by Jan Jaben-Eilon
Even before the first experimental two-week Silicon Valley Beit Midrash (SVBM) ended on June 27, plans were underway to design the next one-of-a-kind programs for the well-known innovative region of the country. Similar intensive Beit Midrash retreat-model programs that focus on Jewish text study are not new for the East Coast. But SVBM is a first for the West Coast, say the developers, and that is appropriate given the start-up mentality of Silicon Valley.
Director Shani Gross grew up in the New York area, graduated from Yeshiva University and attended Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem as well as other institutions, and when she moved to the West Coast, she “thought it was weird that the West Coast didn’t have any beit midrash programs.” Together with SVBM Founder and Rosh Yeshiva Rabbi David Booth of Kol Emeth, a Conservative 650-family member synagogue in Palo Alto, a supportive donor from the congregation, and their partners from Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem, Gross designed, marketed and implemented the Beit Midrash with a surprising 40 people registered for either a one-week or two-week session. “We hoped to get 15 people over two weeks,” says Gross. The fees ranged from $180 per week for students to $530 for two weeks for professionals. Scholarships were also available. Fees included daily lunches and two dinners per week, as well as some additional evening events. The daily sessions were hosted by Kol Emeth.
When Gross and Booth started talking about the idea late last year, they thought they could pull off a well-designed Beit Midrash perhaps for the summer of 2015, but decided to experiment with the idea this summer. “We’ve been running as fast as we can to get it ready in six months,” says Gross, adding that they focused their marketing locally, reaching out to synagogues and Jewish Community Centers and Hillels, as well as Jewish day schools along with their partners Pardes and Kevah, a Berkeley-based learning organization. “It was amazing to see how much we could accomplish in so little time,” she says.
They were also surprised at the quantity and quality of the response. “I didn’t think of this area of having serious Jewish educators; I think of the East Coast,” says Gross. “It struck me of how many people are so knowledgeable and had a text background.” Rabbi Booth was shocked at the wide range of individuals the Beit Midrash attracted, from Hebrew Union College students studying to be rabbis, to engineers, astrophysicists, neuroscientists and, of course, Jewish educators. A math teacher was fascinated to look at education through a Jewish lens. “This was unexpected,” notes Gross. Participants came, not only from the Silicon Valley area, but Portland, Oregon, Los Angeles, Denver. They also came from all denominations and all ages.
“So many organizations are trying to build community and attract the under-35 age group,” says Gross, and “half of our participants are under age 35. We are focusing on building the love of text study and community comes naturally from that.”
The diverse denominational background of the Beit Midrash’s faculty is also unique, Booth and Gross noted, including professors from Stanford University, Conservative rabbis and Orthodox educators all working together. Rabbi Booth added that they reached out to notable Reform rabbis as well but were unable to coordinate schedules with them. Courses ranged from the study of gender, the laws of kashrut, Talmud, Halakha, Midrash and Jewish thought, to a separate educational track. The classes accommodated all levels of Hebrew and text study experience.
“The big question was whether we could attract good participants and put together a good program and we’ve shown we can do it,” says Rabbi Booth. First-week evaluations from the participants extolled the program: “The diversity of minds and unity of purpose created an environment which enabled me to openly re-engage in a world of learning,” says one. Another wrote: “Eye, mind and heart-opening; so glad I did it!”
Gross speculates that the Beit Midrash worked so well in Silicon Valley because “this is a technology area and maybe these types of people ask a lot of questions and think outside the box. I really see this area as a future center of such learning. Being Silicon Valley and being in a start-up world, there’s an energy and willingness to try something new. The idea was that if it goes well, we’ll get other funding.”
Booth and Gross already are planning a shortened version of their Beit Midrash for the winter break, as well as a two-week session for the summer of 2015. “We are in talks to figure out how to expand and connect with other organizations, all involving text study,” says Gross. “We’re not sure who our partners will be but we’ve begun to broaden our funding base,” adds Booth, who grew up in the Bay Area and has been a rabbi at Kol Emeth for eight years.
He explained that his main donor viewed the investment as venture capital. Active in the Silicon Valley world, the donor “gave us money to show that the concept will work.” According to Booth, one of the challenges in the philanthropy world in general is a “great desire for success. Silicon Valley says that it’s okay to have a good failure. Even if something doesn’t work out, you can tweak it, learn from it. I interact with people who understand that a good failure means you go forward to learn what changes need to be made. There’s a willingness to try something and take risks.”
Still, he’s thankful that the Silicon Valley Beit Midrash was a glowing success instead.