“A Time to Reconnect”
An open letter from Rabbi Kenneth Brander to MK Omer Yankelevich, Israel’s newly-appointed Minister of Diaspora Affairs
5 June, 2020
Thousands of years ago our nation was exiled from our country by our enemies. The Jewish people dispersed in all directions, building homes and communities, establishing synagogues and houses of study. They preserved and augmented the traditions of our patriarchs and the Torah of our matriarchs. Through the years the exiles put down roots in their communities and countries throughout the world, their feet firmly on the ground while their hearts turned towards Jerusalem.
After the State of Israel was established, the exile became the Diaspora – independent Jewish centers, now located mostly in the United States and Europe. Diaspora Jews serve as emissaries of Israel and the Jewish nation to the governments and nations amongst whom they live. The State of Israel can and should serve as a focus for emigration, yet at the same time it must maintain a constant and respectful dialogue with the daughters and sons of Israel who live abroad.
As a new immigrant, who served in public positions in Jewish communities in North America – among them founder and rabbi of the Boca Raton, Florida community; Rosh Metivta in the Smicha program and Vice President of Yeshiva University; and a member of the Rabbinical Board of the Jewish Federations of North America – I can appreciate the immense importance of your new role, and the significant challenge it entails. You have the power to create and foster the dialogue between the State of Israel and its citizens, and our brothers and sisters in the Diaspora; to offer support and assistance, but more than that – to open your ears and heart to their advice and to their distress. I am happy to offer a number of paths to this goal based on my own experience.
Firstly, it is important to keep in mind that Israeli society can also learn from the Jewish communities of the Diaspora. The majority of these communities offer much more than prayers, a Daf Yomi shiur, and a rabbi’s sermon between mincha and ma’ariv. They also offer formal and informal education for children and youth; centers for adults and senior adults; monumental institutes of welfare and chessed; summer camps; beautiful mikvehs; and support and mentoring in the significant moments of individual and family life. Just as the Beit Mikdash had many spiritual gates offering numerous ways for individuals to connect with God, so do the communities and synagogues of the Diaspora. They are true mikdashei me’at – small temples. The community model offered by our brethren in the Diaspora is greatly needed in Israel. We may learn from them that the role of the community does not end with prayers and a kiddush in shul; the main role is to serve as a center of belonging and significance for each individual.
It is important to view the Conservative and Reform movements in this context. While I do not agree or identify with the religious interpretations or halachic principles to which they abide, I do value their communities and leaders who fight for Jewish identity and community unity. Unfortunately, many of Israel’s rabbis uphold a dialogue of hatred and contempt for them, based on mistaken impressions and lack of direct contact. Jerusalem was not divided among the tribes, and it must remain the city that unites our nation, both within the State of Israel and outside of it. Dedicating a respectful plaza for prayer near the Western Wall to enable them to worship God according to their understanding can be done without our accepting their approach to religious practice.
In recent years, the discourse surrounding Israeli Judaism has focused on an approach of learning the sources with an orientation that is not necessarily halachic. Unfortunately, one of the significant barriers to the development of this process is the fear of religious coercion. In the countries of the Diaspora, most of which identify as Christian and many of whom maintain a separation between Church and State, there is no such fear. As a result, the United States can print ‘In God We Trust’ on its banknotes without public outcry. We must take advantage of this fact to help establish Jewish identity among Jews of the Diaspora, while focusing on the contribution of Jewish tradition to the world and its relevance in our generation. Young Jews in high schools and universities are socially active and can recite the value of “tikkun olam,” yet most of them are unaware of the phrase’s Jewish roots. Some of them are even unaware that these are Hebrew words. This process need not begin with a discussion of the laws of Shabbat, Kashrut, or Jewish identity. We can start by discussing the Jewish State’s ability to assist the world as a Start Up Nation, to serve as Or LaGoyim – a light unto the nations – and only then empower them to delve into their Jewish heritage and encourage them to own it.
To this end we must create a structure of emissaries with the support of the Ministry of Diaspora Affairs, to strengthen the bond and discourse among the various segments of the Jewish nation. This structure, based on trained emissaries, will have well-defined standards and clear and agreed-on missions. The best of our daughters and sons will be sent to Jewish communities in the Diaspora for a number of years, to universities and schools and other social loci, to generate direct, in-depth connections with their Jewish counterparts, and to strengthen their connection and affinity to the state of Israel.
We have years of experience in sending out emissaries. We mentor some 300 Ohr Torah Stone emissaries who are dispersed among more than fifty countries across the globe, in addition to projects we have carried out for, and in collaboration with, the Ministry of Diaspora Affairs. This experience has taught us that the emissaries’ work not only connects us as a nation, it also generates strategic overseas anchors for the State of Israel. In parallel, incentives and assistance must be available for those emissaries when they return to Israel, to integrate them into the education and public systems so that they can contribute to society from their rich experience and the lessons learned during their mission.
Finally, I offer a basis for a platform that will enable wide communication with local Jewish leaders in the cities and neighborhoods. Currently, most of the State of Israel’s interaction with communities in the Diaspora is through the heads of the large organizations, the federations and associations, who of course do wonderful work. This dialogue is essential, and I congratulate you for the fact that immediately on taking up your position you embarked on an honest and open dialogue with them. However, we must not forget those rabbis and community leaders, heads of local centers, Jewish intellectuals and entrepreneurs, who gather thousands of Jews around prayer, culture, education, Zionism, and chessed. Regular dialogue between them and your office can raise new, original ideas in stemming directly from the reality in the field for all our shared goals. Implementing these steps will help build a bridge of trust and support between Jewish communities in the Diaspora and the State of Israel; a mutual, respectful dialogue that recognizes each side’s autonomy, yet at the same time does not for a moment forget that we are all brothers.
Congratulations and the best of luck in your esteemed position. You are taking on your role at a time in which Jewish communities across the world are generating a new narrative, “And who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?” (Megillat Esther, 4:14)
Rabbi Dr. Kenneth Brander is President and Rosh HaYeshiva of the Ohr Torah Stone network of 27 educational institutions, leadership development initiatives, outreach endeavors, women’s empowerment programs, and social action projects, as well as 300 rabbinical and educational emissaries serving communities across the globe. Rabbi Brander formerly served as rabbi of the Jewish community of Boca Raton, Florida, which under his guidance grew from a small community of 60 families to numbering upwards of 600 families.