“Aliya has complex ramifications, and we must deal with them”
After leading the transformation of a small Florida community into one of the most influential Jewish communities in the United States, Rabbi Katriel (Kenneth) Brander was appointed Vice President of Yeshiva University. He certainly astonished a great many when he decided to leave it all, make aliya and serve as the president of Ohr Torah Stone. As someone who has led changes in the Modern Orthodox world, he proposes that Jewish communities in Israel and the United States learn from each other, and promises that he does not plan to lock horns with the Chief Rabbinate.
It is not every day that a prominent American rabbi, at the peak of his career, decides to make aliya and move to Israel. Most commonly, rabbinic olim are either young or retirees. So when Ohr Torah Stone announced, almost a year ago, that one of North America’s leading Modern Orthodox rabbis was due to leave his prestigious position and replace Rabbi Shlomo Riskin as the educational network’s president – it raised many eyebrows.
Rabbi Katriel (Kenneth) Brander is one of the most popular rabbis in American Modern Orthodoxy. Until the time of his Aliya this past July, he served as Vice President of Yeshiva University, the flagship institution of Modern Orthodoxy in the United States. When a person of such caliber makes aliya, it is sure to leave an impression on the entire American Jewish community – which does not have an abundance of Religious Zionist rabbis who are connected to Israel with their every fiber. I met him for an interview in order to hear from him on the state of American Jewry, to hear his take on the liberal movements, and how he views the crisis between Israeli and America Jewry.
Training rabbis to bring about change
Zvika Klein (ZK): When I was a shaliach in the USA, a little more than a decade ago, the word “aliya” was almost considered an obscenity. How does a prominent rabbi like yourself decide to make aliya nonetheless?
Rabbi Kenneth Brander: “People today relate differently to aliya than they did a decade ago. The notion of aliya has entered the discourse, thanks to Nefesh B’Nefesh. I cannot say whether the number of people making aliya to Israel has increased, but the fact that the numbers have not dropped also says something. Many young, talented people, not necessarily Orthodox, have chosen to make aliya and that is a wonderful thing. So there is definitely discourse on the matter – there is no denying that.
“As for me, the choice I made was not an easy one, especially taking into account my life situation. I had a significant position at Yeshiva University and had received some very enticing offers. However, I realized it was time to make the move. There is a joke that relates that a single street in the town of Alon Shvut (Gush Etzion) would suffice in solving the problem of Jewish education in Modern Orthodoxy in the US, a major problem being that it is difficult to find good religious Zionist teachers in North American communities because so many of the best have moved to Israel. And today it is not only Alon Shvut, but neighborhoods in Jerusalem such as Baka and Katamon, and cities such as Beit Shemesh that are filled with American olim. I am not complaining, of course. After all, we pray three times a day for all Jews to return to Zion; nonetheless, we cannot ignore the fact that aliya has complex ramifications and we must deal with them.”
Brander was born in Michigan, his mother taught reading at public schools and his father was first a shul rabbi and then a principal of a large Jewish school. When Brander was ten, his family moved to New York, where he spent most of his adult life. His wife, Rachel, is an occupational therapist. At the tender age of 28, he was offered the position of rabbi of a small Orthodox synagogue in Boca Raton, Florida, where many Jews reside, but only a minority of whom were Orthodox. Over the years, the community he headed became one of the largest and most influential Modern Orthodox communities in the US. From a mere 60 families, which constituted the community when Brander arrived, the community grew to 600 families within 14 years, and today boasts more than 700.
“I arrived prior to my wife and two eldest children, and found a very small synagogue with windows that were shot out as an act of anti-Semitism, just like in the movies,” he tells me. “I asked myself ‘Why am I here?’, but the community was warm and welcoming, and thanks to my wife and a group of community leaders, we were able to make a change.
“The synagogue may have been Orthodox, but most of its members drove to shul on Shabbat. Before my first Shabbat, I requested that the parking lot be closed off before the start of Shabbat, and that whoever wished to come by car should park in the unpaved area nearby, which was full of mud. I wanted to send out a clear message that we are a synagogue with certain standards. There was a big dispute in the community over this very issue.”
Brander was the only Orthodox rabbi in South Florida who was willing to have contact with the Rabbinic Association and became very involved with the local Jewish Federation, an umbrella organization with representatives in the Jewish Federations of North America. “This was the first time I had come across non-Orthodox Jews who were very serious about their Judaism, and I was excited by their desire to connect to Judaism,” he explains. It was this very connection that turned his community into a center for Jews of all kinds, not only the Orthodox. “We had the heads of our kollel teaching in Reform and Conservative synagogues. They would drive out with their cars before Shavuot and come back on foot with police escort, as they had to walk through unsafe neighborhoods.”
After 14 years in that role, he accepted an offer to found the Center for the Jewish Future (CJF) at Yeshiva University, which was established to focus on Jewish experiential education, tikkun olam and adapting the world of education to the Y-generation. He subsequently became Vice President for University and Community Life at YU. “The objective [of CJF] was to convene the university’s and the yeshiva’s resources in service for the betterment of the Jewish world, this included: working with rabbis in the field, as well as with rabbinical students who would be serving communities in the future. To the rabbinical training program, we added lectures by experts in the fields of mental health and psychology, doctors (to train in areas of medical ethics) and more. The logic being that rabbis have to be people who understand people. We basically took the semicha (rabbinical ordination) program and upgraded it.”
An example of one of the initiatives of the center was the expansion of “Torah Tours” – whereby delegations of students from Yeshiva University go out to Jewish communities all over North America during the Jewish holidays. One could call them shlichim (emissaries) of sorts, and they helped rejuvenate Jewish communities by means of dancing on Simchat Torah or Torah lectures for young and old people on Shavuot. RKB: “We also focused a lot on tikkun olam, and we sent young, religious college students out as service providers to places like Nicaragua, Mexico and other countries around the world. At the beginning we were laughed at, but today everybody does it. The idea is that there are multiple portals of spiritual entry to connect to Judaism, and we must enable each individual to connect in his or her own way.”
ZK: You spoke positively about giving lectures in Reform synagogues when you served as the rabbi in Boca Raton, but how is this in keeping with halacha? In Israel, most rabbis are not even willing to meet with Reform rabbis, and stepping into a Reform synagogue is crossing a red line, as far as they are concerned.
RKB:” There is a huge difference between the status of the Reform and Conservative communities in the Diaspora and their status here in Israel. The decision we took as a community was that we would not pray together, and they understood that. I also would not think of asking them to join us in prayer. But is it a problem to teach Torah to them? In terms of halacha, it is completely acceptable. By the way, this is not a revolutionary notion at all. Yeshivot such as Aish HaTorah, rabbis are directed to do the same. The Reform communities welcomed my colleagues and I with great warmth. We did not use their microphones when we visited on Shabbat or holidays, and this was accepted with understanding. Rabbis from all denominations take part in discussions held in the Federation. Although we do not discuss the requisite height of a mechitza (the partition that separates men and women in the synagogue), we do talk about assimilation.”
Brander surprises me with a very disconcerting fact: “From a study conducted by the Jewish Federations, it appears that 85% of American Jews feel that Israel is not their home. This stems from the activities of anti-Israel organizations in the US, as well as from the way in which some Israelis express themselves. I think that rabbis who received their training in Orthodox institutions such as Yeshiva University can solve this current situation. It is not only of vital importance to Jewish continuity in America, but also to the connection with Israel. In the American media, Israeli Orthodoxy is not generally viewed in a positive light, and it makes no difference whether the reports are accurate or not. So we have trained Orthodox rabbis to be more tolerant, but not at the expense of compromising halacha.”
“Pikuach Nefesh”: Orthodox Jewish communities’ approaches to LGBTQ Orthodox Jews
Brander tells me how during the course of his work at Yeshiva University, he and colleagues initiated many changes to the rabbinical training track at the venerable institution. “The largest group of suicidal homosexuals and lesbians can be found in the religious communities among Catholics and Orthodox Jews. And since Orthodoxy has not yet found a halachic solution that includes members of the gay community, it is vital to engage in discourse on the matter with hundreds of rabbis. This is a serious matter of real pikuach nefesh, of life and death.”
ZK: Do you see a difference in approach to this matter between the Religious Zionist community and Modern Orthodoxy?
RKB: “I am not familiar enough with the situation here in Israel; I only made aliya a short while ago. However, my position is that we have to be extremely sensitive, and always take into account that we dealing not just with an individual, but with his or her entire family, which is also affected by the situation. The Orthodox community must also take this into account. The Jews of the Diaspora have given more thought to the matter because the reality in which they live demands answers. After all, there is no Chief Rabbinate in the US to give halachic rulings on these issues. Every rabbi needs to decide for his community, and that requires delving deeply into the matter. A question such as, “Do I accept a declared homosexual (or a student with gay parents) into my yeshiva high school?” is a dilemma with which many rabbis and principals must grapple.”
ZK: About 12 years ago, an informal panel took place on the YU campus in which homosexual graduates of Yeshiva University revealed themselves. Panel participants included rabbis and even one rosh yeshiva. I commented to Brander that the event took place a decade, if not more, before any religious Israeli institution could have accepted such a thing.
RKB: “True. I actually produced a video, which we show to rabbis or rabbis-in-training. The clip features male and female Yeshiva University students talking about being gay while also being part of the Orthodox community. I show it to rabbis and Jewish lay leaders who must deal with the issue. This could not have happened here in Israel.
“But it isn’t the only thing Israel has to work on. One also has to understand that not every young person in Israel experiences his or her sense of belonging to Judaism or a Jewish community in the same manner, and the lack of this understanding leads to people leaving the fold. The whole concept of experiential Jewish education is not developed enough in Israel; it is not an element that belongs only in youth movements or summer camps, it should be implemented in schools, in the classroom.”
“Israel is not Disneyland”
ZK: You said that 85% of American Jewry does not feel connected to Israel. Who is to blame for this? Is it because of Reform Jews who promote hostility towards Israel? Or maybe Israel is responsible for this situation?
RKB: “I think there are people of various denominations in the US who say irresponsible things. After all, Israel is the homeland of the Jewish people, so even if I don’t happen to agree with my mother – it doesn’t mean I just give up on her or criticize her in public. I definitely don’t go to the media and start badmouthing her.
“So I say to such people time and time again: Israel is not Disneyland: if you don’t enjoy Disneyland, you can choose not to go back there. Israel is our homeland. It is unfortunate that the movements in question do not make that distinction. On the other hand, sometimes we are the ones who give them the ammunition on a silver platter. There are those who take the narrow perspective and say: ‘I am not concerned about their position on Israel because in any case they are assimilating.’ But the bottom line is that we, the Jews of Israel, have the responsibility to show sensitivity towards the Jews of the Diaspora. When people use derogatory language against other Jews, it only creates negativity towards Israel.
“The problem is that the same rabbis who badmouth Reform or Conservative Jews have never really met any personally, and have definitely not had a discussion with them. One need not agree with them, but using anti-Semitic jargon – that is horrific. It does not help the future of the Jewish People. In his introduction to the Book of Genesis, the Netziv (Rabbi Naphtali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin) explains the Talmudic statement that the Second Temple was destroyed because of sin’at chinam, unconditional hatred – by noting that leaders where supposedly speaking in the name of God, calling others heretics and Sadducees. Derogatory language leaves a mark, you can be sure of that. What I hope to do here is to promote among my students, and among the teachers of our institutions, the notion that we are a part of a larger community, and that we have to behave respectfully even to those with whom we do not agree on issues of religious observance.”
Brander goes on to explain that many of AIPAC’s activists are non-Orthodox, although the current president is an Orthodox Jew who prayed in the same synagogue as Brander before the latter’s aliya.
“Most of AIPAC’s leadership is comprised of non-Orthodox Jews, who are responsible for hundreds of millions of dollars that go to supporting Israel. If you were to place all the donations coming from the Jewish community on one side of the scale, and all the funds going to Israel from the US government – which is transferred regularly largely because of AIPAC’s legislative efforts – on the other side, you will find that the funds from the American government tip the scale by far. Can we really say that the Reform and Conservative Jews engaged in AIPAC have no merits for their role in this?”
Tens of thousands of people attend AIPAC’s annual conference in Washington D.C., both Jews and non-Jews, all of whom support Israel. For years, the convention did not draw Orthodox Jews, but in recent years the situation has changed. Whereas in the past, it was difficult to find kosher food, today it is available in great abundance, and there are even special programs for those who arrive early and want to observe Shabbat before the convention starts on Sunday.
“This change took place because all of us, sent our students and graduates to the conference,” says Brander. “It is not any one person, group or organization that is responsible for this change; rather, the cause for this is a general revival of activism in the Modern Orthodox world. I am referring to young men and women who participated in various Yeshiva University programs aimed at strengthening Jewish communities across the US and the world, and took part in voluntary educational tours in Israel and so forth. These young people become leaders in their own communities, and the experiences they had as volunteers in Israel, as well as the connection they formed with the land, have a great impact. Consider also that many young Orthodox people arrive in Israel for a year (if not more) of yeshiva and seminary studies. The seeds of Zionism are sown during that time, and even if they don’t end up making aliya, they realize they are responsible for Jewish continuity. They are connected to the Zionist vision.”
Brander recounts that during one of the IDF’s military operations in Gaza, a rally was organized by the Jewish community in Washington, D.C., and his own community was called upon to assist. “We chartered our own plane and flew members of our community to Washington,” he recalls. “Today’s Modern Orthodox community boasts a unique energy, and Israel would do well to learn from it.”
ZK: What else can we in Israel learn from the Jews of the Diaspora?
RKB: “From my first experiences here in Israel, I am getting an impression on how students are educated here. There is a new, excellent energy regarding the focusing on the individual within the educational framework. I have met many educators who have given much thought to this matter. Jewish day schools in the US would benefit by engaging in discourse with their Israeli peers on this issue. I hope that Ohr Torah Stone succeeds in implementing such a discourse.
“Notwithstanding the above, the use of technology in education is very limited in Israel, which is an absurdity considering the fact that Israel is a hi-tech world power. In the US, there is no such thing as a “Computer Room” in schools, because every classroom has computers.” According to Brander, one of the factors in the success of Jewish Orthodox education in the US is the very fact that it costs so much: “Because schools are so expensive, they have a greater responsibility to create a model of excellence in every area. I think they have struck the right balance between Jewish and general studies, and have adopted a holistic approach on how to best integrate different areas of study.”
ZK: About a month ago, I interviewed Rick Jacobs, the leader of the Reform Movement. He stated, inter alia, that he believes intermarriages are a way of bringing people closer to Judaism. What is your reaction to that?
RKB: “Firstly, I think he is a man of great integrity and we were both members of a leadership group for American rabbis at the Jewish Federations of North America. We meet every several weeks to discuss burning issues and meet with representatives of the Knesset and other senior officials. Meetings such as these do not occur in Israel, and this s a pity. One has to understand that not only those who label themselves as “leftists” attend these Jewish Federation of North America leadership meetings, but many Orthodox leaders participate as well, including Chabad. “
As to Jacob’s statement concerning intermarriage, Brander says, “I do not agree with Rick that accepting intermarried couples into the community is a form of pro-active kiruv. But I do believe that if there are such couples who wish to bring up their children as Jews, and the mother is Jewish – then ways must be found to deal with the situation, but not in a manner that would encourage intermarriage.
“As a community rabbi, I had such cases in which I only charge membership fees from the spouse, and did not acknowledge them as a member family, but rather as an individual. Many questions are raised in such situations: should the children of such a couple be accepted to Jewish schools? How does one handle such a situation vis-à-vis the other students in the school? We had very clear protocols pertaining to the behavior required in each and every situation. Sadly, in Europe, such situations are much more prevalent, and there are schools in which most of the students are children of intermarried couples. Despite my concerns, in situations where an intermarried family comes to me and they are already in the midst of a spiritual journey with the aim of joining a Jewish community – I would do all I could to encourage them and bring them closer.”
ZK: So there is an element of kiruv in intermarriages after all…
RKB: “Yes, in certain situations but I would not set up a framework to encourage such marriages. One of the big failures of the Reform Movement is its inability to retain those born as Jews in the movement. I don’t want to offer an interpretation of what is happening on their end; Rick, Rabbi Jacobs, can do it better than I ever could. Unfortunately, their movement has not grown. On the other hand, Modern Orthodoxy actually has.”
ZK: Is the cancellation of the Kotel compromise really a crisis?
RKB: “It is unquestionably a crisis. I understand why certain Israelis believe that Reform and Conservative Jews should not be given an area at any part of the Western Wall for mixed prayer. After all, they comprise a small minority of Israeli society. Nonetheless, Jerusalem must be a city “that unifies all Jews” )Psalm 122:3) rather than divide us. We must think of a way that will not exclude Diaspora Jewry. We must come up with a solution to create equal opportunity.
“That said, I am disappointed in the heads of the liberal movements who used this opportunity to promote other agendas. They wanted a place where they can pray in their own manner, which is not in keeping with traditional halacha, and one was found for them. They must not exploit the situation in order to expand their footprint in Israel.
“But the government is also at fault: an agreed compromise cannot be cancelled after it has been ratified. This is an example where both sides are at fault.”
Bennett took the right step
ZK: “Your predecessor in your present role, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, has spoken unfavorably about the Chief Rabbinate of Israel. He had also been personally hurt by the institution. What approach will you take with the Rabbinate?”
RKB:“ What Rabbi Riskin has accomplished for World Jewry is amazing. Those who attack him have not accomplished anything near to his contributions. I have huge respect for his modesty, charisma and commitment to engage. That being said I hope to remain in contact with the Chief Rabbis in my own personal manner, which is necessarily different from the manner of my predecessor.
Brander compliments the Minister of Education and Diaspora Affairs, Naftali Bennett, for his work in the Diaspora. He brings as an example the fact that Minister Bennett transferred the sum of one million dollars for the benefit of the American Jewish community of Houston, TX in the wake of the hurricane last year that almost completely devastated all of the Jewish community’s institutions. “A million dollars might not solve the problems in Houston, but it was a statement that conveyed a message you are not alone and we are here to help you. The money went not only to the Orthodox communities, but to the other denominations as well. That was wonderful – “Acheinu kol beit yisrael” – we are all family.
ZK: Bennett was subject to some tough criticism from Israelis who did not like the fact that Israeli taxpayer funds were sent to an affluent Jewish community in the US.
RKB: “I understand them. When I get my monthly pay stub, I can see how much goes to taxes here in Israel. It’s a bit of a shock to see what remains. And yet, I would nevertheless like to say to those Israelis that it is important to understand two things: the State of Israel is responsible for Jews all over the world. This was not an exaggerated sum, but rather a statement. Have a million dollars never made their way in the opposite direction from the Houston Jewish community to Israel? Of course it has, plus so much more. Bennett decided to invest in the right place and it was very important. A benevolent act which will result in more Jews from Houston donating to Israel in future. The impact this had on the Jewish community in Houston was huge, as well as on the leadership of AIPAC and other Jewish organizations. It was a very smart move on his part. We are now in an era where we get the sense that the government of Israel is trying to understand the Jews of the Diaspora and their needs. This is without a doubt a blessed endeavor.”