Giving students spiritual wings
Rabbi Kenneth Brander describes his challenging new job at the head of Ohr Torah Stone
By JOANNE PALMER | December 27, 2018
What exactly is Ohr Torah Stone?
The name is opaque — three nouns in a line. Ohr is Hebrew; it means light. Stone is English; we’ll come back to what it means. And Torah is Torah in both languages.
Stone, as it turns out, is the name of the family that has endowed the institution (as well as the Artscroll Stone Tanach and the Teltz-Stone Yeshiva); it’s also a word that implies strength, stability, and beauty. It’s the material that Jerusalem is built of.
Ohr Torah Stone is an international Israeli-based educational institution, a modern Orthodox network of 27 entities, including but not limited to schools, cutting-edge programs for women, leadership initiatives, and outreach to Jews around the world. Its goal is “transforming Jewish life, learning, and leadership worldwide.”
It’s huge, and it’s growing.
It was founded by Rabbi Dr. Shlomo Riskin, the Brooklyn-born Orthodox rabbi who founded the Lincoln Square Synagogue in Manhattan, made aliyah, and became chief rabbi of Efrat. The list of his accomplishments is jaw-dropping. Like any giant (of the metaphoric variety), he must be a hard, intimidating act to follow.
But his hand-picked successor, Rabbi Dr. Kenneth Brander, who was installed as Rosh HaYeshiva and President of Ohr Torah Stone in November, is excited and confident as he talks about the institution, his plans, and the future he foresees.
Rabbi Brander, his wife, Ruchie, and their youngest son, Yitzchak, made aliyah this summer; Rabbi Brander carried the battered suitcase that his father, Rabbi Aaron Brander, had lugged with him as he left a European DP camp for American after World War II. Remember, Kenneth Brander said then, that now, possibly for the first time in Jewish history, this suitcase was not an accessory to escape, but to a chosen journey from very good to even better. America is a wonderful home, Rabbi Brander said.
Rabbi Brander made aliyah from Teaneck; he had lived there for many years, commuting over the George Washington Bridge to his job as Yeshiva University’s vice president for university and community life. Before that, he’d been the senior rabbi of the Boca Raton Synagogue in Florida. So he went to his new job thoroughly versed in the way that American Jewish organizational leadership works, both from the pulpit and in the institutional world.
His new job involves a great deal of travel; Rabbi Brander will spend much time in the United States, recruiting, fund-raising, and generally overseeing the programs here. On a recent visit, he talked about Ohr Torah Stone.
“We are an international institution dealing with the contemporary challenges and opportunities that face the Jewish community,” he said. He reeled off some numbers; Ohr Torah Stone has about 14,600 alumni, and 3,500 students enrolled in its institutions now.
Beren-Amiel and Straus-Amiel, the emissary training programs funded by two Bergen County families, the Berens and the Strauses, have “151 families in the field,” Rabbi Brander said; that field includes 31 countries, ranging from the obvious ones, like the United States, Britain, Canada, and Australia, to the Philippines, China, and Turkey. The program sends emissaries to small Jewish communities. “Globally, on the macro level, we are an international educational institution,” he said. But on the micro level, where the emissary families and the teams that visit them live and do their work, “we are trying to share with Jews in Tblisi or Teaneck that Judaism is dealing with contemporary issues in a sweet way. That Torah is sweet and engaging.” He mentions Teaneck because Ohr Torah Stone has two emissary families in Bergen County; one lives in Englewood and works and teaches at the East Hill Synagogue and Yeshivat He’Atid and the other at Young Israel of Teaneck and Ben Porat Yosef.
Ohr Torah Stone’s Yachad program does outreach in Israel; it’s reached about 305,000 people between August 2017 and August 2018, it estimates, and 145,000 people participated in its programming during the High Holy Days this year.
“We are educating, not indoctrinating,” Rabbi Brander said. “We have no interest in whether they become ritually observant or not. Our interest is in giving them spiritual wings, so they can land wherever they want to.
“We are not sculptors. We are gardeners.
“Imagine a gardener, planting seeds and then watching as trees grow and blossom.”
That’s not a cliché for him, Rabbi Brander added; it’s a deeply resonant image. “Remember that I lived in Boca for 14 years. Tree sculpting there is a major profession, but trees and flowers grow in different ways. We are not sculptors in God’s fields. We are gardeners. We plant seeds. The way they grow is up to them.”
Why are they not more doctrinaire? For many reasons, Rabbi Brander said, including because his mentor, Rabbi Soloveitchik, taught that it is better not to be. “Our goal is to treat people with respect. And the way to treat people with respect is to give them dignity. To allow them to make their own decisions. Our goal is to give them the options.
“I think that Torah and Judaism can sell themselves. I do not think I need to force them to look at it in a specific way.”
Israel is full of non-observant Jews, Rabbi Brander said, but when you look at them more carefully, you see a spirituality that’s close to the surface. “Every time I am in a cab or in other situations in Israel when I am speaking to people who are not observant in a formal sense, I am inspired by what I hear,” he said.
He talked about the kabbalat Shabbat services held at the port of Tel Aviv and at the old train station in Jerusalem. “In Tel Aviv, at 2 in the afternoon there will be 1,000 people there for kabbalat Shabbat,” he said. “Is it my kind of kabbalat Shabbat service? No. Do they keep Shabbat for 25 hours? Probably not. But there are 1,000 people there, and maybe they go home to have a Shabbat meal, and they all are inspired to keep Shabbat in some way.
“I am inspired by that.”
He told a story. “More than a year ago, I was in a cab, coming home from my grandson’s brit in Jerusalem,” he said. (This perhaps is a good time to say that Kenneth and Ruchie Brander have three children and one grandchild in Israel and two children in the United States.) “I was being driven by a cab driver who has multiple tattoos. He asked me where I was coming from and I said from a brit, and he asked me who was the sandek and I said I was.” (The sandek holds the baby while the circumcision is performed. It’s a high honor, and confers at least temporary sanctity.) “So he pulls the cab over to the side of the road, and said ‘You have to give me a blessing.’ That’s the way it goes there.”
One of the most important things a religious community can do is be welcoming, Rabbi Brander said. It shows in small things. For example, he said, every congregation should have a box with kippot in its lobby, even though its members would never not come wearing their own. Say a guest wanders in, maybe someone who is searching. The box of kippot would be a potent symbol that even kippah-less questioners are welcome. “Even if that box is used five times a year, it makes the statement that the synagogue is open to all Jews,” Rabbi Brander said.
In Israel, Ohr Torah Stone offers programs to women as well as to men. Yad La’isha works to help agunot, women caught in dead marriages who are chained to men who refuse to let them go. “We represented 155 agunot in rabbinical courts in Israel this year,” Rabbi Brander said. “We advocate for agunot in court; we have hired private detectives to find recalcitrant spouses who have run away.”
Ohr Torah Stone also “has created the opportunity for women who want to serve in the IDF to have the infrastructure to study for a year first, and then to go into service with their friends,” Rabbi Brander said. It’s called Hadas. “We meet with them on their bases every other week. They go into one of four tracks — the Education Corps; combat support, where they train commandos in how to get back home from the desert with no external instruments; Air Force intelligence — I’m not at liberty to discuss what they do in those units — and the Intelligence Corps.
“Most of these women, when they finish their officers’ course, also will have a siyyum on the completion of a tractate of Talmud at the same time. It is unbelievable.
“I was teaching in one of our schools in the north of Israel, and at the end of the course the women gave me a book, a paperback. It was an odd size. I thought maybe they got it secondhand.” But when he looked at it, he realized that it was discussions of the parshat hashavuah — the weekly Torah reading.
He asked about the odd size. “It’s because it’s designed to fit into the pants pocket of an Army uniform,” he said. “For 2,000 years, the Jews have not made books that fit into uniform pants.” Now they do.
“When you train young people for life as well as for their service in the army — when you train them about context, and about how to look at other people — it shapes their national service and their engagement with others.
“We see that in the army and in life in general, because their neighbor is the Other, and we want them to treat the Other with respect.”
Ohr Torah Stone has hesder yeshivot for observant men in the IDF. “The end of Ramadan,” the Muslim holy month that includes daytime fasting, “is marked with a major meal, the Iftar,” he said. “Members of our hesder yeshiva participated in that meal with Muslims from Gush Etzion.”
Another of Ohr Torah Stone’s programs is high-level halacha learning for women. Midreshet Lindenbaum provides women with serious study; in its Susi Bradfield Women’s Institute of Halakhic Leadership, “women study for five years, at the highest level, and they take the same tests men take for ordination,” Rabbi Brander said. The program has graduated just a few classes; now, “we are starting to place them; women are leading seminaries and answer halachic questions.” The women graduate as certified spiritual leaders and morot hora’ah, authorized to answer halachic questions, and use the title rabbanit.
“We want to take it to the next level,” Rabbi Brander said. “We want to see if we can get women to serve as chaplains in the IDF and in synagogues and in hospitals.
“In some ways, it is more important to have them in the IDF and the police force than anyplace else, because the IDF is the country’s social equalizer.”
Rabbi Brander, like Rabbi Riskin, brings an American sensibility to his job, as well as his lived understanding of the Israeli sensibility that also is part of his way of thinking. “I grew up in America and was nurtured in America,” he said. “And I had experiences in Boca that transformed me. And I obviously am growing in Israel.”
He also has a doctorate in philosophy — his dissertation was on the history of synagogue in America — that gives him an intellectual depth and also the ability to distance himself and think analytically.
So how do these many ways of thinking — the Israeli and the American, the passionate and the dispassionate — and the Jewish way of thinking that undergirds all of it — inform his work?
“I find that in issues of spirituality and experiential Judaism, there is a certain richness to the Israeli experience that I haven’t seen in America,” he said. “And I often have found that thought processes or organizational structures that I know in America have enriched what I do in Israel.
“So there is a yin and a yang there. It goes back and forth.”
He combines the Israeli spirituality, which, he says, traces back to the chasidic world, and to Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, Israel’s first Ashkenazi chief rabbi, with the American understanding of the importance of data. “You have to be data driven when you are spending Jewish communal money,” he said.
Leading Ohr Torah Stone to further growth and innovation is an ambitious undertaking. “Yes, it is, but I am blessed to be following Rabbi Riskin, one of the great leaders of the Jewish world,” Rabbi Brander said. “You have to be ambitious if you try to build on his legacy.”