JLE - INSIDE & BEYOND
Oct 25, 2006
Recently, we had guests staying with us from Israel. On their first morning, the family’s teenage son was trying to decide where to go for shacharit services – he wasn’t comfortable with the idea of praying with either a small chassidishe minyan, or in a cavernous London Synagogue. So we pointed him in the direction of the JLE. On his return, his mother asked him how it was – what kind of people had been praying there with him. “Jews,” he replied simply. “Just Jews.” He continued praying at the JLE for the rest of his stay with us.
The truth is, in just one short visit our friend from Israel had picked up on something fundamental. As the centre’s director, Rabbi Danny Kirsch, says: “The goals of the JLE are to offer Jewish education, knowledge and positive Jewish experiences to as many Jews as possible… when people want an easy, non-threatening environment… and a caring Jewish community… they choose the JLE.” Despite the fact that the centre on Golders Green Road, with its bustling Beis Hamedrash, well-stocked library and comfortable reception area is a relatively new innovation (it first opened its doors in 1997), warm, friendly and welcoming have always been the defining factors at the heart of the JLE’s ethos.
The Jewish Learning Exchange as we know it today first started out life in 1986, when Rabbi Kirsch and his wife Jackie returned to the UK from Israel to set up a branch of the Ohr Somayach Jewish learning Institution in this country. The couple began by running a variety of programmes, making use of communal facilities such as synagogues and schools for times when they had to move outwards - for lecture programmes and Friday night dinners, for example – and their own front room when office facilities were required. They partnered the opening of a small centre in the West End of London to service those living in the area, but eventually it became clear that what was really needed was a facility situated in the heart of London’s Jewish community. These days, the JLE Centre at 152 – 154 Golders Green Road holds over 80 classes attended by around 1000 people every week, and has seen its team grow from just two dedicated couples to 18 full- and 30 part-time equally enthusiastic staff members.
Browsing through the JLE’s diary, one immediately gets a sense of just how much is on offer at the centre, and how many people the wide variety of classes, workshops and learning opportunities appeal to. For social sorts there are the monthly Friday night Meet & Eats, where around 150 young Jews at a time partake of a fantastic meal and an equally satisfying Shabbat seminar. Other social events include themed evenings, BBQ’s and team activities – recently some 170 young Jewish footballers enjoyed a five-a-side tournament and the walls of the centre are plastered with posters advertising netball games and cricket matches. For those who prefer to keep things more intimate there are the one-to-one learning sessions, open to both men and women, with no previous learning skills or Jewish knowledge necessary. And for young, newly married couples there are regular social and educational gatherings, as well as pre-marriage and parenting courses.
In recent years the JLE has also started to venture further afield. The campus programme organises debates and seminars at schools and universities around the country. The Without Walls programme arranges for classes to be given in private homes and businesses. The Eastern European tours see approximately 200 children and young adults a year visiting Poland, where they can gain a real sense of their Jewish roots. And every year the JLE sends tens of young people to Israel to further their Jewish studies.
One thing that the JLE truly prides itself on is its professionalism and its ability to source the best Jewish speakers and educators from around the world. Rabbis Professor Dovid Gottlieb, Dr Ivan Lerner, Berel Wein, Dovid Kaplan and Dovid Orlofsky are just a few examples of the accomplished international lecturers and authors who have frequented the podium at the JLE. Indeed, the centre’s senior lecturer, Rabbi Dr Akiva Tatz, regularly sees well over 200 people attending his Wednesday night lecture on Spiritual And Philosophical Ideas Within Judaism.
Of course, the proof of a pudding is always in the eating, and the confirmation that the JLE is achieving what it set out to do two decades ago comes from the mouths of the countless people who have passed through its doors over the years. “The warm atmosphere, comfy sofas and all the Rabbis’ willingness to answer my questions make the JLE an environment in which I feel really comfortable,” says one satisfied customer. “The JLE is a huge part of our lives; we are passionate about its continual growth and development. It has changed us for the better,” comments another. And finally, “The JLE has given me focus, direction and peace of mind.”
Despite its tangible success, the JLE does not rest on its laurels and constantly looks to the future, aiming to find ways to touch the lives of more and more Jews. The organisation has just opened a new branch in South and West Hampstead and is running increasing numbers of programmes in the city.
“We want to be where the people are,” says Rabbi Kirsch, “both physically and psychologically.” And from the reactions of the thousands of men and women who come into contact with the JLE each year, it’s eminently clear that the people want to be where the JLE is too.