If Yeshiva University is “the flagship institution of Modern Orthodoxy,” as it is often called, then Mechon Hadar is the flagship institution of the traditional egalitarian set, a not-quite-movement made up mostly of independent minyanim concentrated in a few major cities. To most students at Y.U., Hadar—which runs America’s only full-time egalitarian yeshiva—would appear to be obviously out of bounds, but a few supplement their Y.U. education with the more liberal, mixed-gender learning available at Hadar.
“It’s the only Jewish religious place that you can really express yourself the way you need to, and that’s good and right, not just ‘OK’ there,” says Shelley Adelson, Hadar enthusiast and student at Y.U.’s Stern College for Women.
The course load at Y.U. is heavy: Students take secular courses that aspire to rival those of the Ivy League—alongside Judaic studies courses taught by some of today’s leading Orthodox Jewish scholars. Factor in all the hours spent attending the classes in this rigorous dual curriculum, and, barring Hermione’s Time-Turner, it seems impossible that the men and women of Y.U. could have the time to attend any additional classes, even if they wanted to. Despite all that, some manage to find the time. Brought up to believe in the central place of tradition in their lives, but craving a more open atmosphere, the appeal of broader inclusion is irresistible to the Y.U. students who come to Hadar.
Hadar’s biggest program, Yeshivat Hadar offers paid summer and year-long fellowships for a select number of yeshiva students. There are 37 fellows this summer. Both men and women study alongside each other, in the same beit midrash (house of study)—something that would never happen at Y.U., where male and female undergrads are kept separate, men at Yeshiva College and women at Stern College for Women.
In addition to full time-study, Hadar offers seminars, courses and lectures that are open to the public. The most popular is the weekly “Open Beit Midrash,” during which teachers scattered at tables around the room simultaneously teach a wildly diverse selection of courses. A recent lecture series discussed some of “life’s most basic questions” (“What Are Human Beings For?” and “What Can Human Beings Do?”) and some nights feature niggunim (spiritual, wordless melodies) and musical meditation—aspects of Jewish spirituality not easily found at Y.U., if at all.
Offerings also include multi-part lecture series on theology and practical seminars on leading services, such as “Building Singing Communities.”
Hadar’s beit midrash is actually the book-lined sanctuary of the West End Synagogue, a Reconstructionist synagogue on the Upper West Side. Beyond renting space, there is no relationship between Hadar and West End, but the arrangement is indicative of another major difference between Hadar and Modern Orthodoxy: willingness, even enthusiasm, for partnerships with different types of Jews.
“We have seen an increase in people from Modern Orthodox backgrounds over the years,” says Executive Director Rabbi Elie Kaunfer, one of Hadar’s co-founders. “Among our full-time fellows, it can range up to 40 percent of the cohort, up from about 25 percent.”
Kaunfer also goes by the title Rosh Yeshiva, the traditional title for the head of a yeshiva, which reflects that extent to which the group tries to emulate the feel and structure of a traditional Jewish house of study; most of his full-time students call him Rav Elie.
The trend is not restricted to Hadar. While articles on traditional egalitarian groups often cite Conservative movement refugees fleeing to the right as the primary source of members, the flight of Orthodox Jews to the left is a significant influence as well.
The egalitarian message of Hadar attracts more female than male Y.U. students, although this might be nothing more than a scheduling impossibility (many male Y.U. students take classes that go as late as 10 p.m.). Though a typical female Y.U. student takes about four hours of Jewish studies a week—on anything from in-depth Talmud to marital relations (read: sex for those who are allowed to have it)—the classes conform to the Modern Orthodox mold. For some students, this isn’t enough, and the more modern approach of Hadar fills that void.
Dasha Sominski was born and raised in Russia, and attended a Jewish public school there for high school. She planned to go to at a Chabad women’s program in Crown Heights upon her arrival in the U.S. Now a sophomore at Stern, where she transferred soon after moving to New York, Sominski attends weekly classes at Hadar. She sees her time at Hadar as simply another way of expanding her Jewish education.
“I had a crippled Jewish education, and Stern allowed me to expand in terms of religion and bekiyut [surface-level knowledge of Jewish texts]” says Sominski. “Obviously, there’s a certain degree of closed-mindedness from the rabbis and rebbetzins [rabbis’ wives]. But Judaism isn’t something that’s just given to you; it’s something that you have to deconstruct and reconstruct again. Everything is just another piece of information.”
Sominski found that some of her more troubling questions about religion weren’t being answered at Y.U.. That’s where Hadar came in.
“The biggest struggles are about egalitarianism, how to understand religious friends who are gay. When these things become personal, they shake you. And you see someone whose Judaism is strong and they are still able to resolve those issues, then you’re interested in finding out how.”
The message of gender equality attracts many who feel that Modern Orthodoxy has not done enough to include women—and it’s not unusual to see more than one rainbow keychain on a typical day at Hadar.
Shelley Adelson, a junior at Stern, comes from a slightly different background than Sominski, one more common at Y.U. Adelson attended a Modern Orthodox all-girls high school in New Jersey and spent a year studying in Israel before college. After hearing about Hadar from a former Stern student who attended Hadar’s summer program last year, Adelson decided to try it out.
“I wasn’t being challenged at Stern,” explains Adelson. “I didn’t really know what Hadar was about. I knew it was egalitarian, but I had major misconceptions about what that meant.”
Upon attending classes at Hadar, however, Adelson discovered that she enjoyed the unique approach of the yeshiva.
“Stern is modern, but this is newer. I looked at it as a more intellectual point of view. I was trying to figure out: What do I agree with? What spectrum do I fall into?” she says.
Tali Adler, a senior at Stern, heard about Hadar from the same friend from Y.U. as Adelson, and is now attending their nine-week summer program.
Interviewed before the summer program started, Adler had never attended a Hadar class, but she was excited for the summer.
“I was looking for a program with serious learning that would also expose me to a wide range of people, and I feel that Hadar meets both of those,” Adler explained.
“There’s a very specific type of person at Stern,” Adelson says, pointing out that Hadar attracts a wide range of students, creating an atmosphere of diversity and inclusion. A typical Hadar class is likely to be filled with Jews from every corner of New York, from Crown Heights to the Village. A student with long hair and woven sandals might pose a question, only to find an answer or agreement from a penguin—a man wearing a white shirt and black pants, the uniform of the Ultra-Orthodox. The evening minyan shortly before weekday night events at Hadar is led by a rotating cast of current Hadar yeshiva fellows, men and women. Some women even have tzitzit—worn only by men in Orthodox circles—hanging down visibly.
“Even the clothing was so much more interesting to look at than the clone you see in Stern,” says Adelson, referring to the pencil skirts and flats characteristic of the typical Stern student.
“There are Hareidi [Ultra-Orthodox] people there sometimes,” adds Sominski.
According to Kaunfer, who plays the part of energetic ringleader on Open Beit Midrash nights, this is part and parcel of the Hadar message.
“We always hoped to attract a broad population that was drawn to our mission, community and style of learning,” he says. “This ranges from people who grew up Orthodox their entire lives—including people from Israeli Dati [Modern Orthodox] community—to people who grew up very disconnected and found their way to Judaism as adults.”
Asked what he thinks Y.U. students see in Hadar that is unavailable elsewhere, Kaunfer explains: “I think Hadar offers a high-level engagement with the text that does not shy away from any questions, but attempts to answer them with rigor and sophistication.”
Adler is interested mostly in the possibility of learning in an egalitarian setting, something she hasn’t encountered before. “I was interested in being exposed to a more egalitarian point of view. So far I’ve been in a very Modern Orthodox environment—Modern Orthodox high school, Modern Orthodox seminary, Modern Orthodox college.” When asked whether the two were mutually exclusive, Adler replies, “I don’t think they need to be mutually exclusive, but mainstream Modern Orthodoxy is not egalitarian.”
Kaunfer, for one, is not surprised by the appearance of Y.U. students on the Hadar scene.
“I am not necessarily surprised because I think much of the Torah we teach here is specifically engaging for people who have a background [in traditional Jewish text study] and are curious. But I am always pleased when people venture beyond their familiar boxes to find Torah wherever it may be.”
Simi Lampert is the founder and former editor of the Beacon, a senior at Stern College for Women at Yeshiva University and one of the New York Jewish Week’s 2012 “36 Under 36.” She is currently a summer intern at the Jewish Daily Forward.