Celebrating Michael Simon

Pardes alumni are making an incredible impact on our world.

They are leading and creating organizations and businesses of all kinds, responding to humanitarian crises, writing novels, educating at all levels, creating works of art, and so much more! In celebration of Pardes’s 50th, we are highlighting 50 standout alumni whose accomplishments exemplify the rich texture of the Pardes community worldwide. 


Twelve years ago, Michael Simon assumed the role of Executive Director at Northwestern Hillel, the center and catalyst for Jewish life, community, and personal exploration at Northwestern University. Northwestern Hillel operates with a mission to cultivate and empower young Jewish leaders, equipping them with the passion and foresight to make meaningful contributions to the Jewish community and the broader world. On a personal note, Michael is married to Dr. Claire Sufrin, who holds the position of Senior Editor at the Shalom Hartman Institute – North America. Together, they are proud parents of two sons, Jacob (11) and Ethan (8).


There are so, so many. One moment that comes to mind is the time during midday announcements in the Beit Midrash when Leah Solomon and Miriam Margles mentioned that The Nesiya Institute was looking for madrichim for Summer 2002. I followed up, which led to my first Jewish communal job.

Perhaps a bigger “small” moment came on July 28, 2006, when I came to Friday night services that were being led by Mishael Zion for the Shabbat that began the third summer session. I was just a guest that night, and in the hallway outside of the door to the Beit Midrash I happened to meet another guest, Claire Sufrin. Two years later, we got married.


I learned Talmud for the first time at Pardes. I also learned mishna, halacha, and midrash for the first time at Pardes. In a sense, I did my first real, sustained Torah learning of my life at Pardes. I went on my first tiyulim in the desert and Shabbatonim with Pardes. So many gifts!


My very favorite class at Pardes was my Tanakh class taught by Judy Klitsner. This took place during my second year at Pardes, when I was a Fellow. This was also the year after Marla and Ben had been killed (along with seven others) and Jamie had been injured (along with dozens of others) in the terrorist attack at Hebrew University. For me, that year was incredibly painful — often, it was difficult just to get out of bed, let alone to come to Pardes and try to get through a day of learning. But Judy’s class — which would have been special anytime — became an anchor, a pathway back toward meaning. The wordplay and connections that Judy helped us to see, the questions I got to explore in hevruta, the reminders of how vast our tradition of learning are and how we’re connected across thousands of years of tradition — all of those were like lifelines for me, every day.


My favorite spot in Jerusalem — can I pick 3? Actually, can I pick 30?

  1. The Tayelet (Haas Promenade), especially at the point where it opens up to a kind of plaza. I’ve been there with groups from Harvard Hillel and Northwestern Hillel, and I’ve also been there on my own and with friends. Always, always, the view of the Old City and the hills beyond makes me pause in my tracks and feel gratitude just to be right there.
  2. Emek Refaim — I lived on Hamelitz during my two years in Jerusalem, and it felt like home and still does.
  3. My seat in the Pardes Beit Midrash — it’s not actually my seat anymore, and soon the beit midrash won’t even be in the same spot where it was. But, at least in my memory, it also still feels like home.


I have so many ways that I’d like to answer this question. I’d want to bring back Martin Luther King, Jr., to talk about social justice and racial justice in America. I’d want to bring back Moshe and ask him if all of it — if any of it — is true. Same with Jacob. Same with David. I’d want to bring back the women of the Torah whose voices are so often muffled or missing. I’d want to bring back my mom, and my dad, and my grandparents.

But if I could only bring ONE guest, real or fictional, currently alive or no longer with us, I’d invite Marla Bennett. Marla was ripped from this world at the age of 24, in an instant of horror. I’d ask her if I’ve honored her memory in the way that I’ve lived since she was killed, and I’d ask her if there’s anything else that I could do to elevate her memory. I’d also want to make sure that all of her friends from Pardes, all of her teachers from Pardes, all of her family and people who have loved her, would have one chance to say hello and goodbye again in person. So — it would need to take place in a pretty big venue. 


I am incredibly fortunate that I have the opportunity to work with smart, kind, passionate, and caring students who are interested in making a positive difference in the world. I am most proud when I see what students who I have worked with in recent years are now doing out in their communities, building wonderful friendships and families, and helping to make the world a better place in small and large ways.

I am also very proud to work with colleagues — and to have worked with colleagues over the years — who have gained skills and experiences and knowledge that they have taken with them to other organizations and endeavors. I really do believe in “paying it forward” — I recognized shortly after leaving Pardes how much the Pardes experience was shaping how I approached my work at Hillel, and I love seeing how much others’ work with me at Hillel shapes their next steps.

I’ll also mention that I am most proud whenever — whether in a conversation, a text study, or an experiential moment (e.g., a trip to Israel and the Palestinian Territories) — I’m able to help a student or group to challenge assumptions, to see nuances and complexities in situations and on issues that are often rendered only in black and white.


It is difficult to imagine that I would be who I am in 2023 if it weren’t for my experiences at Pardes. As I often say, during 2001-2002 I fell in love with Israel, with Torah learning, and with Marla — all of this took place while I was at Pardes. My love of Torah learning and Israel became the foundation for my looking into work in the Jewish communal world that summer at Nesiya, and then when I was ready to return to the U.S. in August 2003. There is a direct line from Pardes to Nesiya to Harvard Hillel, where the Executive Director was Bernie Steinberg, a renowned Pardes alum who became my mentor and one of my most important teachers.

The direct line continued from serving as Associate Director at Harvard Hillel to become Executive Director at Northwestern Hillel. The devastation of losing Marla led to a year — actually, more than a year — of grief, but it also led to growth, to an understanding of my own capacity to persevere, to hope, and to love. I couldn’t have known, or imagined, that I’d meet the person that I would actually marry at Pardes that night in 2006, but I did. Aside from Claire, some of the most important and closest people in my life — Dan Savitt, Stu Jacobs, Amanda Pogany, Mark Baker, and more — were there with me at Pardes. My connection to The Hartman Institute, where I have been a Campus Fellow, and at Encounter — those also came from connections forged at Pardes.