Back to school | First Silicon Valley Beit Midrash surpasses expectations

Even before the experimental two-week Silicon Valley Beit Midrash ended June 27, plans were underway to design future one-of-a-kind programs for the high-tech region.

When director Shani Gross moved to the South Bay, she “thought it was weird that the West Coast didn’t have any beit midrash programs.” She had grown up in the New York area, graduated from Yeshiva University and attended Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem.

Beit Midrash participants (from left) Judy Mannaberg-Goldman, Rabbi Michael Hattin of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, Rabbi Suzy Stone and Nathan Wexler

Together with Rabbi David Booth of Palo Alto’s Conservative Congregation Kol Emeth, where Gross is based, along with a donor from the congregation, Gross designed, marketed and implemented the beit midrash. They worked with partners from Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem and Kevah, a Berkeley-based learning organization. Fees ranged from $180 per week for students to $530 for two weeks for professionals, with scholarships available.

When 40 people registered for one- or two-week sessions, which were hosted by Kol Emeth, Gross was surprised. “We hoped to get 15 people over two weeks,” she says.

When Gross and Booth started talking about the idea late last year, they thought they could pull off a well-designed beit midrash perhaps for the summer of 2015, but decided to experiment with the idea this summer. They focused their marketing efforts on local synagogues, JCCs, Hillels and Jewish day schools, along with their partners Pardes and Kevah. “It was amazing to see how much we could accomplish in so little time,” Gross says.

They also were surprised at the quantity and quality of the response. “It struck me [that so] many people are so knowledgeable and had a text background,” Gross adds.

Booth was surprised at the wide range of individuals the beit midrash attracted — from Hebrew Union College students studying to be rabbis, to engineers, astrophysicists, neuroscientists and, of course, Jewish educators. “This was unexpected,” Gross notes.

 Participants came from as far away as Portland, Los Angeles and Denver, and from all denominations and ages.

“So many organizations are trying to build community and attract the under-35 age group,” Gross adds, and “half of our participants are under age 35. We are focusing on building the love of text study, and community comes naturally from that.”

Participants included professors from Stanford University, Conservative rabbis and Orthodox educators. (Organizers had also reached out to Reform rabbis but were unable to coordinate schedules with them.) Courses included the study of gender, the laws of kashrut, Talmud, halachah, Midrash and Jewish thought. Classes accommodated all levels of Hebrew and text study experience.

“The big question was whether we could attract good participants and put together a good program and we’ve shown we can do it,” says Booth. First-week evaluations from the participants extolled the program: “The diversity of minds and unity of purpose created an environment which enabled me to openly re-engage in a world of learning,” says one. Another wrote: “Eye, mind and heart-opening; so glad I did it!”

Gross speculates that the beit midrash worked well in Silicon Valley because “this is a technology area and maybe these types of people ask a lot of questions and think outside the box. I really see this area as a future center of such learning. … There’s an energy and willingness to try something new. The idea was that if it goes well, we’ll get other funding.”

Booth and Gross already are planning a shortened version of their beit midrash for next winter, as well as a two-week session for the summer of 2015. “We are in talks to figure out how to expand and connect with other organizations, all involving text study,” says Gross.

“We’re not sure who our partners will be, but we’ve begun to broaden our funding base,” adds Booth, who grew up in the Bay Area and has been at Kol Emeth for eight years.

His primary donor, he says, viewed the investment as venture capital. Active in the Silicon Valley world, the donor “gave us money to show that the concept will work.”

According to Booth, one of the challenges in the philanthropy world in general is a “great desire for success. Silicon Valley says that it’s OK to have a good failure. Even if something doesn’t work out, you can tweak it, learn from it. I interact with people who understand that a good failure means you go forward to learn what changes need to be made. There’s a willingness to try something and take risks.”

For information about future programs, contact Shani Gross at or (650) 948-7498.