Nonprofit’s ‘secret sauce’
Hadar’s brand of pluralism and egalitarianism fuels a surge of growth
Manhattan-based learning center envisions a bold future in new strategic plan even as nonprofits are hurting
Avital Morris, a 27-year-old doctoral student in medieval Jewish history at Yale, loves studying Jewish law “in a place where halacha and egalitarianism are not up for debate.” For Brooklyn Rabbi Jeff Marker, 73, the rabbinic yeshiva intensive in which he took part was a pure learning experience — there were “no machers,” no one looking “to impress.” And for Rachel Dingman, 34, a BBYO director, last summer’s Jewish Wisdom Fellowship spoke profoundly to this COVID moment, “about what it means to be together when we can’t be physically together.”
The Ph. D. student, the rabbi and the communal professional have all recently taken part in study programs run by Hadar, an innovative center for pluralistic Jewish learning based in Manhattan. At a time when synagogues are merging, day schools are trying desperately to retain students and nonprofits are struggling, Hadar is thriving, attracting literally thousands of new students and garnering millions of dollars in funding from new sources. It is, said one close observer of the Jewish nonprofit scene, becoming “a true national force.”
Hadar’s bold vision for growth is laid out in a newly published, 72-page strategic plan, which details ambitious goals for the next three years, including to more than double its current $5.6 million budget to nearly $11 million, add staff and significantly expand its reach. It is also experimenting with multiple new programs to reach people of every age in any location, and in fall 2019 Hadar launched a rabbinical seminary.
The learning center offers classes about Jewish texts and ideas in multiple formats: some over one or two sessions before a holiday, others weekly or even daily. Hadar’s president, CEO and co-founder, Rabbi Elie Kaunfer, teaches a class on the Amidah, the central section of Jewish worship, for 15 minutes each day at 7:45 a.m., drawing around 70 participants at a time. A 15-minute-long pre-Passover class on the Haggadah held at the same time over two weeks leading up to the holiday, also led by Kaunfer, pulled in 175 participants. Prior to the pandemic, Hadar’s annual gatherings were major meetups. Six hundred fifty people attended its last Shabbaton, in January 2020.
Today, more than 1,000 people a week join one of its 15 different class offerings, Kaunfer told eJewishPhilanthropy. Last year, 30,000 people attended various classes, he said, a number he expects to grow in 2021.
And those participants are evenly spread across the age spectrum, according to a Hadar analysis, split between those under 30, between 30 and 50, and the balance over 50.
How is Hadar, which is Hebrew for splendor or glory, growing during a pandemic, when so many other relatively small Jewish organizations are surviving only with the assistance of philanthropic rescue funding?
Hadar’s founders and leaders “have taken a pluralistic approach, married it to extraordinarily deep commitment to content and kept the passion of transforming Jewish community. That’s been their secret sauce,” said Mark Charendoff, president of the Maimonides Fund, which has been supporting Hadar since 2011.
Hadar’s “focus has been reimagining what it means to be part of the Jewish community. Their leap is figuring out how to translate that from a good local program into being a true national force,” Charendoff continued. “The necessity of migrating online has let them experiment with a way of being a more effective national organization.”
Hadar integrates Jewish learning with community building and prayer. “Access to high-level Jewish learning in the context of community is a rare commodity in the United States,” said Kaunfer, who was a leader of the independent minyan movement of the late 1990s. “People who want to have the experience of Jewish learning in an egalitarian context didn’t have that option” before. “You can find pockets of things, but bringing it all together is what we’re trying to do.”
Hadar’s first program ran in the summer of 2007: an eight-week immersive intensive Torah study for young adults, with 18 participants and a $225,000 budget.
“Our vision was to have a vibrant egalitarian yeshiva for young people,” Kanfer said. “For a long time, that’s how people understood us. But from the beginning we had a large dream and vision for a multi-pronged approach for changing Jewish life.”
The following summer, funding from The Jim Joseph Foundation allowed Hadar to double the number of summer students to 36. In 2009, when it had garnered $700,000 in funding, it became a year-round program.
Morris, the Yale doctoral student, participated in the summer learning program in 2015 and 2017. “I really wanted a yeshiva experience and I am a woman, and there weren’t a lot of options besides Hadar,” she told JI. Morris, who grew up in Manhattan, also studied in an intensive Hadar program about Jewish law last spring and plans to do it again this year, she said. “I loved learning in a place where halacha [Jewish law] and egalitarianism are not up for debate.” Hadar excels at providing access to Torah study to people no matter how much or little previous experience they have had, she said.
By 2016, Hadar’s budget was $2.7 million, and last year the organization brought in $5.6 million. In three years, its leaders are projecting that fundraising will reach close to $11 million annually, Kaunfer said.
The number of Hadar donors more than doubled between 2019 and 2020, said Rabbi Avi Killip, Hadar’s vice president of strategy and programs. Half were first-time donors, she said.
“Hadar has been a priority for us since our inception [five years ago] because of its approach to Jewish content and philosophy that you don’t have to dumb down Judaism to make it accessible, relevant and meaningful,” said Adam Simon, executive director of the Aviv Foundation, one of Hadar’s core funders. Aviv is giving Hadar $1 million over three years. “Hadar has responded really beautifully to the questions people are asking about their world.”
This time of year, core programs include pre-holiday study sessions and lectures devoted to the laws of Passover and perspectives on the Exodus, a course devoted to studying the week’s Torah portion and Talmud study.
Rabbi Jeff Marker is a Brooklyn resident who has spent most of his career working as a chaplain in various settings. Marker, a Conservative rabbi, has participated in a variety of Hadar programs over many years, including participating in week-long rabbinic intensives and study sessions on Tisha B’Av. This year’s rabbinic intensive just took place, and had over 100 participants from across the U.S., he said. “The teaching is top-notch.” And being with colleagues from across the range of denominations, he added, has been rewarding.
The Hadar ethos is also gratifying. “Sometimes rabbis can be very involved with their status. There is none of that at the rabbinic yeshiva intensive. Everybody just wants to learn together and share experiences. There are no machers, and that’s what I like about it. People go to learn for the love of learning, and not to impress. People who are better at texts are happy to work with people who struggle with Hebrew and Aramaic. I like that egalitarian camaraderie,” he said.
Hadar also maintains a listserv for independent minyanim, the prayer communities independent of a denomination, which were part of Hadar’s founding work. Last Sunday, it held a conference for independent minyanim, which drew 120 people more than 60 different minyanim in the U.S.
But it is branching out. Hadar’s original side venture is the Rising Song Institute, which is led by the innovative composer, musician and song leader Joey Weisenberg. Since 2011 — except for this year — RSI has held annual intensives, teaching song- and prayer-leading and other musical aspects of Jewish community leadership. In its last in-person intensive, held Christmas week of 2019, 230 adults participated, with 700 packed into an Upper West Side synagogue for a concluding concert. RSI is the only Hadar program that took a hit during the pandemic, since there is no effective way to move singing together online. Hadar also shaved its budget by cutting the position of co-director, moving Rabbi Yosef Goldman to a consulting role. RSI also produces and publishes albums of its leaders’ and participants’ music.
Before the pandemic, Hadar had begun expanding in-person text learning to cities including Washington, D.C., Philadelphia and Boston.
New endeavors include a children and families division, and expanding Project Zug, a study program that pairs adults in the U.S. and Israel and provides guidance as they work through primary sources. Hadar is also expanding its work in Israel, including a beit midrash, a month-long summer intensive program, support for alumni and an annual independent minyan conference.
In addition, it recently took over the Maimonides Moot Court Competition for high school and college students from Prizmah, the Jewish day school association. Hadar’s newest acquisition is the J.J. Greenberg Institute for the Advancement of Jewish Life. It provides a platform for theologian Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, who distributes his weekly Torah portion commentaries in email and podcast form to 10,000 recipients – up by 2,000 since late January.
Hadar Press published its first book, The Torah of Music by Joey Weisenberg, in 2017, and plans to soon publish another, written by Kaunfer about the Amidah.
Hadar started a rabbinical seminary in late 2019. It plans to ordain its first class, consisting of nine rabbis, in two years, said Kaunfer.
Hadar may be the only Jewish organization in which four people share the title president: Kaunfer; Rabbi Shai Held, a co-founder, dean and chair in Jewish thought; co-founder Rabbi Ethan Tucker, who is also Hadar’s co-rosh yeshiva; and Rabbi Avital Hochstein, who is president of Hadar Israel. “It’s part of our vision of, and commitment to, shared leadership,” Held told JI.
“A lot of our growth has been driven by people who now have access to Hadar and never learned with us before,” said Kaunfer. An all-day learning event the day before Yom Kippur drew 900 participants. “You would never schlep your staff to a building on Erev Yom Kippur to make this happen, but we could do it because of this pandemic,” he noted.
“We realized a lot of the work we do can be done online, and while a lot of work like camps and JCCs can’t, ours can,” Killip said. “We have found more opportunity” during the pandemic. “It became clear that there’s so much we can do online and there’s no way we can go back to a world where we don’t have a robust online beit midrash.”
“Post-COVID, we know we will have a hybrid model,” Killip continued. “Like our new program for grandparents and grandchildren to learn together. That should be on Zoom, and now 8-year-olds and 70-year-olds know how to use Zoom. It’s the cutest Zoom room ever.”
“A global pandemic made people realize that Netflix won’t feed your soul, and that when you’re facing death, we need our religious tradition and religious leaders to hold us. People now realize how much they need religious life.”
While it did not offer much online learning before COVID-19 made in-person gatherings impossible, Hadar plans to continue it indefinitely. “COVID-inspired access is too powerful to give up,” said Kaunfer. “It revealed to us the broad national audience we are appealing to.”
Still, while not yet scheduled, its leaders are eager to return to in-person learning. “So much of the magic is in the meals, the hallways, the one-on-one learning, the interactions between teachers and students live. We miss being in person a tremendous amount,” Kaunfer said.
Hadar hopes to run a national Shabbaton every third year, with regional conferences in between. It is experimenting with projects like a daily Mishna club for elementary and middle school students interested in Judaism’s core rabbinic literature. A weekly Torah portion newsletter and podcast for kids is in development, backed by a new grant of $500,000 from the Atlanta-based Zalik Foundation Fund.
Last summer, with funding from the Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah, Hadar started an eight-week summer Jewish Wisdom Fellowship for Jewish professionals; 220 people were nominated for 24 spots. Hadar ended up expanding the program to 34 participants. Dingman, the director of Jewish enrichment at BBYO, was one of them. The focus of their study was what Jewish texts have to say about living in, and leading through, times of uncertainty, a theme as relevant during this year as any other. The Jewish Wisdom Fellowship became, for Dingman, “a laboratory of Jewish wisdom with peers and colleagues and people bringing so many different perspectives, space to workshop ideas before I had to lead those conversations [at BBYO] about what it means to be together for the High Holidays when we can’t be physically together.”
“In the fellowship I had personal and professional support,” said Dingman, who lives in Washington, D.C. “And as a Jewish professional, sometimes I forget how important it is to be in a space where I can personally be learning.”
The learning center also just launched a prayer fellowship for high school and college students, said Kaunfer, in which teens curious about leading Jewish worship can develop their practical skills “and network so they don’t feel alone.”
It isn’t yet clear which new projects will succeed, and not everything Hadar has begun has worked. An effort a few years back to bring together rabbinical students from the Conservative, Reform and open Orthodox movements in a joint beit midrash didn’t pan out, so Hadar morphed it into a community open study hall, said Kaunfer.
“Hadar is a learning organization, and they are not shy about trying new things and adjusting them as data causes them to rethink previous hypotheses,” said Aaron Saxe, senior program officer at The Jim Joseph Foundation. The foundation has backed Hadar since 2012; it gave the center $2 million over four years ending in 2020, and this year donated $500,000. The foundation likes Hadar in part because of its flexibility, said Saxe. “They have a compelling strategic plan that can prioritize and de-prioritize various things depending on what happens. The quality of the learning that Hadar offers didn’t lose a beat when it moved” from in person to online, Saxe said. “They’re seeing growth like never before.”
“Our vision is a robust and powerful Jewish life,” said Kaunfer. “There are many ways to access that, and we want to provide more ways in.”