Jewish learning for ‘everyone’ starts second season in Pittsburgh
The program incorporates chavruta, where students study a particular biblical or Talmudic passage with a partner to expand their experiences with and analysis of the text.
Building on 2017’s successful first run, Kulam: The Pittsburgh Community Beit Midrash launched its second iteration this week, boasting a slate of scholars primed to continue a new tradition of adult Jewish education in the Steel City.
With an eye toward community building, 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.
The seven-session course, which is free of charge, is open to both men and women, regardless of previous levels of Jewish education or denominational affiliation.
The weekly evening class at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh is featuring four scholars from Pardes to teach the foundational Biblical and Talmudic stories of the Jewish tradition.
The first class was taught by Leah Rosenthal, a 20-year veteran of Talmud instruction at Pardes, on Jan. 17. Other classes are being held on Jan. 24, Feb. 14, March 7, March 21, April 25 and May 9.
What sets Kulam — a Hebrew word which translates to “everyone” — apart from some other contemporary adult education programs is its incorporation of chavruta, in which students pore over a particular biblical or Talmudic passage with a partner, with each person bringing his own unique experiences and analytic prowess to the table.
Among the approximately 60 people who studied at Kulam last year, said Brent, about 20 percent were unaffiliated with a congregation, with the remaining 80 percent divided equally among Orthodox, Conservative and Reform Jews. For about one-third of the participants, Kulam was the only Jewish learning activity in which they were engaged. About 40 percent were under the age of 45.
Kulam is funded by grants and donations, including a fund that has been established at the Jewish Community Foundation of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh.
“For me, it’s exciting for people to learn from one another in settings where they wouldn’t necessarily be together,” Brent said. “Every Jewish person has something to offer.”
That everyone has something to offer when it comes to the study of Jewish texts is one of the basic premises on which Pardes was founded, said Rabba Yaffa Epstein, who serves as the director of education, North America, for Pardes.
Epstein, who identifies as modern Orthodox, received Rabbinic Ordination from Yeshivat Maharat and holds a law degree from Bar-Ilan University. Epstein will be leading two of Kulam’s sessions, on Jan. 24 and Feb. 14.
“Pardes is a nondenominational, coed Jewish learning institution, and a big part of our belief system is that all Jews are welcome, and all Jews should come and learn Jewish texts in a warm, safe environment,” said Epstein. “So, what we are trying to build with Kulam is the same sort of concept of open, nondenominational, cross-communal learning, so all Jews are welcome to come and learn.”
Kulam offers “a really deep dive into classic texts,” Epstein continued, “which means that every session will have some chavruta learning.”
A Jewish learner does not need any particular background, practice or belief system “in order to have access to deep Jewish learning,” Epstein explained. “What you see when you delve into classic Jewish texts, even when you don’t have a strong learning background and even if you don’t know Hebrew or haven’t learned Talmud before — if the text is made accessible to you — is that the questions and the issues that the rabbis of the Talmud are dealing with are still very live and very real issues that we are dealing with today.”
For example, Epstein said, Rosenthal’s session covered “the relationship between the land of Israel and the diaspora, which is a very live question in our day and certainly a very live question in the time of the Talmud.
“It’s a bit of a surprise, because I think people think of the Talmud as details and rules and this law book,” Epstein added. “But actually, when you start to delve into the Talmud — and the same is true with the Bible as well — when you delve into the text in a deep way, what you see is that these are universal questions, and they are age-old, and the Jewish tradition has a lot to say that is relevant to our times.”
It is “empowering,” she said, to have students of various backgrounds studying these texts together and learning from each other. “We’re saying to everyone, ‘Your voice is necessary as part of this conversation.’”
The organizers of Kulam hope that it can become a “long-term project,” continuing, in some form, beyond its initial two-year run, Brent said. PJC
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at