In 1971, a young American oleh named Michael Swirsky hatched the idea of an educational framework in Jerusalem that would provide entrée to the world of Jewish religious learning with no other agenda than to facilitate knowledge. Its approach was to be non-denominational and open-ended, combining the spiritual seriousness and non-instrumentalism of the yeshiva with the intellectual openness and tolerance of the university. A one-year, noncredit study program would be tailored to post-college young adults, primarily from North America.
Swirsky spent the next year securing support, designing a curriculum, assembling a faculty and student body, and setting up a physical facility. The institute, which he gave the name Pardes—suggestive of the mystery, multifacetedness, and fruitfulness of Torah—opened its doors in the fall of 1972 with a student body of 25. Among the original teachers were Adin Steinsaltz, David Hartman, and Eliezer Schweid, with teaching assistants who included Menahem Froman and Dov Berkovits. (Click here for a full description of the original faculty). Swirsky directed the Institute in 1972 and 1973 and Berkovits from then until 1977 (See video below). Rabbi Levi Lauer directed Pardes from 1977 to 1994 and Rabbi Danny Landes assumed the position in 1995.
Pardes began with the unacknowledged support of the World Zionist Organization, which provided the physical facility and overhead, with salaries coming from student tuition. This arrangement continued until 1987, when the Institute became an independent, self-sustaining entity.
Over the period from 1987 until the early 2000’s, Pardes expanded its board of directors to include business people and communal leaders upon whom fell the onus of raising the funds necessary to continue and grow Pardes. (Until that time, the board had been comprised primarily of academics and Jewish professionals.) While an American Pardes Foundation had existed in the United States for many years, it wasn’t until 1996 that an office was opened in New York City, its board enhanced, and it became an active partner with the Jerusalem board. It was clear that given the ages of the student body, most students had not reached financial independence, and therefore financial assistance became an integral part of Pardes.
Pardes was originally housed next to Ulpan Etzion in Baka and then moved downtown to Shivtei Yisrael Street. When the opportunity arose, a facility was rented in an office complex on Pierre Koenig Street in Talpiot. Pardes eventually purchased the space and renovated it as well as leasing additional space. With high hopes of finally having a building that would meet the growing needs of the institution, the adjacent lot was purchased and Pardes is currently working on redevelopment.
From the early 1990’s, major changes began to happen within the Institution: a summer program was added that accepted a wider age range of students; due to the requests of one year students for an additional year, the second year Fellows Program was born; Pardes begin hosting visiting groups for short term learning; the Pardes Educators Program was created with the assistance of the Avi Chai Foundation and today produces more Jewish day school teachers than any other program; and the Community Education learning began during this period, offering courses to the general population in Jerusalem and the surrounding area.
Over the course of time each of these innovations became more fully developed, and the Pardes faculty expanded. Because of its independence, Pardes has had the unique ability to create and adapt to meet the needs of an ever-evolving Jewish world.
Dov Berkovits’s reflection on the beginnings of Pardes and his fond recollection of David Hartman z”l