The students start their day with prayers at 8 a.m., then work their way through a packed schedule of rigorous Jewish text study. Hailing from several countries, they are of different genders, practice Judaism differently and identify with a variety of movements, or none at all. Some of the cohort of 18 aim to become rabbis, but others are devoting themselves to Jewish learning as a side pursuit.
Such programs have existed for more than a decade but this one, called Azara, is perhaps Europe’s first non-denominational yeshiva. The founders of Azara, which is based for the summer in Edinburgh, hope to offer a pluralist space for intensive study of Talmud and other holy books, drawing from models pioneered in New York City, Jerusalem and elsewhere.
“We just thought there’s so much need in the UK for a bit more education, something that goes a little bit deeper, something that’s accessible, something that’s open to people,” said Jessica Spencer, a fifth-year rabbinical student at Hebrew College originally from Edinburgh and one of Azara’s founders.
“The real thing we’ve been building towards is the summer program because that feels [like] quite the symbolic thing; to have something of this sort of weight, and full-time, this depth that’s not in America or Israel,” she added.
The opening of Azara signifies that a growing network of institutions committed to non-denominational Jewish study now has a foothold in a new continent. Yeshivas such as the egalitarian Hadar in New York City, or Pardes in Jerusalem, have sought to offer a traditional curriculum of all-day intellectual Jewish text study while maintaining a commitment to strict Jewish observance, mixed-gender learning and inclusion of LGBTQ Jews.
Azara received funding from Hadar and credits it and Pardes as influences, along with Svara, a Chicago-based yeshiva founded to serve LGBTQ Jews. Azara shies away from the label “egalitarian” because some of its students and faculty identify as Orthodox. But people of all genders study together and morning prayers at the yeshiva have been gender-equal. (There is also a small Orthodox group that prays together, but without the quorum of 10 men traditionally required by Jewish law.)
“We’re trying to combine aspects of all of these places because none of them exist in the UK really,” said Spencer, who plans to work for Britain’s Masorti movement, a parallel to the Conservative movement, after she receives ordination. “There’s a real need to do something that all those places are doing — to be cross-communal in the way that Pardes is and open to people and do the sort of empowering, joyful learning that Svara does, and also the kind of serious and rigorous element that I’ve seen at Hadar.”
The impact of the Open Talmud Project
Spencer credits the Open Talmud Project, a cross-denominational study program founded in 2009, for introducing her to the code of rabbinic law. Azara is the successor to that and another initiative, called Pop-Up Beit Midrash, that was based in London and offered a variety of Jewish classes and courses.
Spencer founded Azara last year along with Orthodox Rabba Lindsey Taylor-Guthartz and Rabbi Leah Jordan of the Liberal movement, which is similar to Reform Judaism in the United States. The three scholars began by offering Zoom classes, weekend programs and intensives, and drop-in evening classes at JW3, a Jewish community center in London.
For their summer yeshiva, however, they decided to decamp to the University of Edinburgh’s divinity school, where students are staying in campus accommodations and eat kosher, vegetarian food brought in from Glasgow, about an hour away by car. Spencer hopes locating the school in a city with a small Jewish population will allow the students to bond and focus on their learning.
“We thought it kind of helped the atmosphere of the program and it would create a more immersive community,” she said. “In London, people would have been scattered all over the city and they would have had their everyday lives, they wouldn’t have been so focused on the program.”
Participants in the summer program will spend the month studying Jewish law, modern Jewish thought and other Jewish topics, reading and analyzing the texts in small groups in the original Hebrew and Aramaic. The day begins with prayers and breakfast, followed by a three-hour morning Talmud class. All students are studying the same chapter of Kiddushin, a Talmud tractate that deals with engagement and marriage. Beginners are learning to read the original Hebrew and Aramaic texts, and more advanced students are studying commentaries on the Talmud. All official programming is Shabbat- and kosher-observant.
The faculty at Azara include scholars from Hadar, Pardes, the Progressive Leo Baeck College in London and Yeshivat Maharat, a liberal Orthodox seminary that ordains women clergy in New York City.
“Azara is giving access to deep Torah learning to a whole group of people who have never had the opportunity,” said Jeremy Tabick, a member of the Hadar faculty who is British and is teaching Talmud at Azara this summer. “It’s inspiring to watch such committed and excited participants throw themselves into a month-long experience.”
The fact that all three founders of the yeshiva are women, Spencer said, “was a little bit chance,” noting that several male rabbis in Britain have also long been committed to building a program of this kind.
“We’re still in a world where there are fewer opportunities for women learning than men, by a long way for this stuff,” she added. “And so perhaps women have somewhat more impetus to create non-traditional places to learn and create accessible places to learn, but really, I think, again, I can think of several men off the top of my head who’ve been very, very involved in this project at various other points.”
Another of Azara’s co-founders, Taylor-Guthartz, has experience with breaking boundaries in Britain’s Jewish community. After she received ordination at Yeshivat Maharat, she was briefly fired from a teaching position at the London School of Jewish Studies, causing a communal stir that led to a reversal of that decision.
“It may take an age – it may even take more than my lifetime — but you’ve got to keep moving,” she told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency in 2021, regarding effecting change in British Jewish institutions. ”You’ve got to keep coming. I think we’re at the beginning of that process.”
To pay for its programming, Spencer said Azara is mostly funded by donations, including grants from Hadar (which is also paying Tabick’s salary for the month), Hazon’s Jewish Intentional Communities Incubator and the Samuel Bronfman Foundation. Tuition for the summer program was flexible, with tiered suggestions for participants ranging from roughly $450 to $1,600.
The yeshiva is also holding study sessions with the wider Edinburgh Jewish community. At the last one, on July 5, students led an arts-and-crafts session on text related to the minor fast day of the 17th of Tammuz, which occurred July 6. Another student did a reading that placed a Sylvia Plath poem in conversation with Eshet Hayil, the Biblical poem about a “woman of valor” traditionally sung on Friday nights.
Spencer is co-teaching a Talmud class with Laliv Clenman, a professor from Leo Baeck College who specializes in rabbinics, Hebrew and Aramaic. Spencer said the amount that the students have learned in just a week and a half has been “incredible.”
“We’re talking about people who came in being a little shaky on their vowels, some of them, and not knowing that a [Hebrew letter] ‘vav’ means ‘and’ and really that level — very, very beginner,” she said. “And they’re reading lines of Gemara,” or Talmud.
She added, “It feels like we’re doing something very special.”