When Leon Morris was just 10 years old and living in Connellsville, Pa. — a town 50 miles southeast of Pittsburgh, with just 10 Jewish families — he built a sukkah by himself in his backyard.
“It was probably the first sukkah in Connellsville in 50 or 75 years,” recalled Morris, the newly installed president of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, a nondenominational Jewish learning community located in Israel.
Growing up in Connellsville, in a family that was not particularly observant, Morris nonetheless always thought of being Jewish as “special,” and from an early age, took it upon himself to try to encourage his family to enlarge their ritual observances, as well as educate his non-Jewish friends about what it meant to be a Jew.
“My experience growing up as a Jew in Connellsville is what ultimately led me to become a rabbi and an educator,” Morris said. “I felt like this Jewish piece of my identity was something special and something unusual and something that from a very early age I had to explain to all of my non-Jewish friends — and in reality, I think I was explaining it to myself.”
While attending public school in Connellsville, Morris never had more than one other Jew in his class and never more than three or four other Jews in the whole school. But instead of finding that experience isolating, Morris sought Jewish connection elsewhere. His family attended Congregation Emanu-El Israel in Greensburg, and Morris became active in its Reform youth group, NFTY.
“By high school I began to have very deep friendships with Jews from other parts of the state and other parts of the country [through NFTY],” Morris said. “I had this very intense love for Judaism at a very early age.”
Morris, who graduated from the University of Pittsburgh in 1990, comes to Pardes from the Shalom Hartman Institute, where he served as vice president for North American programs in Israel and is part of the faculty of Hebrew Union College. He made aliyah with his family in June 2014 after serving as the rabbi of Temple Adas Israel in Sag Harbor, N.Y.
Ordained from Hebrew Union College in 1997, Morris was a Wexner Graduate Fellow and has worked extensively with the Jewish community of India, beginning in 1990 when he served as a Jewish Service Corps volunteer for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.
Morris has taught at a range of institutions across the denominational spectrum, including those of the Orthodox, Conservative and Reform movements, and his appointment to Pardes has been praised across that spectrum as well.
“Rabbi Leon Morris is a visionary Jewish leader who is not only an excellent teacher and sophisticated strategic thinker but also inspires others by his stellar personal example of warmth, kindness and gentility,” said Rabbi Ari Berman, the incoming president of Yeshiva University, in a prepared statement.
“He has a long and impressive track record of creative and thoughtful leadership in Jewish education and will lead Pardes to new levels of achievement and success in the years ahead.”
Morris is the first Pardes alumnus to hold the position of president, having studied on the Pardes Year Program in 1995-96, as well as during two summer sessions.
“For me, this appointment is a homecoming, because Pardes has always been one of my intellectual homes, one of my spiritual homes,” Morris said, “and I think like a lot of graduates of Pardes, there is a sense that Pardes contributed to making me into the kind of Jew that I am today.”
Morris praised Pardes’ serious emphasis on the study of Jewish texts and a faculty and staff that understands that “a deep relationship with the classics of Jewish tradition is the key to any type of Jewish life, regardless of denomination or ideology.”
Deep learning can help “anchor” creative expression in Jewish life, Morris said, and he intends to help the institution refine its vision based on classic texts, “still relevant in the 21st century,” as its foundation.
“American Jews right now really need values of the beit midrash, the values of the Jewish house of study, because it’s all about mutual respect, it’s all about celebrating diversity, it’s all about argument for the sake of heaven, it’s about sitting across the table from someone who has a diametrically opposed world view than you do and learning from them and speaking with them,” he explained.
Pardes, Morris said, will focus its attention over the next year on creating an initiative with its alumni community and thereby extending the reach of the institution.
“We have an amazing group of alumni,” he said, which includes almost 400 rabbis, and hundreds of day school educators, Jewish nonprofit leaders and lay leaders.
“We are poised to create a movement from this community — not a movement in the sense of denomination, but in the sense of bringing these values of the beit midrash to the American Jewish community and making Jewish learning the identifying thing that Jews do.”
In Pittsburgh, Pardes will continue to partner with Kulam, Morris said. Kulam is an open learning community, housed at the Jewish Community Center and launched earlier this year, that convenes local Jews of diverse backgrounds to examine issues relevant to Jewish life through dialogue and study.
Morris hopes to use Kulam as a model to bring similar learning initiatives to other cities, he said.
“We are seeing ourselves as an institution with a global reach with its beit midrash in Israel,” Morris explained. “Not everyone can come here, and we want to have significant rich learning opportunities in the United States and in Europe as well.”
David Shapira, who sits on the North American board of Pardes, said he is confident that Morris is the right man to be leading the institution.
“I am impressed by Leon’s wisdom and by his thoughtful, spiritual approach to Judaism and text study. Pardes is unique in its open, nondenominational approach to the serious study of Jewish texts, and Leon’s experiences teaching in institutions that span the Jewish spectrum make him the right person to lead Pardes into the future.” pjc
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at