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Passing the Baton

After filling the position for decades, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin – founder of the Ohr Torah Stone network – is passing the torch to his successor, Rabbi Katriel (Kenneth) Brander.  In a joint discussion, the two speak about burning issues in the world of education and the rabbinate, and of their aim of translating the vast knowledge and experience within Ohr Torah Stone to advance the entire Jewish world.

By Zvika Klein – Special Makor Rishon Supplement | 16 November, 2018
Photography:  Miriam Tzachi

Cover of Makor RIshon MagazineIn his youth, Rabbi Katriel (Kenneth) Brander served as assistant Rabbi of the Lincoln Square synagogue in Manhattan’s Upper West Side.   It was then that he first became acquainted with Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, who later became one of his rabbis.  This past year, Rabbi Brander was appointed as president and head of the Ohr Torah Stone institutions in Israel, succeeding Rabbi Riskin, who has left very big shoes to fill.

“Rabbi Riskin was the spiritual leader of Lincoln Square until he made aliya, a few years prior to my taking the position there,” Rabbi Brander relates.  “Even after making aliya, he would occasionally spend shabbat in the community.  On those occasions he visited, the synagogue was packed.  People would even sit on the stairs for lack of vacant seats. I had the good fortune of seeing him deliver Torah sermons, and to observe from up close how he successfully conveyed meaningful content to large crowds.  He is definitely one of the leading experts on oral presentations.

“I was later asked to fill in the position of synagogue rabbi.  I was very young, just 28, and Lincoln Square was a big synagogue comprising 1600 families.  I consented on one condition: that I be given time over the course of the summer to sit with Rabbi Riskin and learn from him how to prepare public sermons, and that he mentor me for this complex and intensive position.  I also proposed that I not get paid for the six weeks during which I intended to sit down and write sermons.  Rabbi Riskin said to me – ‘In your capacity as a rabbi, never make such a proposal (to not get paid).'”

Scan of newspaperI meet the two rabbis in the OTS network’s main offices in Efrat, located adjacent to the Neveh Shmuel Yeshiva High School – the very first school founded by Rabbi Riskin, back in 1983.  Both are immaculately attired in suits and ties, in the fashion of American rabbis – not quite what you’d expect of those heading an institution with headquarters in Gush Etzion.  Rabbi Brander made aliya a few months ago and began a period of transition with Rabbi Riskin, at the end of which he is fully replacing the latter, after many years of leadership.

“When I was a young student at Yeshiva University, Rabbi Brander’s father – a fellow student – was very friendly to me,” Rabbi Riskin recalls.  “He was one of the best disciples in the beit midrash at the time.  I had the good fortune of seeing Rabbi Kenneth Brander transforming from a young rabbi into the man he is today, and it is only natural that he take over this position from me.  It all began in Lincoln Square, the place where I too took my first steps, and from where I progressed until reaching my current position.  Rabbi Brander’s next position was in Boca Raton, Florida, where he built an exceptional community, schools and an entire educational campus. He rebuilt the community, one might say.  This new position is well-deserved.”

Some people hang onto their seats till their very last day, but you have chosen to find a successor.

“I am proud of what we have achieved here thus far, and have great faith in all the OTS network has to offer, but I realized that if the right successor doesn’t come along, the entire enterprise might be lost.  I only understood that at the age of seventy.  Before that I still felt very young; today, I no longer do.

Rabbi Brander:  “The future of world Jewry lies in Israel; as the verse goes, ‘For out of Zion shall come forth Torah.’  Not only is the root of our faith in Israel, but Torah is studied here more than anywhere else in the world.”

Scan of newspaper“Choosing my successor was one of the most difficult decisions of my life. It was extremely complicated to find the right candidate.  Not only because this is a multi-faceted network comprised of numerous institutions which focus on many areas, but also because there is also the element of our halakhic philosophy and our take on Jewish life, which is part and parcel of the institutions’ vision.  The person chosen to head the institutions must be a partner to my ideology.  He would also need to know how to raise funds, as our Sages have taught us – “If there is no flour, there is no Torah.” If we want well-managed and sustainable institutions, the financial aspect is crucial.  So we realized we had to recruit somebody who is a Torah scholar, and well-versed in Jewish philosophy and theology.  It was essential that we find a person who could explain the halakhic philosophy of Modern Orthodoxy with clarity. We knew that the person in question would also have to be an educator, one immersed in educational activity.  I knew it would be difficult, and I worked on it for eight long years.  I have no doubt that Rabbi Brander was an excellent choice,” Rabbi Riskin compliments his successor. 

When I ask Rabbi Brander why he chose to leave a promising career and familiar surroundings in the USA, he begins with a personal perspective and continues to outline an entire ideology.  “We have children who live in Israel, as well as a grandson.  We have always wanted to make aliya, and now we have been given a wonderful opportunity to not only live in Israel, but to do something with purpose.  Our youngest son is 13, and the move to Israel has been wonderful for him.  In the months since our Aliya, he has grown and developed in many ways. 

Scan of newspaper“Professionally speaking, the future of World Jewry lies in Israel; as the verse goes, ‘For out of Zion shall come forth Torah.’ Not only is the core of our faith in Israel, but Torah is learned here more than anywhere else in the world.  A greater number of Torah-related articles are written in Israel, and the Israeli yeshiva world is the most esteemed.  Ohr Torah Stone has a network of institutions and programs which offer the Jewish world all it needs.  This network, which Rabbi Riskin built, serves the entire Jewish world, in Israel and in the Diaspora.  We are involved in areas such as conversion, agunot (women “chained” in marriage) and the status of women in Judaism.  These are critical issues and Ohr Torah Stone plays an important and active role on all of the important issues. So when the offer came, it suited us perfectly – professionally speaking, it was a wonderful opportunity to work with Rabbi Riskin and navigate this ship.  It was truly a gift.”

Rabbi Riskin: “I have great faith in all the network does, but I realized that if the right successor doesn’t come along, the entire enterprise might be lost.  Choosing a successor was one of the most difficult decisions of my life.”

 We are both from the same background

Rabbi Dr. Shlomo Riskin (78) is the rabbi of Efrat, the founder of the Ohr Torah Stone network and one of contemporary Modern Orthodoxy’s leading rabbis.  He was born in Brooklyn, New York, studied at Yeshiva University and received his rabbinical ordination (semicha) from Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik.  In 1983, Rabbi Riskin made aliya from New York with a number of families from his community, and together they established the community of Efrat in Gush Etzion.  He then founded the Ohr Torah Stone network which includes, inter alia, ulpana high schools for girls, yeshiva high schools for boys, a yeshiva gevoha (post high school yeshiva with full-time Torah studies), a yeshivat hesder (joint yeshiva and army service program), three midrashot (advanced Torah studies for women), an institute for rabbinical ordination, a legal aid center for agunot (women whose husbands are unable or unwilling to grant them a divorce) and numerous programs for Jewish outreach and identity as well as shlichut programs in Israel and in the Diaspora.  In Israel he was ordained as a city-rabbi by the following rabbis: Shlomo Goren, Avraham Shapira, Shalom Mashash, Shaul Yisraeli and Yitzhak Kolitz. 

Rabbi Dr. Kenneth Brander (56) received his rabbinical ordination in 1986 from the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary at Yeshiva University.  As previously stated, he served as the rabbi of the Lincoln Square Synagogue in New York, and later as the senior rabbi of the Boca Raton community, for 14 years.  For more than a decade he served as vice president of Yeshiva University.  He is a member of the Jewish Federations of North America’s Rabbinic Cabinet Round Table.  This summer he made aliya with his wife and son. 

Would you say you both hold an identical worldview or do you disagree on certain issues?

Rabbi Riskin:  “I cannot point to any significant differences of opinion, but in terms of personality, Rabbi Brander has many traits that I lack, which is wonderful, because those are strengths which our institutions are in need of today.  We share a Modern-Orthodox background, and were both close disciples of Rabbi Soloveitchik.  We grew up in the same beit midrash, in every sense.  So even if disagreements do arise – which is only to be expected – in terms of our dreams, our visions, our objectives, our halakhic opinions and our positions on matters of importance – Rabbi Brander and I see eye to eye.

“Regarding issues like empowering women to be poskot halakha (qualified to offer opinions on matters of Jewish Law) for example, Rabbi Brander and I are in full agreement.  We also hold the same view when it comes to what should not be done in that realm.  According to Jewish law, not everything a man can do is permitted for women, for example – reading from a Torah scroll in public.  About the fact that women should be part of the halakhic leadership and should be knowledgeable in halakha on the highest possible levels, we are in full agreement.   

“An issue close to my heart is our connection to the Christian world.  We (Ohr Torah Stone) established the Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding and Cooperation (CJCUC), and when I first set up this initiative, only a few supported the idea. But Christian communities kept coming and engaging in dialogue.  They understood that what we have in common is strong and very important.  Our center connects them to Zionism and to Israel, and gives them the tools they need to confront BDS activists in their native communities in Europe and the USA.   This inter-religious dialogue is extremely important.  In my view it is Zionism’s next challenge.  Now that we have a Jewish state, we must become a light unto the nations and unite all the nations of the world in peace.”

Scan of newspaperAnother matter Rabbi Riskin mentions is conversion:  “Conversion must follow halakha, but within the realms of halakha we must embrace, rather than reject.  When it comes to all of these issues, we are of the same opinion.”

“I completely agree with Rabbi Riskin,” confirms Rabbi Brander.  “Let’s take the issue of agunot.  How can one find a solution to the problem of agunot so a women is not held hostage for years?  How can agunot be prevented by means of prenuptial agreements?  How do we deal with agunot within the framework of halakha, and how do we engage in dialogue with rabbinical courts around the world in order to overcome this challenge?  These are crucial questions which are constantly under discussion.”

Another issue Rabbi Brander wants to advance is how to apply the vast knowledge of teachers and educators throughout the OTS network in order to form connections with Jewish educators from all over the globe.  “Our educational staff has tremendous understanding and experience and can greatly contribute to dialogue concerning contemporary challenges within the Jewish world.  We must think of a way to tap into their exceptional creativity and channel it toward dialogue which will enable Jewish teachers and educators around the world to deal with the challenges of our times.  Our school principals can contribute so much to their students’ worldview because they work hands-on with this generation.  Maybe we should already begin talking of prenuptial agreements and the role of women in the synagogue to high schoolers.  Maybe if we introduced these topics early on, the students will see it as the norm from an early age.”

Rabbi Brander:  “Why don’t we offer a stipends to rabbis who would then take a sabbatical and broaden their horizons so they can better manage their communities?  For example, how to work with people who are not formally religious, or how to be the CEO of their synagogue community.”

Rabbi Brander talks of his work in professional terms.  He intends on expanding the services provided by Ohr Torah Stone, both as an educational network as well as a body dealing with numerous social issues.  Here is one example he gives:  “We have a program for halakhic leadership which trains women as spiritual leaders and certifies them with heter hora’ah (license to rule on matters of Jewish law).  This is excellent and important, but this group of women has no placement assistance or professional guidance when they go out into the field and work in communities, synagogues or educational institutions. We are talking about women who take the same tests that men take in order to qualify as rabbis, but because this field is still in its initial stages and is largely unknown for women, and there are simply not enough women who have taken this track in order to offer professional guidance to the newcomers.  The training we offer is extensive and unique, but it behooves us now to take it to the next level in terms of employment and professional guidance.”

He goes on to say that it is also necessary to offer employment counseling to the network’s returning shlichim.  Under the Straus-Amiel and Beren-Amiel umbrella, we have hundreds of active emissaries all over the world.  This year alone we sent an additional 45 families on shlichut.  The question is, how we go about assisting them when they return to Israel and need to find a job that will put the skills and the expertise they have acquired abroad to good use in Israel?  Sometimes it is difficult finding work here after having lived abroad for a number of years, and we must be able to offer solutions.  For example, if we were to include in their shlichut training program an additional day of studies which will give them a teaching diploma at the end, they could find employment within the state educational system when they return, if they should so desire.  Moreover, it is important that there be a staff member on hand whose sole job is to help them re-acclimate in Israel.  My aim is to take existing projects that are good and solid and upgrade them; in other words – I want to take things to the next level.” 

Living the Jewish calendar all year round

One of Ohr Torah Stone’s programs is the Yachad Program for Jewish Identity.  Rabbi Brander takes pride in this program and here, too, points toward room for expansion.  “Yachad is a program that operates within the community centers all over Israel.  We started off with ten community centers and today we run programs on Judaism and Jewish identity in 108 community centers in Israel.  35,000 Israelis attended shofar-blowing sessions we held in parks all over the country, and 45,000 people took part in activities and prayers over Yom Kippur y.  40,000 Israelis took part in Yachad’s selichot prayer services, and we were able to reach 145,000 Israelis during the festivals of the Jewish month of Tishrei alone.  Last year in total we reached more than 300,000 Jews.

“The question is how can we make these numbers into an ongoing success and give people the motivation to attend similar events all year round?  We could, for example, send them text messages four times a year inviting them to other Yachad programs.  We can also connect them to other amazing initiatives like the 929 Bible project.  But the bigger question is how do we build a community for these 400,000 Israelis who are indicating that they are thirsty for meaningful Jewish content in an accepting and non-coercive environment? I am not inventing the wheel; all I’m doing is attempting to connect between existing programs to make ourselves stronger and to expand our activities.”

Photo of Rabbis Brander and Riskin
Photo credit: Miriam Tzahi | Makor Rishon

Another area Rabbi Brander wishes to promote in his new capacity is the creation of a program to strengthen the knowledge of rabbis currently working in the field.  “While we recognize the important work occurring in the field of rabbinic training, why don’t we offer stipends to Israeli city or synagogue rabbis who would then take a sabbatical year in order to enhance their skills and broaden their horizons so as to better manage their communities?  They can engage in serious study on issues that are crucial for any city rabbi.  For example:  the halakhic approach to the LGBTQ community or how to interact with single parent homes; how to work with people who are not religious; what is the best way to work with youth and approach youth at risk; how to work correctly with lay leadership and how to be the CEO of their synagogue community.  I think this will help us create a rabbinate that is more inclusive and more competent to bring about change.  Three years from now, we could have more than a hundred rabbis who are prepared to tackle issues such as these.”

Amongst the subjects that Rabbi Brander intends to focus on in such an in-service training program:  how to prepare target-oriented sermons; psychology and assistance during times of crisis; integrating women into key roles in the synagogue and many other fields of study.  “In my view it is essential for a community to have a woman Torah scholars who will serve as role models not only for other women, but for men as well.”

“Not everything which is permitted by Jewish Law must necessarily be implemented in the synagogue,” says Rabbi Riskin.  “But rabbis can decide on their own whether they are ready for this change or not. Either way is fine, but I would like those who do feel that they want to integrate women in accordance with halakha to have the opportunity to do so.  I am of the opinion that a woman’s place is also in the synagogue, and that there are many roles she can play there.”

Rabbi Riskin tells of his colleague, Rabbanit Dr. Jennie Rosenfeld, the first woman to serve in a rabbinical capacity on behalf of the Efrat religious council.  “She is widely accepted in Efrat. She’s an active partner in religious matters in the community, and is often asked to give sermons in various synagogues. Efrat boasts dozens of synagogues and has many community rabbis, but her position is wide-ranging, like mine.  I am the Chief Rabbi of Efrat, but she does a tremendous amount.  I got a request from the women of Efrat that she teach them basic Talmud. Many of today’s mothers did not have the chance to study Talmud in their youth.”

Rabbi Brander:  “There is a small number of rabbis who would be happy to integrate women into their religious councils if they were offered the opportunity.  In the first years, until people grow accustomed to the idea, we are prepared to help identify designated donations for this important activity, and in the long term the community will take over and fund these positions.  It could be a very interesting.”

Let my people know

Rabbi Riskin illustrates why it is important in many instances for women to play an active role.  “When one goes to consult with a rabbi about divorce, sexual matters often come up. As far as I am concerned, it is not appropriate for a rabbi talk to a woman about the sexual difficulties she is having with her husband.  Why shouldn’t a fellow female assume that role?  Even when it comes to the issue of child custody, a woman might be able to do a better job.  It is important that a woman be present during court hearings in which sensitive issues are discussed.  Today some things are already taken for granted, but this was not the case in the past.  For example, today it is acceptable for women to be represented by women rabbinical advocates in the rabbinical courts.  But this was only made possible by Ohr Torah Stone’s appeal to the High Court of Justice. 

“Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai always worked in tandem.  There were rabbis who gave certain rulings and others who gave contradicting rulings, and yet they still lived in peace with each other.  ‘Both speak the Divine truth’, eilu v’eilu divrei Elokim chayim.  God wanted there to be diverse opinions that would suit different societies.  So halakha actually paves the way to pluralism in a wonderful way.  An opinion that may be considered marginal in one generation might become the prevailing opinion in another.  Jewish halakha is much more open than people tend to think; it is not at all black and white.  My dream is to see a change in the realms of conversion and divorce.  According to Jewish Law a woman cannot initiate divorce, only a man can, and if he is not willing – the woman is stuck.  I already offered a partial solution back in 1983 to this painful problem, and that was the prenuptial agreement.”

Many people in the USA sign prenuptial agreements, says Rabbi Brander.  “In the Modern Orthodox communities alone more than 6000 couples sign this agreement every year.  It’s much more popular there than in Israel.” 

Rabbi Riskin: “I aspire to have a good and close relationship with the Chief Rabbinate, but there must also be expression for Modern Orthodoxy within the State of Israel’s rabbinate.”

Ohr Torah Stone also runs the Joseph and Gwendolyn Straus Rabbinical Seminary.  “Close to 200 rabbis have been ordained by our seminary and they work in Jewish communities in Israel and abroad,” says Rabbi Riskin.  “In the past, when rabbis in Israel or abroad faced difficulties, they consulted with the Chief Rabbinate of Israel.  When I was a young rabbi, I would consult with Rabbi Ovadia Yosef.  The Chief Rabbinate, as a state institute, is crucial, especially if we want Orthodoxy to be the denomination with halakhic authority in Israel.”  I aspire to have good and close relationship with the Chief Rabbinate, but there must also be expression for Modern Orthodoxy within the State of Israel’s Chief Rabbinate.”

Conversion is one of the main topics that has been the focus of Rabbi Riskin’s attention in recent years. “About 350,000 Israeli citizens, most of them immigrants from the former Soviet Union, are children of a Jewish father and are in need of a halakhic solution in order to convert.  The problem is that nobody wants to take responsibility for this issue because of its complexity.”

“Both Rabbi Riskin and myself have sat in jail following demonstrations for the Jews of the former Soviet Union, ” Rabbi Brander recounts.  “Back then the slogan was ‘Let my people go’; today the slogan is ‘Let my people know.'”

A message from the Lubavitcher Rebbe

Another interesting initiative that Rabbi Brander plans on implementing is joint learning between Israeli educators and their North American counterparts.  “I hope to send our Israeli school principals abroad in order to connect the spirituality and faith we teach here with important educational initiatives I have seen there.  I would also like to see American students who learn in Jewish high schools come here to study for a few weeks, and maybe vice versa as well.”

How do you envision the network in a decade from now?

Rabbi Riskin:  “I would like to see as many Torah-related positions as possible filled by women, especially positions involving halakha.  I once held a two-hour-long discussion with the Lubavitcher Rebbe, of blessed memory.  I felt very close to him and he was one of the rabbis who really influenced me.  He used to speak of women’s leadership in every single realm of life and would also say that he doesn’t send out ‘shlichim and their wives’, rather – he sends out ‘male shlichim and female shlichim.’  In his eyes, sometimes women can make a greater impact than men.  We also spoke of women in general, divorce and agunot.  He said to me as follows: ‘The prophet said – ‘Yet again there shall be heard in the cities of Judea the voice of joy and the voice of gladness, the voice of the bridegroom and the voice of the bride.’  ‘The voice of the bride’ was interpreted by him as ‘the voice of women.’  The Rebbe said every Jewish woman must study Torah, the Torah of chessed, of kindness.  The Torah learned by women will create a new world of Torah, which will bring the Messiah.”

Rabbi Brander: “In the next decade, we will continue to tackle the contemporary matters of the time.  I would like to see the Ohr Torah Stone network leading world Jewry through the most central issues of the generation; we should never be afraid of the burning issues.  We are capable of bringing together Torah values and societal needs, and to be the ones who are responsible for creating the connection.”


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