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A non-denominational yeshiva opens in Scotland, inspired by models in US and Israel

(JTA) — The students start their day with prayers at 8 a.m., then work their way through a packed schedule of rigorous Jewish text study. Hailing from several countries, they are of different genders, practice Judaism differently and identify with a variety of movements, or none at all. Some of the cohort of 18 aim to become rabbis, but others are devoting themselves to Jewish learning as a side pursuit.

Such programs have existed for more than a decade but this one, called Azara, is perhaps Europe’s first non-denominational yeshiva. The founders of Azara, which is based for the summer in Edinburgh, hope to offer a pluralist space for intensive study of Talmud and other holy books, drawing from models pioneered in New York City, Jerusalem and elsewhere.

“We just thought there’s so much need in the U.K. for a bit more education, something that goes a little bit deeper, something that’s accessible, something that’s open to people,” said Jessica Spencer, a fifth-year rabbinical student at Hebrew College originally from Edinburgh and one of Azara’s founders.

“The real thing we’ve been building towards is the summer program because that feels [like] quite the symbolic thing; to have something of this sort of weight, and full-time, this depth that’s not in America or Israel,” she added.

The opening of Azara signifies that a growing network of institutions committed to non-denominational Jewish study now has a foothold in a new continent. Yeshivas such as the egalitarian Hadar in New York City, or Pardes in Jerusalem, have sought to offer a traditional curriculum of all-day intellectual Jewish text study while maintaining a commitment to strict Jewish observance, mixed-gender learning and inclusion of LGBTQ Jews.

Azara received funding from Hadar and credits it and Pardes as influences, along with Svara, a Chicago-based yeshiva founded to serve LGBTQ Jews. Azara shies away from the label “egalitarian” because some of its students and faculty identify as Orthodox. But people of all genders study together and morning prayers at the yeshiva have been gender-equal. (There is also a small Orthodox group that prays together, but without the quorum of 10 men traditionally required by Jewish law.)

“We’re trying to combine aspects of all of these places because none of them exist in the U.K. really,” said Spencer, who plans to work for Britain’s Masorti movement, a parallel to the Conservative movement, after she receives ordination. “There’s a real need to do something that all those places are doing — to be cross-communal in the way that Pardes is and open to people and do the sort of empowering, joyful learning that Svara does, and also the kind of serious and rigorous element that I’ve seen at Hadar.”

Spencer credits the Open Talmud Project, a cross-denominational study program founded in 2009, for introducing her to the code of rabbinic law. Azara is the successor to that and another initiative, called Pop-Up Beit Midrash, that was based in London and offered a variety of Jewish classes and courses.

Spencer founded Azara last year along with Orthodox Rabba Lindsey Taylor-Guthartz and Rabbi Leah Jordan of the Liberal movement, which is similar to Reform Judaism in the United States. The three scholars began by offering Zoom classes, weekend programs and intensives, and drop-in evening classes at JW3, a Jewish community center in London.

Participants in chevruta, or partnered study, are shown during Azara’s summer orientation. (Ben Schwaub)

For their summer yeshiva, however, they decided to decamp to the University of Edinburgh’s divinity school, where students are staying in campus accommodations and eat kosher, vegetarian food brought in from Glasgow, about an hour away by car. Spencer hopes locating the school in a city with a small Jewish population will allow the students to bond and focus on their learning.

“We thought it kind of helped the atmosphere of the program and it would create a more immersive community,” she said. “In London, people would have been scattered all over the city and they would have had their everyday lives, they wouldn’t have been so focused on the program.”

Participants in the summer program will spend the month studying Jewish law, modern Jewish thought and other Jewish topics, reading and analyzing the texts in small groups in the original Hebrew and Aramaic. The day begins with prayers and breakfast, followed by a three-hour morning Talmud class. All students are studying the same chapter of Kiddushin, a Talmud tractate that deals with engagement and marriage. Beginners are learning to read the original Hebrew and Aramaic texts, and more advanced students are studying commentaries on the Talmud. All official programming is Shabbat- and kosher-observant.

The faculty at Azara include scholars from Hadar, Pardes, the Progressive Leo Baeck College in London and Yeshivat Maharat, a liberal Orthodox seminary that ordains women clergy in New York City.

“Azara is giving access to deep Torah learning to a whole group of people who have never had the opportunity,” said Jeremy Tabick, a member of the Hadar faculty who is British and is teaching Talmud at Azara this summer. “It’s inspiring to watch such committed and excited participants throw themselves into a month-long experience.”

The fact that all three founders of the yeshiva are women, Spencer said, “was a little bit chance,” noting that several male rabbis in Britain have also long been committed to building a program of this kind.

“We’re still in a world where there are fewer opportunities for women learning than men, by a long way for this stuff,” she added. “And so perhaps women have somewhat more impetus to create non-traditional places to learn and create accessible places to learn, but really, I think, again, I can think of several men off the top of my head who’ve been very, very involved in this project at various other points.”

Another of Azara’s co-founders, Taylor-Guthartz, has experience with breaking boundaries in Britain’s Jewish community. After she received ordination at Yeshivat Maharat, she was briefly fired from a teaching position at the London School of Jewish Studies, causing a communal stir that led to a reversal of that decision.

“It may take an age – it may even take more than my lifetime — but you’ve got to keep moving,” she told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency in 2021, regarding effecting change in British Jewish institutions. ”You’ve got to keep coming. I think we’re at the beginning of that process.”

To pay for its programming, Spencer said Azara is mostly funded by donations, including grants from Hadar (which is also paying Tabick’s salary for the month), Hazon’s Jewish Intentional Communities Incubator and the Samuel Bronfman Foundation. Tuition for the summer program was flexible, with tiered suggestions for participants ranging from roughly $450 to $1,600.

The yeshiva is also holding study sessions with the wider Edinburgh Jewish community. At the last one, on July 5, students led an arts-and-crafts session on text related to the minor fast day of the 17th of Tammuz, which occurred July 6. Another student did a reading that placed a Sylvia Plath poem in conversation with Eshet Hayil, the Biblical poem about a “woman of valor” traditionally sung on Friday nights.

Spencer is co-teaching a Talmud class with Laliv Clenman, a professor from Leo Baeck College who specializes in rabbinics, Hebrew and Aramaic. Spencer said the amount that the students have learned in just a week and a half has been “incredible.”

“We’re talking about people who came in being a little shaky on their vowels, some of them, and not knowing that a [Hebrew letter] ‘vav’ means ‘and’ and really that level — very, very beginner,” she said. “And they’re reading lines of Gemara,” or Talmud.

She added, “It feels like we’re doing something very special.”

The post A non-denominational yeshiva opens in Scotland, inspired by models in US and Israel appeared first on Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

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The Implications of Rafah’s Cross-Border Tunnels

Israeli soldiers operate at the opening to a tunnel at Al Shifa Hospital compound in Gaza City, amid the ongoing ground operation of the Israeli army against Hamas, in the Gaza Strip, Nov. 22, 2023. Photo: REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun

JNS.orgAn estimated 50 cross-border tunnels link Gaza to Egypt’s Sinai, enabling Hamas to smuggle weapons, funds and personnel, and black-market traders to import a range of goods to the Strip.

Yoni Ben Menachem, a senior researcher at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, said that since the Israel Defense Forces has not yet captured all of Rafah and the Philadelphi Corridor, aka the Philadelphi Route or the Saladin Axis (the narrow strip of land along the 8.7-mile border between the Gaza Strip and Egypt), the estimate for the number of tunnels could easily rise.

The current IDF operations have focused on specific points such as the Rafah crossing and parts of the Philadelphi Corridor, as well as eastern Rafah, but they are due to expand shortly.

According to Ben Menachem, the tunnels serve purposes beyond smuggling weapons. These include the transportation of “prohibited goods such as luxury goods, cigarettes and pornographic materials, which are then sold on the black market in Gaza at high prices,” he noted, highlighting the financial aspect of the smuggling operations.

He also said there was likely high-level corruption at the Rafah crossing, where bribes are paid to Egyptian security officials to facilitate smuggling.

“According to Palestinian reports, bribery of senior officials at the Rafah crossing and Egyptian military officers on the Philadelphi Route enabled the transport of goods and weapons,” he said, underscoring the extensive network supporting smuggling activities, which he said has been occurring both over and underground.

As such, Ben Menachem said, the tunnels are part of a larger industry that includes the transfer of residents of Gaza into Egypt and beyond.

Ben Menachem referred to reports that claim Mahmoud el-Sisi, the son of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, is heavily involved in these operations.

“According to Palestinian claims, Mahmoud el-Sisi, the powerful figure in Egyptian intelligence, is behind a front company named Hala, which organizes the passage of Gaza residents into Egypt,” he said. Gazan families pay thousands of dollars to leave Gaza, he added.

“I believe we are at this stage of still fighting in a limited area of Rafah, and have yet to conduct the large operation there. Israel is preparing to stay in Rafah, and wishes to destroy these tunnels. Israel cannot at this stage risk a direct diplomatic clash with Egypt over this, so the Americans will, I believe, deal with this on Israel’s behalf,” Ben Menachem assessed, referring to smoothing over security ties.

“The Egyptian army will have an financial problem, because they are being disconnected from the smuggling, an important income source,” he added.

Resolute in its fight

Col. (res.) Dr. Shaul Shay, a senior research fellow at the International Policy Institute for Counter-Terrorism at Reichman University in Herzliya, served as deputy head of the National Security Council of Israel between 2007 and 2009.

He told JNS that the Gaza-Sinai tunnels have been a longstanding issue, particularly active during the rule of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and the brief presidency of Muslim Brotherhood figure Mohamed Morsi. “It is likely that many tunnels were operational during Mubarak’s era and certainly during Morsi’s short rule,” Shay explained.

Since the elder el-Sisi came to power as deputy prime minister in 2013 and then as president in 2014, Egypt has made significant efforts to combat terrorism and reduce the number of tunnels. Shay said, “El-Sisi’s government has been resolute in its fight against Islamist terrorist groups, including the Islamic State in Sinai and the Muslim Brotherhood, and part of these efforts included tackling the tunnel networks.”

Despite these efforts, “achieving 100% success is improbable,” Shay added.

He highlighted the strategic importance of maintaining good relations between Israel and Egypt, particularly in the context of the ongoing conflict against Hamas and humanitarian efforts.

“There is a clear strategic interest for both Israel and Egypt to maintain good relations, as evidenced by the cooperation on humanitarian activities through the Rafah crossing and Egyptian mediation regarding hostages,” Shay said.

The tunnels, he added, represent a concern for both countries, necessitating cooperative efforts.

“The IDF must decide on its next steps carefully to avoid jeopardizing relations with Egypt,” Shay cautioned, emphasizing the necessity for joint efforts to curtail the smuggling and promote regional stability.

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Erdoğan and the Essential Hypocrisy of Antisemitism

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan speaks during a news conference in Kyiv, Ukraine, Feb. 3, 2022. Photo: Reuters/Valentyn Ogirenko/File Photo

JNS.orgIt often feels as if a global contest is underway over who can engage in the most depraved antisemitic invective. The competition is fierce. Everyone from celebrity activists to Hamas terrorists to campus thugs is in the running. The resulting pyrotechnics have been impressive. Indeed, one has rarely seen a group of human beings so enthusiastic about diving headfirst into raw sewage. As yet, however, no clear frontrunner has emerged.

But there does seem to be one who stands out from the rest. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan had not covered himself in glory before the Israel-Hamas war started. The venerable Islamist antisemite has dominated Turkish politics through populist Jew-hatred for a generation.

The laundry list of Erdoğan’s demented ravings is too long to detail here. Suffice it to say that he regularly accuses Israel of innumerable crimes against humanity. He has called Israel’s leaders Nazis and, at times, asserted that they are worse than the Nazis. He has a particular obsession with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who he regularly burns in rhetorical effigy.

This orgy of racist invective has been underway for years, but it hit a new peak of defamation and incitement during Israel’s current war.

In this, Erdoğan is not unusual. The blood libel is perhaps more popular today than it ever was. But Erdoğan may be the foremost example of it because he is so paradigmatic. In many ways, he literally personifies today’s antisemitism. In particular, he embodies perhaps its most essential aspect: hypocrisy.

Antisemites used to be fairly open about the fact that their attitudes were evil. They reveled in the race hatred to which they freely confessed. This is not the case today. Our era’s antisemites always couch their genocidal seethings in the language of peace, justice, human rights and so on. Even when pinned down, the best they can muster up is a wan moral equivocation. Back then, Louis-Ferdinand Céline could proudly declare, “A pile of a million dead stinking yids is not worth the life of a single Aryan.” Today, his heirs simply mumble, “It depends on the context.” Celine was a monster, no doubt, but at least he had the courage of his hideous convictions.

In Erdoğan’s case, hypocrisy does not just typify his antisemitism, it defines it. He falsely accuses Israel of Nazism (which is antisemitic in and of itself) while he engages in regular antisemitic demonization. He does so while supporting Hamas, which is as inspired by Nazism as by radical Islam. He accuses Israel of infinite crimes against humanity because of a war Israel launched in response to a rampage of crimes against humanity committed by the group he proudly supports.

Erdoğan clearly thinks that his defamation helps delegitimize Israel. In fact, it delegitimizes nothing so much as his own country. Because whether Erdoğan likes it or not, Turkey is a nation with a long history of heinous crimes against humanity.

Turkey, we should not forget and Erdoğan surely knows, is the rump of what was once the Ottoman Empire. That empire was one of the most brutal and rapacious of its kind in history. Emerging out of the steppes of the East, it rampaged westward, conquering enormous swaths of territory in the Middle East and North Africa. It then turned towards Europe, slaughtering its way through the Balkans before finally being turned back at the gates of Vienna.

Along the way, the Ottomans exterminated the Christian Byzantine Empire and committed cultural genocide by conquering Constantinople and forcibly converting the centuries-old Hagia Sophia church into a mosque. The Ottomans also sponsored mass piracy in the Mediterranean and one of the world’s most brutal slave trades. Perhaps unsatisfied with mere forced labor, the Ottomans subjected many of their slaves to mass castration.

Lest one labor under the misapprehension that all this ended along with the Ottoman Empire, modern Turkey was, in many ways, built on genocide. While the extermination of the Armenians is well-known—though still denied by the very Turkish government led by Erdoğan—there was also mass slaughter of the Anatolian Greeks and other minorities. As for Turkey’s Kurdish minority, they have been the target of decades of attempts at cultural genocide and innumerable state atrocities.

In one of the Turkish government’s few concessions to common decency, Hagia Sophia was transformed into a secular space rather than an exclusively Muslim house of worship. Erdoğan, however, recently reversed that policy, apparently believing that he has the right to appropriate what centuries of Christian labor brought into being.

All of this reveals the heart of the modern antisemite: Erdoğan accuses Israel of infinite crimes while standing on ground stolen from Greeks, Armenians, and other non-Muslims. He does so while continuing to deny the historical crimes his own country has committed. He does all this while supporting genocidal terrorists. He is, in other words, a hypocrite on a world-historical scale.

There is hardly a country in the world without skeletons in its closet. All empires are built and maintain themselves by ugly and often reprehensible means. As Balzac said: Behind every great fortune lies a crime. What makes Erdoğan and indeed all of today’s antisemites so particularly obnoxious is not that they have a sinister past but that they refuse to admit it. Instead, they project their own crimes onto Israel and the Jews. Convinced of their own infinite sainthood, they feel no compunctions about committing any atrocity necessary to expiate themselves of their own unacknowledged sins. Nothing soothes pain more effectively than inflicting it.

Erdoğan is not alone in this. The Arab world was also partly built on imperialism, settler-colonialism and genocide. The radical left has tens of millions of deaths on its conscience thanks to Stalin, Mao and others. This, again, does not make them historical anomalies. However, it ought to give them pause. It might be better if they acknowledged their past crimes and did the work necessary to make amends rather than spend their time defaming others.

This world-historical hypocrisy teaches us that whatever the antisemites’ absurd pretensions to sainthood, we do not have to accept them. It is unlikely that saints actually exist, but if they did, they would not be guilty of genocide, imperialism, setter-colonialism or antisemitism for that matter. The saints of antisemitism can howl and wail, but their hypocrisy proves that we are under no obligation to listen to a word they say.

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IDF Locates Rocket Launching Parts in Gazan School

Palestinians gather at the scene where senior commander of Islamic Jihad militant group Khaled Mansour was killed in Israeli strikes, in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, August 7, 2022. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

i24 NewsThe Israel Defense Forces said the 98th Division discovered dozens of components needed to launch rockets in a warehouse within a school complex in Jabaliya, the northern Gaza Strip, according to a press release Sunday.

Using military intelligence, the 460th Brigade raided a school complex in Jabaliya and located a military warehouse where the rocket parts were found, providing further proof of Hamas using civilian infrastructure for terrorist use, the military said.

Meanwhile in Rafah, the Nachal, Givati, and 401st brigades killed terrorists who tried killing Israeli soldiers and located several tunnel shafts. Assault rifles, RPGs, grenades, and other explosives were found.

The 99th Division is likewise continuing to operate in the center of Gaza, eliminating several terrorists.

Fighter jets and various aircraft attacked and destroyed more than 50 terrorist targets throughout the Gaza Strip over the past day.

Among the targets that were attacked were military buildings, IDF sites and warehouses, rocket launchers, observation posts, terrorist squads and other military infrastructure.

Two rocket launchers were attacked in the Rafah area, aimed at the Kerem Shalom area.

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