New community center seeks to welcome every learner

New community center seeks to welcome every learner

Betting that winter is a perfect season for growth, a new project opening next month aims to offer the joy and challenge of serious Jewish study to every member of the local Jewish community. According to Peter Braasch, who along with David Brent conceived of the Jewish study center last year, Kulam: The Pittsburgh Community Beit Midrash is “an experiment in building community through serious Jewish learning.”

Kulam — the name comes from the Hebrew word meaning “everyone” — will be situated within the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh in Squirrel Hill. Opening on Wednesday, Jan. 11, it will take its cues from traditional approaches to Jewish study, such as the practice of paired learning known as chavruta.

“We are building a place where Pittsburghers can come together on a regular basis to learn Jewish texts through chavruta study and demonstrate the relevance and excitement of different types of Jews coming together to wrestle with the difficult issues fundamental to Jewish life and tradition,” said Braasch.

Prior to developing Kulam, Braasch and Brent worked together on the now defunct Agency for Jewish Learning’s board of directors.

“After the AJL ended we both had some free time and we started talking about it,” said Braasch.

Following discussions with Rabbi Ron Symons, senior director of Jewish Life at the JCC, Rabbi Amy Bardack, director of Jewish learning at the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, and Yaffa Epstein, director of education, North America for the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, the group developed a model for adult Jewish study that should appeal to Pittsburgh’s diverse Jewish community.

“Everybody is welcome,” said Braasch. “It’s right there in the name, no matter what your perspective, observance or level of knowledge is.”

Kulam will operate as a center for both informal and formal Jewish learning. Apart from serving as a space for community members to jointly study, Kulam will feature six on-site classes beginning Jan. 11 and culminating on May 30 at the Tikkun Leil Shavuot, an annual communitywide study program held at the JCC in Squirrel Hill the first night of Shavuot. This year’s Kulam courses are centered on “Jewish Wisdom and Eternal Human Dilemmas” and will be taught by Rabbi Will Friedman, a scholar from the Pardes Institute. The Pardes Institute is seen by many as a pioneer in promoting traditional text-based study in a nondenominational program.

A graduate of Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Friedman was ordained by Rabbi Daniel Landes, former director and rosh yeshiva of the Pardes Institute. Friedman is currently pursuing a doctorate at Harvard University in halachah and legal theory. He studied at the Conservative movement’s yeshiva, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and the Pardes Kollel, and holds a master’s of arts degree in Talmud and Rabbinics from the Jewish Theological Seminary, where he also taught, directed the Beit Midrash and founded and directed Nishma: A Summer of Torah Study.

Landes is known by many Pittsburghers for his prior educational endeavors here. In the late 1990s, Landes and the Pardes Institute piloted a local study program for 25 students called Lishma that was operated by the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh. Landes’ involvement continued during the next decade, when he returned to teach at the AJL through its Pardes Lecture Series.

Although a schedule has already been slated — all sessions will meet on Wednesday evenings from 7:30 until 9:30 in room 202 at the JCC — much work is still needed, said Braasch. “If people are interested in helping, there are lots of things to be done, and we could use the help.”

More information can be found on the project’s Facebook page.

For now, said Braasch, Kulam needs “participants, funders, doers and planners.”

For those seeking to provide financial assistance, a fund has been set up at the Jewish Community Foundation of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh.

“While we have raised enough funds to get started, there is still some significant budget that remains to be covered,” said Braasch, who identified major costs as paying the Pardes Institute for the scholar’s time as well as providing him with transportation back and forth to Pittsburgh.

In terms of space, “the JCC has been very generous at giving us the space at no cost,” added Braasch.

“The JCC welcomes the opportunity for members of the Jewish community to be innovative, and if we can help them do that and bring people together we are happy to support it. It builds the community,” said Symons.

Kulam’s openness and originality are exciting, said Braasch. “I don’t know what this could lead to, but it could be the start of interesting things.” At Kulam, participants can “connect personally with Jewish learning in a way that they haven’t, and connect with other people in the community.

“Once you do that,” he added, “other things happen that could only enrich the life of the community.”

Adam Reinherz can be reached at

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