House of Study

Jerusalem’s Pardes Institute marks 50 years with renewal and expansion

Nondenominational learning center plans to more than double its activities over next two years

As of May 2023, Rabba Yaffa Epstein has presented at more than 60 Limmud Jewish learning events, and has reached thousands of students; she continues to impact students as senior scholar and educator-in-residence at the Jewish Education Project. But 20 years before any of that, in 2003, Epstein arrived at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem as a member of its kollel, the institute’s advanced study program, and discovered a unique trifecta, she told eJewishPhilanthropy

“The students love the teachers, the teachers love the students and both the students and teachers love Torah,” she said, adding that at Pardes “all Jews are really invited into learning and into claiming their own place in Jewish tradition and in the chain of Jewish learning for all generations… Everything that I do in the classroom I learned at Pardes.”

Pardes was founded in fall of 1972 by American emigre Michael Swirsky, with the mission of creating a space that provided access to Jewish learning for Jewish learning’s sake. Initially supported by the World Zionist Organization, Pardes became independent in 1987, blooming into a central, diverse, nondenominational, pluralistic institution of Jewish text study. The institute is now headquartered in a nondescript industrial-style building on Pierre Koenig Street in Jerusalem’s Talpiot neighborhood. 

Marking the milestone of its 50th anniversary, Pardes has been celebrating since the autumn, with special events including a free, public Tikkun Leil Shavuot (all-night learning in honor of Shavuot) in Jerusalem, and a pop-up beit midrash (house of study) in Berlin co-sponsored with Hillel Deutschland. While the year of formal festivities concludes this month with a five-day summer seminar in Jerusalem, from June 25- 29, there will be other opportunities to celebrate the institution’s approach to pluralistic learning in the U.S., for instance, a late August retreat will draw alumni and friends to Pearlstone Retreat Center in Maryland. 

Rabbi Leon Morris, who has helmed the institution as president and CEO since 2017, remembers coming to Pardes seeking proficiency and relationship with Jewish texts, and learning that the institute’s mission centered on “this notion that the Torah belongs to all Jews.” 

“I’ve always been attracted to Jewish environments that are pluralistic and diverse,” Morris told eJP, naming places like Hillel and Limmud, “and Pardes very much is that.”

In its next phase, Pardes is centered on starting and completing its new building — named after late lay leader Karen Shapira — and growth, both of which are detailed in a newly released strategic plan. The plan’s implementation is rooted in several ideas: love for Torah study itself as well as its ability to transform individuals and community; personal and spiritual growth; the crucial role of community-building in welcoming multiple perspectives and constructive disagreement; and building deep connections between Israel and Jewish people worldwide.

The strategic plan identifies a goal of more than doubling the organization’s overall activities by 2025. In Israel, this means 30% growth in its immersive programs and 75% growth in its short-term programs; and in North America, it means 275% growth for both in-person and digital programs, increasing reach from 8000 participants in 2022 to a projected 30,000 in 2025. 

The plan also outlined five priority areas for building: programmatic success, presence in North America, the Pardes team as a whole, capacity for organizational excellence and the institution’s new Jerusalem location, “Beit Karen,” named in memory of the late former Pardes board member Karen Shapira. The David S. and Karen A. Shapira Foundation is also the largest donor to the capital and endowment campaign. Moshe and Libby Werthan of Nashville, Tenn., and Paula Gottesman are some of the donors who contributed to this campaign.

“We are proud to support this project, but the vision and ambition for this project rests with Rabbi Danny Landes and generations of Pardes leaders, dating back to the early 2000s,” Joshua Donner, the executive director of the Shapira Foundation, told eJP. “Our role, if we had any beyond financial, has been to stand by Pardes leadership through the various phases and ups and downs of the project. Part of our gift was to purchase the property back in the early 2000s. There were certainly times in the intervening decades when we weren’t sure the building would ever happen. But we stuck with Pardes, and now couldn’t be happier to (finally) see the seeds of that initial investment bloom.”

The site is currently being excavated, and people can watch their progress on the livecam that broadcasts from the site. As of Thursday morning, the team had dug down more than 24 meters (80 feet), hitting the maximum depth of the building plus a bit for the foundation, Donner said.
“The Foundation is a long-time and proud supporter of Pardes. Pardes has had a transformative impact on individuals in the Shapira Family, and so many more in the family’s orbit.”

As of the May 12 capital campaign report, Morris told eJP, Pardes has raised $25.5 million of its $36 million goal. The campaign itself has been running for more than a decade, since the land for the new building was purchased. In 2017, the campaign was relaunched, with a bold initial goal of $36 million. 

At 54,000 square feet, the new facility will enable the organization to serve four times the number of students, with a 250-person theater for public programs, green spaces, new technology and an incubator for new educational initiatives. 

The pop-up beit midrash in Berlin is an example of Pardes’ goal to achieve what Morris and the strategic plan call “the beit midrashification of Jewish life,” an approach that anchors Jewish life in the study of Jewish texts. 

“We think the beit midrash is the most interesting and fruitful and engaging institution in Jewish life,” Morris continued, adding that Pardes wants synagogues, JCCs and friendship circles to become batei midrash (plural for house of study). The Pardes beit midrash is an example of diversity, he continued. “You see young people and older people, you see men, women, straight, gay, non-binary, people of color. Women wearing a head covering and women wearing tank tops, and men wearing kippot and not wearing kippot and women wearing tzitzit. And everybody’s just engaged in this kind of transcendent learning experience.” 

“We want the notion that Torah provides a common language for all Jews, regardless of ideology, or level of practice, to really predominate,” Morris added. “Our real raison d’etre is that we are completely obsessed, we are meshuga ladavar, with classic texts, [and] believe that these classic Jewish texts have continued relevance and can be a source of enormous creativity.” 

“There’s nothing you have to do or be in order to learn at Pardes,” Epstein said, “nothing you have to believe, no political affiliation you have to have. The only thing you have to want is to learn.” 

Faith Leener, for example, knew she wanted to learn more. Before she found Pardes, she told eJP, she grew up as an “average American Jew” — with one Jewish parent and no real formal Jewish education, she often felt embarrassed walking into Jewish spaces, because she felt she lacked the education to participate in Jewish life. She heard Epstein teach “and I was sold,” she told eJP. “Wherever this lady’s from, I’m going to follow her.” 

Leener not only followed Epstein to Pardes, but subsequently served on the institute’s board and met her husband there. In March, she became the inaugural chief innovation officer at the institute that, she said, “provided her with an on-ramp to Jewish community.”

“I thought what I mostly was missing was access to information,” Leener said. “What I realized was that information only comes alive in both hevruta [partnered learning] and in larger kehillah, in community. Pardes does that so beautifully, you are learning in a beit midrash environment where you have a multiplicity of voices across generations and from very different backgrounds, talking about these texts…” she said, adding that the combination of gaining access to both knowledge and the robust Jewish community was “transformative for how I understood what it meant to be a Jewish person.” 

As CIO, she now leads the Pardes North America’s team of six staffers and four part-time faculty members with a budget of $1.48 million, to cover operations and salaries. Pardes North America’s work currently falls into three major categories: online learning, including classes and podcasts; immersive experiences, like retreats and daylong immersives for skill building; and in-person teaching with Pardes faculty. Leener is also building collaborations, strategies, new initiatives and efforts to mobilize the more than 10,000 alumni who have participated in immersive programs at Pardes. 

Morris estimated that among the nearly 6,000 people who are alumni of a Pardes year-long program, are 177 day school teachers, many of whom became heads of school,  principals or who held other educational positions. About 1,200 Pardes alumni are rabbi-educators. Anecdotally, Morris added, many alumni, spanning the denominations, are lay leaders of synagogues and organizations within the Jewish community — he named Rabbi Marc Baker, president and CEO of Boston’s Combined Jewish Philanthropies — who Morris said has “spent more years in Pardes than any other human being in our 50-year history” — Nigel Savage, who founded Hazon and Elie Kaunfer who co-founded Hadar.

Leener calls community-building “a fundamental human need people are seeking” in the post-pandemic, Zoom-ubiquitous world. 

“The world is shifting underneath people so quickly,” Leener said, noting big issues like  climate change, the AI boom, economic trends, gun violence and mental health as examples. “People are seeking a sense of rootedness in the world, because it doesn’t feel like there’s anything stable. I see learning Torah — in deep, intimate community where you’re growing as a person and you’re growing in relationship with others — as an anchor to the world when everything’s swirling around you,” Leener said.

“Mostly, today Jewish spaces that call themselves pluralistic are various ways of being non-Orthodox,” Morris said, but Pardes is “truly pluralistic,” he added because “we have one institution that has within it people who have different definitions of who is a Jew.” 

Although the North American Jewish scene has “creativity, openness and hospitality,” Morris said, “what we see missing is depth and content. And that’s what we’re about.”

Leener believes that Pardes should be providing educational content around life transitions, and not just for b’nai mitzvah, weddings and funerals. “I think there’s a million other times and places in life where people are seeking wisdom and guidance that we could be creating a Torah response to, or put[ting] a Torah conversation with,” she added, suggesting significant illness and recovery, divorce, professional transitions et al as examples. 

Although Pardes has changed over the years, its value proposition hasn’t, Morris said. “We think Jewish life is strengthened by a variety of forms of Jewish practice in Jewish life. But we want all those forms to be anchored in serious learning.”