Celebrated scholar coming to Squirrel Hill for community-building Shabbaton
KulamStudy with Judy Klitsner May 17-18

Celebrated scholar coming to Squirrel Hill for community-building Shabbaton

'Invite opposing viewpoints, consider them, respond to them, and learn how to speak and how to listen'

A Hebrew Bible from the 1500s. (Photo by BiblioArchives / LibraryArchives via Flickr at https://rb.gy/o33td2)
A Hebrew Bible from the 1500s. (Photo by BiblioArchives / LibraryArchives via Flickr at https://rb.gy/o33td2)

An upcoming Shabbaton aims to promote the Pittsburgh Jewish community’s strength. On May 17-18, Kulam is welcoming Jewish educator Judy Klitsner for a weekend of learning and conversation.

Klitsner is the Rabbi Joshua S. Bakst Chair in Tanakh senior educator in Bible at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies. The Jerusalem-based center is regarded for its “open, inclusive, diverse and intellectually challenging Jewish learning community.”

A disciple of the late Bible scholar Nehama Leibowitz, Klitsner is internationally recognized for her interactive, text-based presentations, Squirrel Hill resident David Brent, co-founder of Kulam, said.

“She’s very skilled, first of all, at teaching adults, and secondly, at teaching people who come from a variety of backgrounds — that’s really her expertise,” he added.

Brent, who worked with fellow Kulam co-founder Peter Braasch on the Shabbaton, said the weekend format will ensure everyone feels “welcome and engaged.”

On Friday evening, attendees will enjoy a kosher dinner at the Jewish Community Center in Squirrel Hill, followed by remarks from Klitsner, titled, “Five Stages of Post-Oct. 7 Grief: Personal and Biblical Reflections.”

Saturday’s talk, which follows a kosher lunch at the JCC, is titled, “When Leaders Blur Lines: Two Biblical Cautionary Tales and a Blueprint for the Present.”

Klitsner’s topics are “very relevant to us,” Brent said. “Both of them promote healing and achdus (unity).”

“I think we as a community have suffered three traumas,” he continued. “We’ve suffered the shooting of Oct. 27, the pandemic and then Hamas’ assault on Oct. 7. I think for all those reasons, the idea of being able to come together and do  something constructive — especially across denominations — to come together as Jews and celebrate and learn together, it’s really critical for us to be able to heal and go forward.”

Klitsner, speaking by phone from her home in Israel, agreed.

“I think it’s so important for people to come together in difficult times. And I think Torah study can be a great vehicle to bring people together with a common purpose,” she said. “Interestingly, even more than prayer — which can at times be divisive, because not all denominations can find that they want to pray together — text study is something that everybody can do, and can do together. So, on one level, it’s just an enormously unifying experience.”

There’s another aspect to Jewish learning, Klitsner continued.

“Studying text does something that is kind of countercultural today — but it’s deeply cultural for Jews — and that is to tap into this grand tradition of ours that not only tolerates debate but holds it up as an ideal,” she said. “The idea of machloket, respectful debate, where we can open up a page of Torah text and find two lines of the original biblical text surrounded by 100 lines of cross-generational debate about those lines is something that can speak very loudly and pointedly at this moment where people are shutting each other down and silencing each other.

Machloket can lead the way, and present an alternative model, where we actually invite opposing viewpoints, consider them, respond to them, and learn how to speak and how to listen.”

Kulam’s founders, Peter Braasch and David Brent, have partnered with the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, headquartered in Jerusalem, to make Jewish learning accessible and meaningful to a diverse local population. (Photo courtesy of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies)

Kulam originated pre-pandemic with the hope of bringing people together for “serious learning and community building,” Braasch said.

That goal is “even more painfully urgent than it was four or five years ago when we started,” he added.

“With COVID, a lot of us got out of the habit of building bridges and growing our community, and we sort of retracted to a smaller perimeter,” Braasch said.

Insular behavior affected relationships in Squirrel Hill and the larger community. Even now, a wider problem remains, Braasch said.

“It seems like we’re all getting more and more focused and used to being in more and more homogenous spaces, whether it’s politically or religiously or anything else,” he said.

That behavior is “incredibly limiting,” Braasch continued. “It also leads us to be less and less tolerant and understanding.”

Being able to “talk across our silos of opinions is a universal problem,” Brent said. “In the post-social media world, it’s not just a Jewish problem, but it is a Jewish problem.

“Within Squirrel Hill and the Pittsburgh Jewish community, there are “lots of people in proximity, and they are fascinating people, and have fascinating stories, and you never know it until you bump into them and share a meal with them,” Braasch said. The Shabbaton is a way of “trying to increase the opportunity for that to happen.”

Brent and Braasch credited the JCC with being an “incredible partner” and said they hope community members are inspired to spend time at the center, eating, studying and growing together.

“If you can possibly come to this, you should,” Braasch said. “You’re going to be surprised by the learning, you’re going to be forced to think in different ways, and hopefully, you’ll meet some new people.” PJC

Registration for the Shabbaton is available at rb.gy/992k72. Registration closes May 5.

Adam Reinherz can be reached at areinherz@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

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