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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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More than 120 Jewish activists call on advertisers and app stores to drop Twitter/X




(JTA) — More than 100 Jewish activists have signed a letter appealing to major advertisers to end their relationship with X, the platform previously known as Twitter that is owned by Elon Musk, calling it “a breeding ground for antisemitism” that “represents one of the largest dangers to Jews in years.”

The signatories are also calling on Apple and Google to remove the platform from their app stores, which would effectively make X’s app inaccessible to the vast majority of mobile users.

The call, issued Tuesday, comes after weeks during which Musk has interacted with white supremacists and written a stream of posts attacking the Anti-Defamation League, the Jewish civil rights organization that has criticized his removal of hate speech guardrails on the site. The ADL also called on advertisers to pause their spending on the platform last year, and Musk has threatened to sue the group for, in his view, tanking X’s ad revenue.

“We have watched in horror as a new stage in antisemitic discourse has spread like wildfire on one of America’s largest social media networks,” said the letter, spearheaded by Elad Nehorai, a progressive Jewish activist. “All of this has been facilitated and enabled by its owner: Elon Musk.”

Many of the more than 120 signatories are progressives, among them cartoonist Eli Valley and Ruth Messinger, the former Manhattan borough president and onetime Democratic nominee for New York City mayor who later led the American Jewish World Service, a global aid group.

But a number of prominent Jewish thinkers and activists from across the political spectrum have signed on as well, including David Hazony, a conservative editor who just published “Jewish Priorities,” a collection of essays; Archie Gottesman, who sits on the board of the Democratic Majority for Israel and co-founded JewBelong, a group that aims to combat antisemitism and reinforce Jewish identity; and Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, a longtime leading Orthodox Jewish scholar. The letter was also signed by Rabbi Rebecca Sirbu, the executive vice president of the Jewish Funders Network, and Rabbi Isaiah Rothstein, a scholar and public affairs adviser at the Jewish Federations of North America, though neither listed their organizational affiliations.

“We are alarmed by his targeting of the ADL: not because of our views of the organization (we represent a wide range of views, including some who fundamentally oppose the ADL as well as staunch supporters), but because of the way he has used the organization as a very clear stand in for an antisemitic representation of Jewish power,” the open letter said.

The post More than 120 Jewish activists call on advertisers and app stores to drop Twitter/X appeared first on Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

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A Jewish-owned hot dog empire began on this Coney Island street corner




(New York Jewish Week) — For many generations of New Yorkers, eating a Nathan’s Famous hot dog from their Coney Island flagship location is a staple of summer. The iconic hot dog stand just celebrated its 107th season at the city’s iconic beachside destination. 

Nathan’s Famous — which started as a nickel hot dog stand and grew to a franchised business that today has over 350 locations in 12 countries — may be most famous today for its annual Fourth of July hot dog eating contest. It is named for its founder, Nathan Handwerker, a Polish Jewish immigrant who, along with his wife, Ida, opened Nathan’s Famous in 1916, when he was 19.

“It was his life,” Handwerker’s grandson, Lloyd Handwerker, who made a 2014 documentary and wrote an accompanying book about his family history, both titled “Famous Nathan,” told the New York Jewish Week

“He had brilliant instincts about running a business — basic ideas which seem simple, but they work well,” Lloyd said. “Which is keeping the price low, having the quality be great, being a stickler, paying people well and caring about the customer.”

On Sept. 24, 2016, the 100th anniversary of the founding of Nathan’s Famous, New York City co-named the corner of the Surf and Stillwell Avenues Nathan and Ida Handwerker Way. 

“Nathan and Ida Handwerker worked together for over 50 years and were part of the few generations who formed the rich Coney Island culture that is now renowned throughout the nation and all over the world,” Lloyd Handwerker’s cousin, William, said at the unveiling event. “It is an honor to celebrate their legacy by memorializing their names on the street corner that houses the original Nathan’s.”

(Lloyd was supposed to give a speech alongside his family, but his father, Sol, died just days before the ceremony.) 

Also present that day was Eric Adams, who at the time was Brooklyn Borough President, and Mark Treyger, the Jewish city council member for District 47, which includes Coney Island. “The corner of Surf and Stillwell Avenues in Coney Island is now known as Nathan and Ida Handwerker Way, after the husband and wife team who grew a hot dog food cart into a brand that is known worldwide,” Treyger said at the ceremony. 

“The inspiring story of these two immigrants, who came to this country facing an uncertain future, working hard to create a product that means so much to so many, is what the American Dream is all about,” he added.

Handwerker arrived in the United States from Poland in 1912 and took a job as a delivery boy during the week. On the weekends, he sliced rolls at Feltman’s German Gardens, a restaurant in Coney Island — where he met a waitress who would become his wife. 

By 1916, the couple had saved $300, enough to open their own, competing hot dog restaurant. They used Ida’s secret spice recipe to make their hot dogs, for which they charged 5 cents — half the price of a dog at Feltman’s. 

Considering the low price of the product, customers were skeptical at first, so Handwerker allegedly hired men to wear white coats while eating his hot dogs. The image would lend his business credibility, as customers figured that if doctors were eating the hot dogs, they could, too. 

The business grew steadily over the next half century, with Handwerker working 18-20 hours a day cooking food, selling it and running the business. When the company went public in 1968, Handwerker was elected chairman of the board.

“As a grandfather, he was a very sweet, soft guy. I had no idea what kind of boss he was,” said Lloyd. “It’s different for different people, but I found out he was pretty tough. He was a stickler, and he was clearly a perfectionist about everything — about the quality, about the workers.”

As for Ida Handwerker, in addition to creating the recipe for the hot dogs, she was often in the back kitchen, peeling and chopping onions, garlic and potatoes, Lloyd said. “My grandmother, too, my dad said, was also pretty tough in her own way,” he said. “She worked in the business for many, many years alongside [Nathan], especially in the early days. She was a great grandmother, warm and wonderful. But I guess they both came up hard and tough.”

By the time Nathan Handwerker died in 1974 at 81, Nathan’s Famous Hot Dogs was a household name. Over the years, the hot dog stand became a favorite for celebrities like Barbra Streisand and Regis Philbin. In 1936, the hot dogs were served at a lawn party hosted by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in honor of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth. 

The Coney Island location was also an essential stop for politicians from City Council members to the president of the United States. “No one can hope to be elected to public office in New York without having his picture taken eating a hot dog at Nathan’s,” former New York Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller once told Handwerker during a campaign visit to Coney Island, according to the New York Times. 

Handwerker retired to Florida in 1972, with his son Murray taking over and expanding the business. Nathan’s first hot dog eating contest was that same year.

Lloyd Handwerker, grandson of Nathan Handwerker, founder of ‘Nathan’s’, standing in front of ‘Nathan’s’ restaurant in Coney Island, New York, NY, June 29, 2016. (Johannes Schmitt-Tegge/picture alliance via Getty Images)

Lloyd Handwerker, who was 17 when his grandfather died, began working on his film in the 1980s, and over the course of 30 years he interviewed some 75 friends, family members and associates of Nathan’s Famous. “My grandfather was always telling stories around the dining room table at the holidays and dinners,” he said. “By the time I took a video class and had access to a camera, my grandfather and my grandmother had passed away, but I still thought ‘we should be preserving this history.’”

Though he never worked at Nathan’s Famous, Lloyd, who grew up in a Reform Jewish household in Long Island, said that he has fond memories of visiting his grandparents’ office in Coney Island, as well as celebrating Jewish holidays at their house in Florida. “My grandmother cooked amazingly, so I have a lot of great memories of Passover in particular,” he recalled. Lloyd said that though his grandfather grew up traditionally religious in Poland, he didn’t keep many traditional customs by the time he came to the United States. 

And yet, some tenets of Judaism were deeply ingrained in the entrepreneur: Though he didn’t hire a rabbi to certify the kitchen, Handwerker coined the term “kosher-style” for his restaurant, because his hot dogs were made with 100% beef and therefore could be kosher. 

Plus, “the one day that the restaurant was closed out of the whole year was Yom Kippur, so it still obviously meant something to him,” Lloyd said of his grandfather. 

Nathan’s Famous is now owned by Smithfield, a subsidiary of the Chinese meat and food processing company WH Group. However, the family still owns the original Coney Island building and is the landlord for Nathan’s Famous there.  

“As far as his legacy, he was obviously very proud of what he created,” Lloyd said of Nathan. “He was a pretty humble guy, but look at what he did: He came from starvation in Poland, without an education. He didn’t know how to read or write, he was basically illiterate and he built this institution that  everyone has a story about. It’s amazing.”

The post A Jewish-owned hot dog empire began on this Coney Island street corner appeared first on Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

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​​Biden’s new book ban czar is a longtime progressive Jewish leader




(JTA) – The Biden Administration’s new point person for combating book bans at school districts and public libraries across the country is a gay, Jewish progressive activist who has served as a government liaison to the Jewish and LGBTQ communities.

The appointment of Matt Nosanchuk comes as the thousands of book challenges nationwide have focused on books with LGBTQ as well as Jewish themes, in addition to works about race. Nosanchuk was named a deputy assistant secretary in the Department of Education’s civil rights office earlier this month. In that role, he will lead training sessions for schools and libraries on how to deal with book bans — and warn districts that the department believes book bans can violate civil rights laws.

An Education Department official recently told the 74, an education news site, that the bans “are a threat to students’ rights and freedoms.”

“I am excited to return to public service to work on behalf of the American people,” Nosanchuk posted to LinkedIn earlier this month. “There is a lot of important work to do!”

The Education Department declined to make Nosanchuk available for an interview. He has already taken heat from conservative outlets, which have pushed the narrative that the books being removed from schools and libraries are too sexually explicit for children. Kayleigh McEnany, the Fox News host who served as Donald Trump’s press secretary, called him a “porn enforcer” on-air.

But his appointment has been celebrated by librarians and book access activists. “This is a step forward for the Biden Administration, who has heard the concerns of parents and taken action, but it is just the beginning,” the National Parents Union, a progressive parental education activist group, said in a statement.

Nosanchuk’s career has largely focused on working with the LGBTQ and Jewish communities. In 2009, after serving in a number of roles in Washington, D.C., Nosanchuk was appointed as the Department of Justice’s liaison to the LGBTQ community — a position he held while Obama was still publicly opposed to same-sex marriage. He later worked on the Obama administration’s opposition to a law barring same-sex couples from receiving federal benefits.

He subsequently served as the White House liaison to the Jewish community during Obama’s second term, and in 2020 was the Democratic National Committee’s political organizer for Jewish outreach and LGBTQ engagement. That same year, he cofounded the New York Jewish Agenda, a progressive policy group that he led until earlier this year.

Nosanchuk’s first webinar in his new role was held Tuesday in partnership with the American Library Association, an organization with which a number of Republican-led states have recently cut ties. He begins his work after a year that has seen several school districts take aim at books focused on Jewish experiences or the Holocaust.

Two weeks ago, a Texas school district fired a middle school teacher reportedly for reading a passage from an illustrated adaptation of Anne Frank’s diary to eighth-grade students. Other schools’ removals of “The Fixer,” a Jodi Picoult novel about the Holocaust and other texts have been likened to Nazi and Stalinist book burnings —  comparisons that proponents of the book restrictions reject.

Democratic politicians, including House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, have accused Republicans of wanting “to ban books on the Holocaust.” A recent Senate hearing on book bans included testimony from Cameron Samuels, a Jewish advocate for access to books, along with numerous references to “Maus,” a graphic novel by Art Spiegelman about the Holocaust that was pulled from a Tennessee middle school curriculum last year.

PEN America, a literary free-speech advocacy group, welcomed Nosanchuk’s appointment.

“Book removals and restrictions continue apace across the country, as the tactics to silence certain voices and identities are sharpened,” the group said in a statement. “Empowering the coordinator to address this ongoing movement is critical.”

The post ​​Biden’s new book ban czar is a longtime progressive Jewish leader appeared first on Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

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