Not Your Grandfather’s Beit Midrash


Like thousands of men have done for hundreds of years, Rachel Druck is studying the prohibitions of Yom Kippur these days. In Aramaic, in the Talmud, in a yeshiva.

At one of several folding tables set up in the sanctuary-library of the West End Synagogue, up a small flight of stairs from Amsterdam Avenue, Druck, 24, reviews a phrase from Tractate Yoma, a small Gemara guide at her side. Across the table sits Robin Weintraub, her havruta, or learning partner. At other tables in the room, encircled by shelves of classical and modern Jewish texts, sit about two dozen other students, most of them also in their 20s, also paired off, also interpreting the words of Yoma.
It is a typical morning at Yeshivat Hadar.

The yeshiva, which ran summer-long learning sessions for the last three years, opened year-round last month, billing itself as the only full-time, egalitarian yeshiva in the country. Meeting in rented space in a Reconstructionist synagogue, it runs morning-to-evening classes and havruta review sessions five days a week, with 18 full-time students, or fellows, all of whom receive tuition grants. Several men and women join in part time.

The institution of advanced Jewish learning is a “core program” of Mechon Hadar, the umbrella group for a network of non-denominational prayer groups around the country launched three years ago.
The yeshiva, which held a formal dedication ceremony this week at Congregation Rodeph Sholom, which is Reform, is the latest sign of an invigorated segment of the Jewish community that is seeking Jewish connections while shunning traditional denominational identities.

“The big-box denominational labels don’t accurately describe how people are leading their Jewish lives,” says Rabbi Elie Kaunfer, a Jewish Theological Seminary ordainee who founded Kehilat Hadar in Manhattan eight years ago and has helped shape the entire Hadar movement.

Only the presence of women, who learn and teach and daven as equals with men, marks Yeshivat Hadar as different from a traditional, Orthodox yeshiva, Rabbi Kaunfer says. Same schedule, same books, same principles, same emphasis on text study. “Ninety-eight percent of the goal is a traditional yeshiva goal.”

The accents are Sephardic, not the Ashkenazi pronunciation heard in most Orthodox yeshivot. And the ambiance is quieter, with little of the shouting that characterizes a typical Orthodox beit midrash.
The men all wear kipot, usually large, colorful, knit ones. Some of the women also wear kipot; most wear pants. The yeshiva dress code bars only such inappropriate garb as shorts or jeans.

As in a traditional yeshiva, Rabbi Kaunfer or one of the other rashei yeshiva — Rabbi Ethan Tucker or Rabbi Shai Held or Talmud instructor Avital Campbell Hochstein — sits at one of the tables near the bima to answer the questions of students reviewing the previous day’s class or preparing for that day’s.
The students, Rabbi Kaunfer says, all consider themselves observant, but not necessarily Orthodox. The food served at meals is kosher; the prayer book used at worship services is a “traditional siddur.”
Neither a baal teshuvah (returnee to the faith) center nor an ordination-granting yeshiva, neither adult education course nor academic learning center like university-based Judaic studies programs, Yeshivat Hadar is similar in focus to such Israeli institutions as the Hartman Institute or the Pardes Institute, which are open to men and women, without a denominational identification or political orientation.
“We’re a religious community; we’re a Torah institution,” Rabbi Held says.

The yeshiva’s goal: to give the students the skills to learn and interpret texts by themselves; an Aramaic-only Gemara is used, not the ArtScroll or Steinsaltz versions that incorporate English translations.

Making decisions about practices that are in accordance with normative Jewish law and with contemporary egalitarianism is “not as simple as opening a Shulchan Oruch,” the Code of Jewish Law that serves as a basic reference for many observant Jews, Rabbi Kaunfer says. The yeshiva’s students, he says, are encouraged to seek their own answers, in consultation with their teachers at the yeshiva, not to simply ask a rabbinic authority to make rulings for them. “Our gedolim [recognized authorities] are the rabbis of the Talmud and the Mishna.”

Rabbi Kaunfer says the yeshiva’s brand of egalitarian learning and praying has a firm halachic basis cited on its Web site

Although discouraged in traditional Orthodox circles, the idea of men and women learning together, of women studying Talmud in the first place, of women leading a prayer service and wearing tallit and tefillin, is part of what draws Yeshivat Hadar’s students. “When I was young, I dreamed that a place like this would exist,” says Druck, a Barnard graduate who grew up in a Modern Orthodox home in New Jersey and attended a Modern Orthodox day school.

“Here I can come and daven” at an individual pace without being urged to keep up with the rest of the congregation, she says. Here, “I feel I can ask” the probing questions that once earned her teachers’ or classmates’ rebuke, “without being labeled a troublemaker.”

Yeshivat Hadar is not an institution that follows halacha although its practice is egalitarian, Druck tells critics. “It’s halachic and egalitarian.”

“This for me is a kiruv [outreach] organization,” says Jaime Guarnaccia, 22, another New Jersey native, a recent Harvard graduate from a non-observant family who took part in educational activities sponsored by mainstream Orthodox outreach organizations but longed for something with a more liberal, more-egalitarian approach.

“This is a year of shaping myself [spiritually],” says Chana Kupetz, 21, an Israeli who came to the yeshiva after completing her army service. She grew up, Orthodox, in a West Bank settlement and attended Orthodox schools, but says it was hard to find a community that shared her egalitarian ideals.

The emphasis of the yeshiva, which sponsored similar all-day summer learning programs the last three years, is Torah l’shma, Torah for its own sake, to produce an educated laity, for Jews who can open a siddur or Tanach or Gemara. As a condition of acceptance to the full-time program, students, who take part in mandatory weekly social action activities — like visiting people in hospitals and nursing homes — pledge to become active participants in Jewish life when they return to their home communities and commit to carrying out specific projects as a condition of receiving their stipend. After completing the nine-month curriculum, the fellows will head to graduate school or to typical jobs in business or academia or the professions, not necessarily to careers in the rabbinate or Jewish education. The purpose is “to grow as Jews, to grow in learning,” Rabbi Held says.

“We want our students,” Rabbi Tucker says, “to be the backbones of their Jewish communities.”
The yeshiva’s initial $1.1 million budget — it pays for five full-time faculty members, as well as part-time instructors and frequent guest lecturers, and for student stipends — comes from a combination of foundations and private donors, including UJA-Federation of New York, Bikkurim, the Jim Joseph Foundation, the Avi Chai Foundation and the Covenant Foundation.

“Hadar raises Jewish educational standards for young adults and creates an intellectual, non-threatening environment that fosters excitement about Jewish life,” says Ora Weinberg, planning executive for UJA-Federation’s Commission on Jewish Identity and Renewal.

The yeshiva “attracts a very impressive student body. It’s led by some of the most impressive individuals dotting Jewish life today,” says Steven Bayme, director of contemporary Jewish life at the American Jewish Committee. He calls Yeshivat Hadar “a hallmark of a vibrant Jewish community … opening up the door of Jewish learning in a modern context. These things are to be celebrated.”

The growth of Hadar minyanim and similar non-denominational prayer groups is documented. The future of an institution like Yeshivat Hadar, still in its first full-time year, is yet to be determined. “The question is still out,” says Guarnaccia — “Is this a boutique program or is it a movement?”

The rabbis leading the yeshiva say they will judge success by the appearance of similar schools, not just by the growth — and possible acquisition of its own building — of Yeshivat Hadar itself.
“I wish there were competition,” Rabbi Kaunfer says. “I believe in the model more than I do in the institution.”

Druck calls her time at Yeshivat Hadar “a year of exploration for me.” After a month of praying and learning five days a week with like-minded people, she says she has gained an appreciation for her heritage that her day schools did not provide. “I’m beginning to see Judaism not just as a series of laws but as a spiritual practice,” she says.

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