British Beit Midrash

U.K. group launches homegrown nondenominational summer yeshiva in Edinburgh

Azara’s monthlong program inspired by similar initiatives from Pardes, Hadar and other institutions hopes to bring text study to everyone

For the next few weeks, Edinburgh, Scotland, will be home to a first-of-its-kind nondenominational yeshiva, bringing together dozens of Jews, mostly from the United Kingdom but also from elsewhere, as part of a new initiative by the organization Azara, one of its co-founders told eJewishPhilanthropy.

Taking inspiration from Hadar and Pardes, along with a number of other learning institutions in the U.S. and Israel, two years ago Rabbi Leah Jordan, Jessica Spencer and Rabba Dr Lindsey Taylor-Guthartz created Azara, which took its name from the Hebrew word for courtyard, a reference to the space outside the Temple where “all the Jews could gather, regardless of gender or priestly status,” according to the organization’s website.

Until now, the group has focused primarily on one-off and limited events: evening learning sessions, weekend retreats and running the hevruta (study partner) program at Limmud UK. “But really what we’ve been trying to do, what we’ve been building towards is something like this, a sustained chance to do learning without having to go abroad for it,” Spencer told eJP.

The monthlong yeshiva program began last week, on June 21, and runs through July 23. It is being held at the University of Edinburgh’s School of Divinity at New College, through a partnership with the institution.

“The aim of the program is to increase access to Torah learning in the UK and to deepen connections with the rich and nuanced Jewish tradition. For a month, participants will study Talmud as well as Halachah (Jewish law), modern Jewish thought, and other Jewish texts. Students of all levels, including complete beginners, study texts in the original Hebrew and Aramaic,” the organization said in a statement.

Eighteen people are signed up for the full monthlong program, Spencer said, with the “critical mass” being people in their 20s. The participants come from a range of backgrounds, from Reform to Modern Orthodox to those who don’t identify with a specific denomination. Most are from the U.K., but some are from elsewhere in Europe, the U.S. and Israel, she said.

In addition to the full program, there will also be an “open week” next month when people can come in for classes, which some 20 people were expected to attend, according to Spencer. Azara has also opened its doors to members of Edinburgh’s local Jewish community, which is also helping house some of the yeshiva’s faculty.

“The Edinburgh community, because they’re a small community and they’re not so used to big Jewish things happening up here, have been incredibly welcoming and incredibly accommodating of us,” said Spencer.

The funding for the monthlong yeshiva comes from a variety of sources, including: a crowdfunding campaign that was held this winter; a number of small grants from trusts and foundations; and tuition from the participants. Though Spencer said the tuition, which was done in a “pay what you can” model, does not come close to covering the costs of the program. “That was an idealistic move. I’m not sure we’ll do that again, but we’ll see,” she said.

In addition, two of the faculty members for the program – Leah Rosenthal from Pardes and Jeremy Tabick from Hadar – are having their salaries paid by their home organizations, making their participation a donation as well.

Spencer said Azara was “very, very grateful” for that assistance from Hadar and Pardes, as well as the “cross-pollination” that comes from having members of the different organizations working together.

In a statement, Tabick praised Azara and the yeshiva program, saying it was “inspiring to watch such committed and excited participants throw themselves into a month-long experience.”

Spencer explained that the decision to hold the program in Edinburgh was more a decision to not hold it in London.

“The big question was whether to do it in London or not London,” she said, because the majority of British Jewry lives in or around the British capital. 

“So that was where people would already have been based, and that really came with some advantages and disadvantages,” she said. “You don’t have to find accommodation or see to a lot of the logistics, but the disadvantage is you don’t create a kind of intentional immersive community if you do that, because people are scattered over the city, people have other distractions, people have their lives.”

After settling on “not London,” they chose Edinburgh because of their connection to the university, which is both providing them space for study sessions as well as housing for the participants. “And that’s tremendously helpful financially, logistically,” Spencer said.

As the program only just started last week, Spencer said it was too early for Azara to reach any conclusions about any possible changes to the program – “we’ll have a serious sit-down about that August” – but that she hoped that it will continue.

“Things are tremendously exciting, people are learning huge amounts, there’s real enthusiasm,” she said. “So I very much hope that it will be a repeated event that we will be able to do every year.”