Proudly Observant, Egalitarian, Nondenominational: Hadar Opens New Kollel
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Proudly Observant, Egalitarian, Nondenominational: Hadar Opens New Kollel

As denominational lines across communities blur, the New York City yeshiva offers ordination for those who feel ‘deeply traditional, deeply practicing and deeply open.’

Hadar students poring over texts. The institution’s “genuine commitment to halachic observance and egalitarianism” was a big draw for one student.  Courtesy of Hadar
Hadar students poring over texts. The institution’s “genuine commitment to halachic observance and egalitarianism” was a big draw for one student. Courtesy of Hadar

On a recent Monday morning on the Upper West Side, a group of about 20 men and women sat in pairs, hunched over enormous Jewish legal tomes and dissecting their contents in animated conversation. It was a typical scene at Hadar, an egalitarian yeshiva that has run full-time study programs for young adults in New York City since 2007.

Less typical was the mundane topic of their study: whether it is permissible to use a dishwasher for both meat and milk dishes in successive cycles. It’s the kind of question typically asked of synagogue rabbis.

But it was only natural that Rabbi Ethan Tucker, their teacher, would want them to know how to answer such questions. After all, many of these students were studying to become rabbis themselves.

As the yeshiva has grown and its enthusiastic alumni base has grown with it, a new generation of leaders is emerging to promote Hadar’s observant, egalitarian — and nondenominational — approach to Judaism. And with Hadar starting its own kollel, or advanced study, program this year with an option to pursue rabbinic ordination, the next generation of these leaders are being trained by the Hadar Institute itself.

Hadar, says Rabbi Ethan Tucker, is filling a need for students who want an environment “where gender equality wasn’t up for discussion.”

The new program comes at a time when denominational lines are blurring. Although three of its top leaders either earned their rabbinic ordinations or studied at the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary, Hadar is a flagship of the “independent minyanim” movement of unaffiliated congregations. Rabbi Avi Weiss broke ground by founding two institutions, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah for men in 1999 and Yeshivat Maharat for women in 2009, to train liberal Orthodox men and women as clergy, albeit in separate and independent institutions. And while Hadar’s stance in favor of full gender equality places it squarely outside of the Orthodox community, Hadar has long drawn a large group of students and faculty with Modern Orthodox backgrounds.

The closeness between the two communities means Hadar could conceivably compete for the same pool of students with established Conservative and liberal Orthodox institutions.

“There’s a porousness between the worldviews of these institutions and consequently one would expect movement back and forth among them,” said David Ellenson, former president of Hebrew Union College, the flagship seminary of the Reform movement, and an author of several books on Orthodoxy and modernity.

But given Hadar’s commitment to egalitarianism and Orthodoxy’s adherence to distinct gender roles, the extent to which Hadar can compete with Orthodox institutions or break out from existing Conservative ones is unclear.

“What distinguishes it [Hadar] from Modern Orthodoxy is its commitment to full egalitarianism and nowhere in Modern Orthodoxy can you really find that,” said Steve Bayme, director of contemporary Jewish life at the American Jewish Committee. “Orthodoxy has come a long way, but it will stop short of that.”

Rabba Sara Hurwitz, president of the liberal Orthodox Yeshivat Maharat, sees the liberal Orthodox and egalitarian Hadar communities as totally distinct. “I think what Hadar is doing is fantastic and we like to think about sharing resources,” said Rabba Hurwitz. “But I would say it’s two different communities.”

Rabbi Tucker said Hadar filled a need students had for “an environment that could synthesize something that felt deeply traditional, deeply practicing, deeply open and broad and where gender equality wasn’t up for discussion.”

Rabbi Aviva Richman teaches at Hadar. Photos courtesy of Hadar

‘You Need a Leadership’

For the leaders of the new kollel program, ordaining rabbis was a natural next step in promoting Hadar’s vision of Jewish practice. The yeshiva was founded in 2007 by Rabbis Tucker, Elie Kaunfer, and Shai Held as an outgrowth of Kehilat Hadar, an independent minyan founded by Rabbis Tucker and Kaunfer on the Upper West Side. Rabbi Kaunfer wrote a book about independent minyanim called “Empowered Judaism: What Independent Minyanim Can Teach Us about Building Vibrant Jewish Communities.”

Hadar currently has 18 full time students with 10 in the advanced kollel, six of whom are committed to pursuing ordination at Hadar. Since it opened in 2007, Hadar has had approximately 600 students enrolled in full time summer and year-long programs. Between 2,500-3,000 people have participated in Hadar’s short-term programming, with about 600 people participating in short-term programming in New York this year.

Hadar’s budget has increased from $225,000 in its first year to $6 million this year, according to Rabbi Tucker.

“Hadar was started as an institution for lay people, for grassroots practice, commitment and learning, and it remains that,” said Rabbi Tucker. “One of the things we learned over the last decade is that to do meaningful grassroots work, you also really need a leadership component to help catalyze it and move it forward.”

In that vein, the yeshiva has expanded its staffed programming beyond New York City in recent years, with one full time educator in Washington, D.C., and some programming in Boston, as well as several staff members teaching in Israel. Even outside of New York and the highly committed alumni of Hadar who live here, it has found an expanding base of support for its style of rigorous study, observance, prayer, and commitment to gender equality.

As Hadar’s alumni base grew, a number of students approached Hadar’s faculty looking to continue studying Torah in the Hadar framework, eventually leading to the opening of the advanced kollel. Its students include a mix of aspiring rabbis and those intending to study for one or two years. Students in the advanced kollel will primarily study three areas, Jewish law, Jewish thought, and Bible.

At a Hadar summer learning session. Via Facebook/Hadar Institute

“It feels very different from starting a rabbinical school,” said Rabbi Aviva Richman, a faculty member at Hadar and director of Hadar’s short-term winter learning seminar. “I don’t know that we’re starting something in perpetuity, there’s a critical mass of folks for whom this particular fit made sense and they weren’t finding similar opportunities in the Jewish world.”

Hannah Kapnik Ashar, 31, said Hadar’s focus on independent text study drew her to pursue ordination there. “It was only when I came to Hadar in college that I had the sense that you can have this vibrant and committed of a community in an egalitarian context,” said Ashar, who served as associate spiritual leader at a synagogue in Boulder, Colo., for the past five years. Ashar had conversations with Hadar’s faculty over several years about pursuing private ordination with them before they created the program.

Rabbi Ethan Tucker, president and Rosh Yeshiva at Hadar.

Hadar’s emphasis on text study was a major draw for her. “The areas that I feel need deepening is in rigorous text study and wanting to feel like I can pick up any book off the shelf and have total access to it,” she said.

For Ami Nadiv, 23, a recent graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary’s undergraduate college and an alumnus of the Orthodox Yeshivat Har Etzion in the West Bank, Hadar offered an opportunity to return to a yeshiva environment after the more academic study offered by JTS.

“I was excited about the opportunity to be part of more of an organic, lived, integrated experience of Torah learning with community facilitated by the beit midrash [study hall],” said Nadiv, who has not decided if he is pursuing ordination. He noted that Hadar’s “genuine commitment to halachic observance and egalitarianism offers a very attractive lifestyle to myself and to a lot of my friends.”

The program is a return to an older model of rabbinic education that relies heavily on independent study and a close teacher-student relationship. It marks a move away from modern rabbinical seminaries that are based on a university-like model. The Hadar program, which includes hours of independent text study, requires students to be capable of learning on their own when they begin their studies.

“There are other parts of the Jewish world that are well served by rabbinical schools,” said Rabbi Richman, noting that students at Hadar spend hours in the beit midrash every day. “We actually felt there was a lack in the Jewish world of a place that is egalitarian and really focused on that mastery of text for independent learners.”

Hadar has a vision for the type of student it will educate, although its leaders hesitate to make predictions about whether they will end up in pulpits or other positions.

“The person who’s right for this path is someone who wants to devote their life to advancing Hadar’s mission, and that’s a high and focused bar,” said Rabbi Tucker. “There is a cohort of people for whom this is organically their home and to the extent that they want to become rabbis, educators, teachers, in a way that is directly focused on advancing the particular mission of this place, we thought it was time for us to have an environment where that could happen.”

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