The egalitarian yeshivah with an independent spirit

Yeshivat Hadar in New York, one of a new wave of institutions operating beyond familiar denominational boundaries, is attracting a growing following


Labels are a necessary evil when talking about Judaism. Orthodox, Conservative, Reform denote different religious streams, but they are simply primary colours which hardly do justice to the kaleidoscopic variety of the modern Jewish landscape.

Orthodox may cover everything from uncompromising Satmar Chasidut to partnership minyanees. Even in the UK, there is not a single Progressive body but two, Reform and Liberal. And the USA has movements that we do not have, Reconstructionist and the more recently formed Renewal.

American Jewry has been energised too over the past couple of decades by the emergence of some 100 independent minyanim and groupings, which resist easy categorisation. One of the most influential is Yeshivat Hadar which opened in New York in 2006, whose founding dean Rabbi Shai Held is coming to speak in London this weekend.

Eschewing denominational affiliation, Hadar “made a conscious choice that we did not want to carve out an ideological slice of the Jewish community,” Rabbi Held says. 
Its ethos of “observant egalitarian Judaism” is apparent in a teaching faculty, listed online, of three male and six female rabbis. It operates in a “fully egalitarian” way, he explains — differentiating it from what he calls the “semi-egalitarian” model of the partnership minyan.

While it draws from a core of “halachically observant Jews”, it strives to reach a broader constituency, promoting no ideology other than that “Jews should learn Torah and, ideally, they should learn it with people they don’t normally learn with.”

And so its founders set up a “yeshivah that was deeply immersed in tradition and thoroughly and unapologetically modern”. 

Since its opening, around 635 students have taken its full-year or eight-week summer programmes, including 34 Brits: 4,000 have attended its week-long institutes. It notched up two and a quarter million downloads of its online audio material last year.
It runs classes in Boston, Washington and Jerusalem. Its Project Zug uses digital technology to enable students from different countries to learn together. In September, it will launch a kollel leading to rabbinic ordination after four years, with its initial cohort of seven to eight students due to include two from the UK.

For some, Hadar reflects a growing trend towards “post-denominational” Judaism, that transcends the familiar boundaries of synagogue allegiance. As he points out, if you ask an American Jew what denomination they belong to, that will reveal little about their actual level of observance. (The same could be said of British Jewry, the Charedi community excepted).

America is witnessing more religious experimentation in society generally, he believes. And although the climate may be different in Israel, one thing he has noticed is that young observant Jews are becoming “less deferential to the authority of rabbis they don’t respect”.

He remains “under no illusion that what Hadar represents is going to capture some kind of numerical majority, certainly not in any short-term way. I think that religious truth has never been measured demographically.”

He sets two criteria for success. “One is that observant egalitarian culture will be a viable option for increasing numbers of Jews who take Judaism seriously. And the other is that the model that our beit midrash represents penetrates and influences other places.”

Partly as a result of Hadar, he believes, the Jewish Theological Seminary — Conservative Judaism’s rabbinic academy — has become “much more beit-midrash based”, in contrast to the university-like structure of its graduate programme when he was a rabbinic student there.

His own Jewish education crossed denominations. While he is an alumnus of JTS, he went to a Modern Orthodox high school in Israel and yeshivah, Hamivtar in Gush Etzion. He has an undergraduate degree in religion from Harvard University. He has written a book on the leading American Jewish theologian, Abraham Joshua Heschel.

His main purpose in London is to give this year’s memorial lecture for Rabbi Louis Jacobs, when he will explore the meaning of the “very elusive” commandment, to love your neighbour.

Rabbi Jacobs personified a model of courage in the search for religious truth, he says — “of not going to live cowering in fear of those on my right”.

He first came across a book by Rabbi Jacobs when he was an 18-year-old yeshivah boy and  “tortured” by the question of how to reconcile modern biblical scholarship with traditional faith. He penned a 15-page letter to Rabbi Jacobs, receiving an invitation to visit in London on his way home to the USA, which he duly took up.

The letter that Rabbi Jacobs wrote back to the teenage student has stayed with him. “He ended by saying, ‘The search for Torah is in itself Torah. And in the very search you have already found. I admire the integrity of your quest.’ That was a very beautiful thing to say to an anxiety-ridden kid.”

Rabbi Held will deliver the Louis Jacobs Memorial Lecture on Sunday evening, June 23, at Middlesex University. Details from

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