Community Blog Hebrew College Rabbinical Student Co-Founds New Summer Yeshiva in Scotland

By Joshua Polanski
Jessica Spencer reading torah

Hebrew College rabbinical student Jessica Spencer had a very busy summer. After all, co-founding a yeshiva takes a lot of work. Spencer, who is originally from Scotland, spent the summer break helping to found Azara, the first-ever organization to offer deep inclusive Jewish text learning in Scotland.

Azara“There’s nowhere else in Europe where you can do a month of full-time learning in a co-educational context, outside of rabbinic training,” said Spencer. “We wanted to make a program substantial enough for participants to build real skills (not just a week or weekend) while being open to people of all backgrounds.”

In their first summer, the students represented a diversity of ages, denominations, and genders, and came from vastly different Jewish backgrounds. “I was so impressed by the kind and caring community that they formed, the focus they brought to their studies, and by their warmth in opening that community to others. I’d love us to continue to attract such diverse students, and to keep pushing ourselves on accessibility and inclusion so that we open the gates of the beit midrash even wider in future,” added Spencer.

The mission of Azara draws inspiration from several innovative Jewish organizations, including Limmud, Yakar (who ran the first Jewish text adult ed classes in the UK), and Pardes. The leaders also see themselves as a continuation of two London-based initiatives: Open Talmud Project (OTP) and Pop-Up Beit Midrash. “It’s been very helpful to have a model of a space where diverse forms of Judaism are encouraged, rather than tolerated,” said Spencer.

Like at Hebrew College, tefillah is integral to the experience of students at Azara. “I drew directly on my Hebrew College experience when thinking about how tefillah should be structured at Azara,” she added. “We were inspired by the model of Hebrew College’s tefillah groups, which are student-organized and often quite out-of-the-box. This was really useful for expanding participants’ visions of what tefillah could look like.”

Of course, being a co-founder for a yeshiva in Scotland can pose certain coordination difficulties when you’re based in Boston, MA for a large portion of the year, though Spencer returns home to Scotland for the summer. Azara started during the climax of the Covid-19 pandemic when Spencer was logging in for her synchronous online courses at Hebrew College from the UK. Her co-founders are UK based, making it easier to complete anything that needs to be done in person.

Azara

Spencer acknowledges the biggest benefit of studying at Hebrew College, several time zones away from Azara’s summer location: access to our world-class faculty members. “I’ve been able to learn from wonderful educators who I wouldn’t have had access to in the UK: in particular, the HC-SVARA Talmud Pedagogy Fellowship (co-taught by Jane Kanarek and Benay Lappe) and Michael Shire’s Spiritual Education course have been really instrumental in how I think about pedagogy, as was working with Daniel Reifman on my year in Israel,” she acknowledged. “At Hebrew College, my teachers Devora Steinmetz and Dan Judson have both given invaluable advice, and so have teachers beyond the walls of Hebrew College, especially Elie Kaunfer, Laynie Soloman, and Ethan Tucker.”


Learn more about Hebrew College’s rabbinical and cantorial programs at Ta Sh’ma (Come & Hear), our November Open Houses (in-person & virtual options).

Ta Sh'ma 2023

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