Why my study abroad experience didn’t count toward my degree (and that’s OK)

Sarah Goldwasser/Staff

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Every Friday afternoon, as the country powered down and flower vendors on upturned buckets appeared on every street corner, I’d sit in my AC-blasted apartment wracking my brains for a few paragraphs to post about my week.

Lots of people keep blogs when they study abroad. If I’d been in different circumstances, I’m sure I would’ve made one, too. But strangely, every update about my travels was posted not on WordPress, but for a group of people on a particular Facebook page. It was called “Missing Marla.” Between the posts about baby namings and the upcoming July “yartzeit,” I — a total stranger to these people — kept them informed about the foods I was eating, neighborhoods exploring and lessons learning in class. I never met Marla, but was in a classroom on the other side of the world, representing her.

I didn’t find out about The Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies through the UC Education Abroad Program or a flyer in a Dwinelle hallway. If you started at Cal sometime before 2016 and stepped foot inside the Hillel here, you’ve likely seen a small photo mounted onto a plaque the foyer (most everything is in storage this year because of construction). It’s an understated photograph, referred to on occasion by the director, who’d gesture toward the brilliant smile. Marla Bennett — UC Berkeley class of 2000 — went to the Pardes the year after she graduated here to study Jewish texts and get a yearlong teaching certification. Two summers ago, one of my friends went to study in her name. This summer, I decided it was my turn.

The summer classes, unlike the yearlong program, don’t count toward any degree or certificate. It won’t show up on my transcript. But being a student is a lot more than getting class credit, and luckily, I was backed by fully funded support from Marla’s friends and family so that I could learn things I’d always wanted to study. I took four classes: two on the Old Testament, one on prayer and an introductory class on Talmud, the books of Jewish laws and surrounding stories from 2,000 years ago. I didn’t even know that Aramaic was a language until my first day in the central study room, “beit midrash.” In there, we translated and read single pages for hours.

And when I wasn’t in class from 8:45 a.m. to 5 p.m., I spent most of my time alone, doing mostly what I normally do in Berkeley — walking to cafés, buying groceries, sweating. I loved my neighborhood and my walk to school on old converted railroad tracks. For a city so steeped in time, it’s amazing how modern that path looked.

It’s been 15 years since Marla was at Pardes, and I’m the ninth student to attend in her name since her death. As a Pardes student in the summer of July 2002, she was killed in the terrorist attacks at the Hebrew University cafeteria. She was 24 years old.

I expected to have a reaction from this summer that could be tied to some religious insight, and by that means a connection to her. But while I loved learning and reading about the roots of my culture, my fundamental perspectives never altered. At first, this frustrated me. Who was I to have this seat, without being open to change? What had Marla felt, and did I deserve to be there if I disagreed? It took time to realize that the purpose of studying these texts wasn’t to plant beliefs, but to deepen relationships to those who’d read them before.

Because I was in a classroom, my life looked normal this summer, and that’s what made me feel most connected to Marla. Ten years from now, I likely won’t be able to recall the rabbis’ lessons on Genesis or the patterns of Hebrew grammar, but I’ll remember that feeling of translating books in a room she once loved. And sitting across from her old study partner at lunch. And admiring the daily landscape she came to know so well — the lilac-grey sky at dusk, the green and magenta figs to be eaten by the handful, and that hazy glow of sandstone, molded out of dust.

Contact Sarah Goldwasser at [email protected].