am open to learning from many aspects of Judaism across the movements, including appreciating the Reform Movement’s emphasis on social justice, seeing that each one has something unique to offer, as does each and every person, who I see as created in the image of G-d.
At a Jewish conference, it was my good fortune to study with and get to know Rabbi Daniel Landes, Director of Pardes for a number of years. I was moved by his perspective which was both visionary and humble. I knew I would come to Pardes to study! My first Pardes Learning Seminar was in Winter 2019, the last in-person seminar before Covid moved things online. The theme was Shaping Meaningful Relationships in a Lonely World. The sessions, teachers and students were wonderful, with time to reconnect with friends and relatives. There was also the consciousness of being in Israel. Even a street sign became my teacher! The sign said Shalom Aleichem (a common greeting that means:” Hi, peace to you!”). Immersed in Pardes, looking more deeply at texts, I suddenly saw that the phrase translated literally means Peace is upon you” In other words, peace is your responsibility! This was a mind-blowing lesson for me, paralleling many of the Pardes daily experiences that caused me to look more carefully within myself and at others. The second seminar I attended in 2020 was already online. The theme was Who Am I; the Complexity of Jewish Identity in the 21st century. It was also very engaging, so it was clear to me that I would register in 2021 for the most recent seminar on the theme of Courage and Resilience.
The Pardes system of teaching using havruta or partnered learning between students together with the teachers’ facilitating discussions and raising interesting questions around highlighted texts as well as classmates sharing what they learned and the impact it had on them was like the joyous uplifting experience of popcorn popping, never quite knowing yet looking forward to what will happen next!
Each day began with a Reflection session, skillfully coordinated by Rabbanit Nechama Goldman Barash. It featured questions meant to help us process and think deeply about the previous day’s sessions and takeaways from our learning. This helped create an atmosphere that encouraged diversity, creative thinking, in-depth study of the ancient texts and active engagement with classmates and teachers. As a community-building activity, this process helped demonstrate the unique contributions of each person in the cohort.
Each session was amazing, but I will share a few examples of teachings that have stayed with me. One session I deeply connected with was on D’vekut, literally a yearning for closeness to G-d, given by Rabbi Mike Feuer. One idea, from the Baal Shem Tov, founder of Chassidut, was that G-d wishes to be served in all ways, freely, and to avoid letting the service of G-d become constricted. Something else that I’m still thinking about is the idea that “what is, doesn’t define what will be” and our ability to change ourselves and the world around us. Additionally, a song that Rabbi Leon Morris, President of Pardes, shared with us, Keter Melucha, by Ishai Ribo, extended these ideas further and related to themes of yearning for D’vekut and connection.
Many sessions referenced the understanding that we are all created in G-d’s image. One beautiful example was in a class given by Rabbi Michael Hattin on Joshua. We learned the story of a prostitute named Rahab who helped two Israelite spies, sent by Joshua to scout out Jericho, escape detection by the king, exacting a promise for her family’s salvation when the Israelite nation will come, with God’s protection, to defeat the city. One idea that came up in class was that Rahab, possibly for the first time in her life sees two men arrive on her doorstep, not asking for sexual favors, but for her help! This suggests that personal transformation can happen at the most unexpected times and ways from the most unexpected sources.
If transformation can happen for a woman on the periphery of society, inspiring her towards heroism, then anything can happen in our lives if we open ourselves to it. May it be so!