UK’s first cross-communal yeshivah ‘exceeds expectations’

The month-long Torah and Talmud course attracted people of all ages, from teenagers to septuagenarians


Azara, the first cross-communal residential yeshivah in the UK, has been hailed as a huge success by both students and teachers as it draws to a close this weekend.

The month-long Torah and Talmud course, housed by Edinburgh University, attracted teenagers to septuagenarians from both the UK and overseas.

One of the founders and teachers, Jessica Spencer, 28, who is studying at a rabbinical college in Boston, said the programme had “hugely exceeded my expectations in terms of the strength of the community the participants built and their commitment to learning”.

The concept of the yeshivah was launched in April 2021, growing out of two grassroots cross-communal learning projects, Pop-Up Beit Midrash and the Open Talmud Project.

Spencer said the aim of the yeshivah was to respond to “a real thirst for really open learning, which didn’t dictate what your practice should be.

“We wanted to enable people to get to grips with a text that would give multiple visions of how Judaism could look.”

The programme hosted 18 full-time participants and an additional 20 students, who joined for an “open week”.

Isaac Montagu, 24, who is studying for a PhD in Sephardi music at Soas, said that he felt “energised Jewishly” by the course.

Particularly impressed by the yeshivah’s approach to prayer, he told the JC: “When I was at other cross-communal events, people tended to split off into different prayer groups, but here, different students have been leading the services, using Sephardi, Liberal, Reform or traditional Ashkenazi liturgy.” Rabba Dr Lindsey Taylor-Guthartz, who teaches at the London School of Jewish Studies and who co-founded Azara, said the month had been “fantastic”.

She praised the enthusiasm of both the students and the local Jewish community, which encompasses the Orthodox Edinburgh Hebrew Congregation and Sukkat Shalom, the Edinburgh Liberal Jewish Community. “They were very excited to have a bit of the Jewish world come to them, rather than always having to travel somewhere.”

Student Relly Robinson, 19, who had flown over from New York, said she had wanted to attend a yeshivah “which wasn’t just egalitarian, but was pluralistic”.

Growing up Orthodox, she had previously had “a very tumultuous relationship” with Jewish learning. “As a woman at Azara, it was amazing to be able to learn at the same level as everyone else and to be able to question things. That’s what this space was for.”

Felix Wilk, 30, attended Azara partly to help him in his job as the community development officer at Sadeh, a kosher farm near Orpington, Kent, and partly for personal reasons.

“I didn’t get a solid Jewish education, so until now, I could only engage with Judaism up to a certain point.”

A highlight was reciting from the Talmud in front of his class, having never  studied Talmud before.

“The teachers really met us where we were, but they also encouraged us to put in a lot of effort,” he said.

Perhaps, most importantly for Wilk and other participants was how inclusive the yeshivah felt. “It was more inclusive and diverse than I had expected.  As a queer Jewish person, I’ve previously had to grit my teeth through a lot of Jewish learning, but at Azara, we were encouraged to engage with the difficult parts of our tradition and to keep wrestling with the texts.”

Wilk said that regardless of whether students had come to Azara with “ten  years of prior yeshivah study or done no Jewish learning at all, the organisers  managed to bring everyone together for a profound learning experience.

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