This week at a festive event at Jerusalem’s Menachem Begin Heritage Center, the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies (Machon Pardes) marked the beginning of its Jubilee Year of Celebration – 50 years as one of Israel’s premier educational institutions. Former Jewish Agency chair and one of modern Judaism’s heroes, Natan Sharansky, was the keynote speaker.
Fifty-one years ago in 1971, a 27-year-old American oleh, Rabbi Michael Swirsky, hatched the idea of creating an educational framework in Jerusalem that would provide entrée to the world of Jewish religious learning with no agenda other than to facilitate knowledge. Its approach would be non-denominational and open-ended, combining the spiritual seriousness and non-instrumentalism of the yeshiva with the intellectual openness and tolerance of the university. The intent was to create a one-year, noncredit study program tailored to post-college young adults, primarily from North America.
Swirsky spent the next year securing support, designing a curriculum, assembling a faculty and student body, and setting up a physical facility. The institute, to which he gave the name Pardes – suggestive of the mystery, multifacetedness, and fruitfulness of Torah – opened its doors in the fall of 1972 with a student body of 25. Among the original teachers were Adin Steinsaltz, David Hartman, and Eliezer Schweid, with teaching assistants who included Menahem Froman and Dov Berkovits.
Pardes began with the unacknowledged support of the World Zionist Organization, which provided the physical facility and overhead, with salaries coming from student tuition. This arrangement continued until 1987, when the institute became an independent, self-sustaining entity.
Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies expands
From 1987 until the early 2000s, Pardes expanded its board of directors to include business people and communal leaders who took upon themselves the responsibility of raising the funds necessary to continue to grow Pardes. While the American Pardes Foundation had existed in the US for many years, it was not until 1996 that an office was opened in New York City, its board enhanced, and it became an active partner with the Jerusalem board.
It was clear that given the ages of the student body, most students had not reached financial independence, and therefore financial assistance became and remains an integral part of Pardes and its finances.
Pardes was originally housed next to Ulpan Etzion in Baka and then moved downtown to Shivtei Yisrael Street. When the opportunity arose, a facility was rented on Pierre Koenig Street in Talpiot. Pardes eventually purchased that space, renovated it and then leased additional space as well.
With high hopes of finally having a building that would meet the growing needs of the institute, the adjacent lot was purchased and, thankfully, construction is now underway for a permanent facility on that lot, which will be an iconic building in Talpiot.
Upon completion, Pardes will be able to expand its offerings significantly, both locally and internationally. The building will be a shining manifestation of the words of Psalm 122, “Our feet are standing within your gates, O Jerusalem.”
Major changes in education programming
FROM THE early 1990s, major changes began to happen within the institute. A summer program was added that accepted a wider age range of students. Given the requests of one-year students for an additional year of study, the second-year Fellows Program was born. Pardes soon began hosting visiting groups for short-term learning as well.
With the assistance of the Avi Chai Foundation, the Pardes Educators Program was created and today produces more Jewish day school teachers than any other similar program. In addition, community education learning began during this period, offering courses to the general population in Jerusalem and the surrounding area.
Over the years, each of these innovations became more fully developed, and the Pardes faculty expanded. Because of its independence, Pardes has had the unique ability to create and adapt to meet the needs of an ever-evolving Jewish world.
As a former chair of the Israel board of directors, what has impressed me about Pardes and seemingly, the motivating factor for everyone involved, is the incredible impact our graduates have had, and continue to have, particularly on the American Jewish community. As we mark our 50th anniversary as an institution, it is impressive to see these facts validated by the numbers.
Pardes’s alumni include (based on 2021 statistics):
- More than 500 ordained rabbis across all denominations
- 56 rabbinical school students in various denominations
- 499 who were, or are, day school professionals, of whom 23 were, or are, heads of schools and 382 were, or are, teachers. This makes Pardes the largest source of day school professionals in the non-Orthodox community.
- 405 who were, or are, Hillel professionals, of whom 57 hold or held the position of executive director
- 45 university professors or instructors in Jewish subjects
- 143 synagogue Judaic studies educators.
- 160 Wexner Graduate Fellows (27% of all Wexner Fellows).
- 180 Dorot Fellows (53% of all Dorot Fellows)
Announcements earlier this year of additional community designations demonstrated where Pardes alumni took center stage as well. Specifically, 20% of the latest (Class 6) Wexner Field Fellows are Pardes alumni and 37% of the latest recipients of Covenant Foundation grants are Pardes alumni.
Moreover, all of this progress has continued apace during the COVID epidemic. The institute’s enrollment has grown in the past two years, both in resident students in Jerusalem and in an explosion of participants in online courses as well.
In addition, the launching of Pardes North America in early 2021, in the midst of the pandemic, was not only a statement of faith in the future of our work there, but also a commitment to affect the educational growth of Jewish life in North America.
All of us in Israel can rightfully take pride in the accomplishments of Pardes. Let us hope that in the next 50 years, the institute will be blessed to go from strength to strength.
The writer is a 38-year resident of Jerusalem, CEO of Atid EDI Ltd., a Jerusalem-based international business development consultancy, immediate past chair of the board of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, former national president of the Association of Americans and Canadians in Israel, as well as past chair of the Board of Jewish Education of Metropolitan Chicago.