The Montefiore Endowment aims to create rabbinical leaders who follow Sephardi custom as taught by the Rambam, which is to present Judaism pleasantly and without aggression, approaching halachic decision-making with mildness and adopting a traditional view which stresses the middle way and avoids extremes.
It stresses the virtue of inclusivity as well as the value of the world around us – and not merely tolerance of it for the purpose of earning a living. The Endowment believes in the desirability of a broad general education, preferably from university, combined with an uncompromising standard of Halacha and loyalty to Torah values.
For several years after Jews’ College ceased to train for semicha, a reputable rabbinical diploma was not readily obtainable by UK residents except by attending full-time study in Gateshead or moving to Israel or other places. Potential rabbinical leaders of quality were lost to the community as many young men felt unable to put their careers and families on hold for several years of study. It was to remedy that situation that the trustees of the Montefiore Endowment took the lead in an attempt to create a new generation of home-grown Ashkenazi and Sephardi rabbis for future leadership roles, either as community rabbis, teachers or educated lay leaders – English-trained rabbis for English-speaking communities.
The Montefiore Semicha Programme was opened in January 2006 on the premises of and in cooperation with the Spanish and Portuguese Jews’ Congregation of London. It started with a group of broadly-educated young men, eager to learn and train part-time for the mainstream orthodox rabbinate while continuing their careers or other studies. Students, Ashkenazi and Sephardi, are selected for their solid Jewish learning and also for their secular education – on the principle that study at university level is a necessary enrichment to Torah and to effectiveness in Torah leadership. Only candidates who have already reached a high standard in yeshivah and have a broad general education are accepted for yoreh-yoreh. They are committed to the concept of Torah in the everyday world, not in an ivory tower.
The core of the course is, of course, the study of Halacha; but the curriculum also includes Tanach as well as practical community-directed subjects such as counselling, public speaking, homiletics, life events, hazanut and voice training (for some), teaching skills, history and ethics. The quality of this programme has been endorsed by its acceptance by the Rabbinical Council of America, which had previously only recognised Gateshead diplomas from this country.
This is the only such structured course in the United Kingdom and, apart from a single institution in France, is the only one in Europe.
Five students received semicha in 2009 and ten more in 2013. Most of the third intake will graduate in 2017, with a few continuing for another year. A fourth intake will start studying in November 2017; and some students may in future be admitted more frequently than every four years, depending on individual circumstances.
The students’ enthusiasm and excitement, together with that of their teachers, has been an inspiration to the Endowment’s trustees.