By Stephen G. Donshik
In December 2015, I had the opportunity to participate in the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies Winter Executive Learning Seminar, titled “The Golden Age of Tzfat.” The five-day seminar was divided between three and a half days of class presentations and discussions with a variety of noted scholars and teachers, and a day and a half spent traveling, touring, and learning on site in Tzfat. The participants represented a cross-section of Israeli and Diaspora Jewry. There were academics, communal professionals, and private practitioners in law, medicine, and a host of other fields.
We learned about the role that Tzfat played not only in Jewish history but also in the evolution and development of the daily, Shabbat, and Holy Day liturgy we hold so dear and pray when in synagogue. Many of us may have toured the quaint mystical city in the Upper Galilee, but few have had the opportunity to study text with teachers and to share the experience with others, who are also trying to understand the meaning of the text and its relevance for us today.
This unique experience provided all of us an opportunity to participate in luxurious learning.
Why do I call it luxurious? To be able to listen to great teachers and to learn about the critical role of the kabbalists and mystics in Tzfat – and then to sit with a peer and try to decipher the meaning of a classic text and what it says to you on a spiritual, as well as an intellectual level – is certainly a luxury. Many of us have had frequent opportunities to attend lectures and hear very scholarly and articulate presenters, but their focus is on the communication of information. How often do we have the opportunity to explore what has been said to us with a colleague or peer and ask ourselves, “So what does this all mean to me?” At the Pardes seminar the focus was on how the participants could integrate what they learned into their own lives.
The uniqueness and luxury of Pardes’s educational approach stem from more than just the dissemination of knowledge; what makes this approach unique is that it encourages students to acquire knowledge for themselves by integrating it into their lives when and where it is relevant.
Another aspect of the learning experience at Pardes is its emphasis on encouraging each student to decide what religious or spiritual approach he or she wants to pursue. The teachers, lecturers, and facilitators are not there to provide answers or dictate how to integrate the learning into the participants’ religious and spiritual lives or practices. Instead, the purpose of learning at Pardes is to enable every participant to have enough information to make decisions about how to live Jewishly. Given the readiness of various religious leaders and personalities to provide black-and-white answers and direction, it is a luxury to learn in an atmosphere that empowers participants to seek knowledge and information that will to enable them to make their own decisions about their spiritual and religious lives.
The Pardes Executive Learning Seminar is open to all those who are interested in deepening their knowledge and understanding. It encourages everyone to learn together without rating the participants based on their Jewish background. The unique educational approach enables those with an extensive background to learn together with those who have a more limited exposure to Jewish texts. The seminar is held once in the winter and once in the summer.
If you are looking for a special continuing educational experience, then join me for the next Pardes Executive Learning Seminar. The theme for the summer seminar, which will be held on July 2-7, 2016, is Ruth & Esther: From Rags to Royalty.
For more information visit www.pardes.org.il/executive.
Stephen G. Donshik is a retired lecturer at the Hebrew University’s Rothberg International School and occasional contributor to eJewishPhilanthropy.com.