Cocktail of learning sustains pub yeshivah

By Simon Rocker, July 7, 2011

A group of young people are sat around a long wooden table discussing the moral conundrum the rabbi has set them.

"When Osama bin Laden was tracked down and killed, was that something that makes sense in Judaism? Or does Judaism say it is unlawful killing?"

Together they ruminate over a series of texts ranging from the advice in Proverbs - "Rejoice not when your enemy falls" - to the talmudic story of Rabbi Shila, who struck dead an informer with his staff.

The West Hampstead Yeshivah is a Reform-backed educational programme launched earlier this year for young adults by West London and North Western Reform (Alyth) synagogues.

But the setting is rather unconventional for a class of text study. Because on the table are menus for mojitos and tequila cocktails and opposite is a bar stacked with bottles. Rather than opt for a synagogue venue, it meets in the Den, in the basement of The Alice House, a trendy pub in an area popular with young Jews.

Halfway through, the students put down their study sheets and break for a dinner of pasta and salad, although alcoholic consumption stretches to no more than a half of lager consumed by Alyth's Rabbi Mark Goldsmith, who is leading the session with West London's Rabbi Danny Burkeman.

When the fruit cocktail comes, they break into two groups, examining how Progressive Jews view Temple-related fasts such as Tishah b'Av when they no longer pray for the restoration of the Temple. The other engages in talmudic argument over who takes priority for rescue in a collapsed building.

Convening once a month on a Tuesday evening, the class can attract up to 30 students.

Joe Grabiner, 17, a madrich for RSY-Netzer summer camp, attended for the first time last month. "Some people might celebrate by going out drinking but I thought I'd do some hard-core talmud," he said.

Another first-timer was a young woman from a strictly Orthodox background who now considered herself unaffiliated to any particular stream. "I'm just Jewish," she said.

Having once studied at seminary, she found it refreshing to look at texts in a more contemporary context. "Coming from an Orthodox perspective, I was led to believe that anything outside Orthodoxy was ignorant, whereas it was entirely the opposite. The conversation here was more interesting than many I've had with Orthodox people.

"I am very happy that I took the chance to come and see what it was about."

Last updated: 3:07pm, July 7 2011