A Manhattan congregation catering to 20- and 30-somethings is aiming to teach a cadre of lay leaders according to its innovative methods and approach to Jewish outreach.
Four students from New Jersey will be part of the effort, when 18 inaugural fellows join the first class of Mechon Hadar, North America’s first full-time egalitarian yeshiva.
Launched this fall and inaugurated with a celebration on Oct. 21, the yeshiva is an offshoot of Kehillat Hadar, an influential “independent minyan” on New York’s Upper West Side.
The proudly nondenominational, largely lay-led congregation draws enthusiastic crowds of Jews under the age of 40 and has been honored and studied for its innovations in learning, prayer, and social action.
The new school, located in rented space in Manhattan’s West End Synagogue, has as its ultimate goal “to fundamentally transform contemporary Judaism,” said Rabbi Elie Kaunfer, who founded the yeshiva together with Rabbi Shai Held and Rabbi Ethan Tucker. (Kaunfer founded the minyan with Tucker and a third friend.)
“Our mission is to foster more empowered Jews who can act on their vision, whatever it may be, from a place of substance, knowledge, and connection to the Jewish tradition,” Kaunfer said.
Although the yeshiva and minyan are independent entities — the minyan is self-supporting and entirely volunteer-run — Kaunfer acknowledged that the yeshiva represents the next stage in developing his broader vision.
Mechon Hadar seeks to provide a community in which students “don’t have to choose a big-box label to describe themselves,” said Kaunfer. Congregants want to “search out for themselves how the power of the Jewish tradition relates to their lives.”
In this first year, 18 fellows were selected from among 60 applicants. Each attends tuition free and receives a $12,000 stipend. It is funded by a major grant from the Jim Joseph Foundation, as well contributions from other foundations and individuals.
Two of the New Jersey students, Avital Strausberg of Ocean Township and Jaime Guarnaccia of Highland Park, come out of the Reform movement.
Strausberg, 26, has been active in the “new Jewish food movement” and is seeking to connect her interest in the environment and sustainable agriculture with serious text study. She told NJJN she is looking for a way to “be Jewish, spiritual, into organic food and wholesome cooking, appreciative of the earth and its vegetable bounty, uphold the values of tikun olam, all in one person and one belief system.”
Strausberg attended religious school and celebrated becoming bat mitzva in the Reform Temple Beth El in Oakhurst. Still, she describes her family as “secular.”
“We barely celebrated Hanukka,” she said.
She felt Judaism’s pull while doing organic farming in New Zealand just a few years after graduating from Northwestern University. Back in the States, she had a series of environmental internships at the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center in Connecticut. “That got me interested in Jewish values, but it was organic farming more than intensive text study,” she said.
Strausberg said she didn’t think she would feel comfortable studying at an Orthodox institution. At Hadar, she said, “I can practice pretty traditional halachic Judaism and still feel like I’m doing it in my own skin and identity.”
At the yeshiva, she said, she’s finding plenty of people who don’t fit comfortably into denominational categories. Instead, the focus is, “This is how to lead a meaningfully Jewish life. Let’s do this and not get hung up on the politics of denominations.”
Strausberg is the exception among the students at Hadar in that she plans to go to rabbinical school next year, either at the non-denominational Hebrew College or the Conservative Jewish Theological Seminary.
“We believe that an educated laity that feels confident and empowered in their relationship to the Jewish tradition is the key to moving forward the American-Jewish community,” said Kaunfer. “That is why students who are not pursuing the rabbinate will always be our primary focus.”
Strausberg said she hopes to bring her passion for sustainability into the rabbinate. “We once were a people of the land, shepherds and farmers,” she said. “I’d love to find a balance between the tradition of Jewish text study and the value of being deeply connected to the earth in an immediate way.”
‘A better person’
Guarnaccia, 22, plans to be a middle school teacher. A recent Harvard University graduate, he was considering both religious and secular yeshivot in the United States and Israel when he heard about Mechon Hadar. He knew he would find a home there, he said; its founders are all Harvard graduates who were deeply involved in Hillel there, as was Guarnaccia.
In addition, “I like the combination of old-world traditional study of yeshiva and modern universal access approach.” He added, “It offers a community coupled with an ideology I can buy into.”
Guarnaccia has been slowly making his way toward observance since his family joined Anshe Emeth Memorial Temple, a Reform synagogue in New Brunswick, when he was in fifth grade. He was involved in youth movements in high school, and in college often found himself in the company of Conservative Camp Ramah alumni, while exploring Chabad on his own.
He was looking for a place where he could spend time with Jewish texts, learning how to keep up with and even lead services and figuring out “how to become more conscientious in the world — to use religious practice to become a better person.”
Guarnaccia, who started at Hadar’s three-year-old intensive summer study program, said he actually misses the more hectic pace of summer.
The other NJ students are Rachel Druck of Englewood and Sydney Levine of Mahwah.
Both Strausberg and Guarnaccia said they are thrilled to interact directly with original Jewish texts, particularly in their Talmud study.
“It’s totally mentally exhausting and the most exciting,” said Strausberg, adding, “I’m a little bit in love with the voice of the Gemara.”