NEW YORK — In the upstairs sanctuary of a Manhattan synagogue, a group of rabbis is studying Jewish texts on pluralism and community. One floor below, 22 students are sitting in pairs poring over the book of Exodus.
The students spend all day, every weekday in the building, studying Jewish text and observing strict Jewish law in a gender-equal environment. The rabbis, by contrast, leave the building that afternoon and return to their communities across the country, which range from Reform synagogues that don’t observe traditional Jewish law to Orthodox ones that eschew full gender equality.
The two groups illustrate the dual mission of Mechon Hadar, a Jewish study institute now celebrating its 10th anniversary. As opposed to other Jewish schools offering college degrees or rabbinic ordination, Hadar hopes instead to form an educated, egalitarian Jewish laity and encourage rigorous Torah study across Jewish institutions.
On the one hand, it has taught and trained cohorts of adult students who live the lifestyle it promotes — intensively learning Torah and observing Jewish law without discriminating based on gender identity or sexual preference. But more recently, Hadar has spread its net further, offering classes and programs for Jewish professionals who don’t necessarily share its Jewish worldview.
“We would like to impact the Jewish community both from the bottom up and from the top down,” said Rabbi Shai Held, one of Hadar’s three co-founders. “I no longer believe in you just train rabbis and they change the world. You need rabbis, for sure, but you also need to inspire people to be responsible.”
Hadar was founded in 2006 by Held and two other rabbis, Ethan Tucker and Elie Kaunfer. Although Kaunfer and Held were ordained at the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary, and Tucker earned his doctorate in Talmud and rabbinics there, Hadar — like Kehilat Hadar, the Manhattan minyan out of which it developed — is a product of the movement of independent minyanim, or Jewish prayer groups unaffiliated with traditional synagogues or denominations. It offers resources on Jewish prayer and taught its first summer session of 18 fellows in 2007.
In the decade since, Hadar has had 500 full-time students in summer and yearlong programs, as well as 1,500 others who have attended shorter seminars for rabbis, college students or other Jewish professionals. Its Jewish study resources have been downloaded more than a million times in the past two years — covering everything from the weekly Torah portion to podcasts on Jewish ritual like how to celebrate a girl’s birth. And its co-presidents have published books on prayer groups, Jewish law and gender equality, and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. In January 2016, three college students from Pittsburgh attended Mechon Hadar’s week-long winter break session: Maya Rosen, Tova Perelman, and Hannah Busis.
“[It’s] a place in which you can be your full Jewish self without compromising on questions of values and gender that is in line with tradition and really continuing that,” Kaunfer said. “Being a place that other people can point to and say, ‘Oh yeah, the kind of Jewish life that I believe in exists, and here it is.’”
Core to that Jewish life are its groups of full-time students, who spend either a summer or academic year doing what was once almost exclusively the province of Orthodox men: learning over pages of Talmud, Bible and philosophy from morning to night. The students also teach part-time across the New York City area and engage in social service.
“It’s fascinating and really important to our society today to have this in-depth exploration of all sides of issues, of opinions you ultimately end up rejecting or disagreeing with, hearing all voices,” said Johanna Press, one of this year’s fellows, who came to Hadar after becoming more Jewishly observant in college and then spending a year studying in Israel.
“The beit midrash is the best educational environment I’ve been in,” she added, using the Hebrew term for a study house. “It’s OK to be working. It’s about engaging in the process.”
Beyond the shorter seminars, Hadar has expanded its footprint with study programs in Israel, as well as engagement with other movements’ institutions. Its Community Beit Midrash, held every month, brings together teachers from Hadar, the pluralistic Israel-based yeshiva Pardes, a few liberal Orthodox schools and the Jewish Theological Seminary.
“I see ourselves in league with them in a very deep way,” Kaunfer said of the other schools taking part. “The Jewish world likes to categorize and distinguish, and I feel like we’re more in the world of looking at the points of unity between us.”
This weekend, Mechon Hadar will celebrate its first decade with a sold-out retreat at a hotel in Teaneck, New Jersey, that will include Shabbat prayer, study and a concert on Saturday night.
Looking forward, Hadar hopes to expand its study programs, as well as support communities that share its philosophy. There are already some 100 independent minyanim that broadly accord with Hadar philosophically. But Tucker, a Hadar co-founder, said the organization needs to work on leveraging its alumni and allies into sustainable, multigenerational communities.
“One of our great challenges and goals has to be how do we help foster a new generation of people, kids and communities that sort of grow up living out this vision,” Tucker said. “The next frontier, as I see it, is actually beginning to generate a community that way transcends our programs and our beit midrash.”
But Hadar’s leadership doesn’t feel that all of its alumni need to narrowly pursue its stance of religiously observant egalitarianism in order to advance its vision. One alumna, Zoe Jick, now runs an English-language, full-time study program at Bina, a secular yeshiva in Tel Aviv, partly with financial support from Mechon Hadar. While she does not observe traditional Jewish law, Jick says Hadar inspired her to encourage Jewish study.
“Hadar 100 percent convinced me that Torah was at the core of my identity,” she said. “I felt like all of a sudden I was provided not only context and content, but given language to the things I felt instinctual about but didn’t know where it was coming from.”