PONYTELLE, Pa., June 8 (JTA) — The Shabbaton was intended to bring Orthodox and non-Orthodox people together to study Jewish sources, but the weekend did not quite work out that way. Of about 100 adults participating in the Orthodox Union’s recent Kesher Shabbat retreat, only three described themselves as non- Orthodox. Participants nonetheless said they found it a unique experience, as devout Jews of varying philosophies came together for worship and study at a lakeside camp and retreat center in northeastern Pennsylvania. The Shabbaton focused on the Pardes program, initiated by the O.U. in December 1995, as a way to bring together Jews to study issues relevant to their contemporary concerns. Some 14,000 to 15,000 Jews across the country get together once a month to discuss topics presented by the Pardes materials. They gather in congregations of every denomination — though more often in Orthodox than liberal synagogues — in people’s homes, in university dorms, on army bases and even in prisons. “It’s about getting Jews to talk to each other,” said Rabbi Yaacov Haber, the O.U.’s national director for Jewish education. “It’s about getting Jews to look at subjects that they never realized the Torah even deals with, and to understand that the Torah has something to say.” Participants in the Pardes program receive a booklet each month. There are 11 so far, examining topics such as “Spirituality,” “Can Man Change?” and “Can We Change God’s Plan?” Each sets out a trio of hypothetical dilemmas related to the theme and asks participants to respond. Then it presents several excerpts from Jewish commentators — the kabbalists of the Zohar, Chasidic rabbis, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, who until his death in 1993 was centrist Orthodoxy’s spiritual leader. Haber, who writes the booklets, occasionally includes a quote from non-Jews, such as Mark Twain and former U.S. President John Adams. But he has not to date included wisdom from any of Judaism’s non- Orthodox theologians and philosophers, or from any Jewish women. At the O.U. retreat, every speaker, and prayer and discussion leader, was male, which prompted complaints from a couple of the female participants. The absence of non-Orthodox and female perspectives from the Pardes materials has also sparked occasional complaints from participants in the O.U. program. But the overwhelming response to the study program, both from those at the retreat and those who have sent notes to the O.U., has been gratitude. During the “feedback” session, which wrapped up the retreat on Sunday morning, one man said, “I felt a great sense of accomplishment in terms of the spirituality here, and how it reached me. “Any individual, no matter what their level, from shomer- everything to beginner in their quest, can derive benefit” from the Pardes program, he said. Linda Storfer is assistant director of the Block and Hexter Vacation Center, where the Shabbaton was held from May 30-June 1. “I’m an active member of a Conservative synagogue, but here the labels weren’t important,” she said. “We get so hung up nowadays on who is Orthodox, who is Reform, but this reached everyone.” People came from as far away as Dallas, though most drove from the New York City metropolitan area or from Eastern Canada. Haber plans to set up several regional Pardes retreats across the country. The Pardes program itself has participants from the tiny western Alaska town of Bethel, where members of seven Jewish families get together to study the booklets, as well as the small Alpine town of Garmisch, in southern Germany, where six employees at a U.S. military base gather to discuss the issues. “This is our way of discussing Judaism with our secular family and friends,” said Lori Miller, of Northridge, Calif., who uses the booklets as discussion tools over the dinner table when she has guests. Haber, a dynamic father of 11 children, was hired by the O.U. after he set up successful outreach programs in Buffalo, N.Y., and Melbourne, Australia. The Pardes program is not about outreach in and of itself, Haber, 41, said in an interview. Instead, it is about re-connecting people to Judaism’s gifts. “If we have any agenda it’s to return the neshama [soul] to Yiddishkeit [Judaism],” which is as much of a need for devout Jews as it is for any others, he said, speaking in the Orthodox patois that merges Hebrew, Yiddish and English. “I don’t know when it got lost but it’s gotten caught up in people’s intellect, in their dress, in how machmir [strict] we should be in the chumra [stringency]-of-the-week club. “My dream picture is to see eight or 10 Jews of all kinds sitting in a room together discussing divrei Torah, no one with an agenda, no one trying to change the other’s mind,” he said. “Does it happen? I have good reason to believe it happens all over now.” At the Pardes retreat Chasidic and “yeshivish” practices and approaches, representing the two streams of fervently Orthodox life, were brought together in a way that startled even some long-time supporters of the O.U., which represents about 900 centrist Orthodox synagogues in North America and Israel. Two rabbis wore the lush satin coats called bekeshers and one donned a streimel, the round fur hat that Chasidim reserve for holy day wear. Many women wore sheitels, the wigs that until a few years ago were donned only by the most stringently observant married Orthodox women. On Sunday, a few of the men wore casual pants and brightly colored shirts, though most continued to wear the sober garb, with tzitzit hanging out from their waistbands, that has become the uniform of an increasing number of centrist Orthodox men. But no matter how people dressed, or what mode of worship they ordinarily employed, everyone came together for hours of davening in the hypnotic tunes of the much-mourned rebbe of Orthodox spiritual renewal, the late Shlomo Carlebach. And from the makeshift synagogue, which consisted of a portable ark placed at the front of a large recreation hall, the sound of 100 Jewish voices chanting the wordless tunes in elemental harmony floated across the quiet lake.
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