It’s hard to say whether pairing noodle kugel and Levinas will facilitate introspection and Jewish communal growth, but Pittsburghers will have a chance to find out this week.
Between Nov. 15 and 16, Israeli resident and Columbia University graduate Rabbi Zvi Hirschfield, of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, will join Kulam: The Pittsburgh Community Beit Midrash for a weekend of meals and Torah study. The Shabbaton will enable guests to dine together and navigate topics in Jewish thought.
On Friday evening, program participants will explore truth and peace, then on Saturday afternoon examine 20th-century French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas’ ideas about ethics and radical responsibility.
The two sessions, bolstered by food and conversation, will enable attendees “to leave the space of their synagogues and interact and reflect on a community-wide level,” said Hirschfield. Whether it is “figuring out how we balance our autonomy and integrity on the one hand with our need to stay together on the other hand,” or delving into “how we build relationships in the community and why the Jewish community is very powerful and relevant today,” the topics should engender meaningful dialogue and discovery, he said.
Hirschfield teaches Talmud, Jewish law and Jewish thought at Pardes. He’s lived in Israel for nearly two decades, but has Diasporic roots. After graduating from Ida Crown Jewish Academy in Chicago and completing an undergraduate degree in history at Columbia University, Hirschfield studied at Yeshivat Har Etzion near Jerusalem and received ordination from the Chief Rabbinate of Israel.
Hirschfield was Judaica director at the Jewish Community Center of Cleveland for five years and recognizes the sensitivity of traveling to Pittsburgh in November and discussing football or city rivalries. Most likely, he’ll stick to texts, he noted.
One communal aspect he will address, however, is the fact that the Shabbaton is occurring on the Hebrew date of 18 Cheshvan, the yahrzeit of those murdered in last year’s attack at the Tree of Life building.
“I’m going to say something about it because it’s appropriate to,” he said. “We know of no better way to honor the memory of those who were literally killed in shul than by deepening our tradition and connecting to each other. This is what Jewish resilience and Jewish survival is about.”
Gathering together in this capacity will afford “terrific learning that will be relevant to your life and deepen your spiritual life,” echoed Peter Braasch, a co-organizer of Kulam. The goal of bringing people together in this format is that between the combination of study and food, “we are hoping people will build relationships,” he added.
Kulam originated nearly four years ago after Braasch and David Brent served together on the board of the now defunct Agency for Jewish Learning. Around 2016, the two Squirrel Hill residents began working with educators and supporters to facilitate opportunities for informal and formal Jewish learning. Since that time they’ve regularly partnered with Pardes scholars, including Rabba Yaffa Epstein and Rabbi Will Friedman, to promote textual study with a nondenominational approach through the Kulam program.
The objective of the Shabbaton in Pittsburgh and in general at Pardes is to “bring people from different backgrounds, who have different beliefs and different Jewish practices in a way that we can all study Torah together and learn to appreciate and grow with the challenge of our differences,” said Hirschfield.
Studying Torah together is “a means of connecting people without forced agreement,” he added. “Our tradition almost always presents multiple perspectives on any issue, and within the texts there is a balance between elucidating competing values.” When study partners wrestle with a piece of traditional Jewish learning, they’re often trying to determine competing notions, such as what the text is saying but also what their beliefs are relative to the material. “Figuring out where the text is and figuring out where I am is not about denigrating an opposing view but a chance to challenge it,” said Hirschfield.
Kulam stems from the Hebrew word for “everyone,” Braasch previously told the Chronicle. “Everybody is welcome,” he said. “It’s right there in the name, no matter what your perspective, observance or level of knowledge is.” PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.