The Men’s Section – Ezrat Gvarim
An interview with Rabbi Kenneth Brander in the Shabbaton Weekly Magazine
Rabbi Dr. Kenneth Brander (57), who has five children and two daughters-in-law, lives with his wife in Jerusalem. He is the president and Rosh Yeshiva of the Ohr Torah Stone network, former Vice President of Yeshiva University in New York, and former rabbi of the Boca Raton congregation in Florida, which during his tenure grew from 60 to 600 families.
Shabbaton Magazine: If you hadn’t been offered the position at Ohr Torah Stone – would you have made Aliya?
Rabbi Brander: My wife Ruchi and I always wanted to make Aliya and we considered it at different crossroads in our lives. However, prominent rabbis in Israel warned us that Aliya must be tied to responsibility and contribution to world Jewry, such as we were fortunate to do in the United States.
What are you still not used to in Israel?
I’m worried by the prejudice and racism towards minorities, both Jews and non-Jews. If we want to effect the next stage of redemption, we must rid ourselves of such opinions.
To what extent do Jews today, in America and the Diaspora in general, dream about Aliya?
I believe that all religiously observant Jews in the Diaspora must ask themselves if they are able to make Aliya, and to examine what steps they are taking to deepen their connection with Eretz Yisrael.
However, Jews in the Diaspora should not be viewed solely through one lens – some experience the full force of anti-Semitism, and their desire to make Aliya is stronger and more prominent; some Jews, such as Ethiopian Jewry, very much want to immigrate but are still unwelcome due to regrettable circumstances; and there are Anglo-Saxon communities that, despite the rise in anti-Semitic terrorism, still feel safe. For them Aliya is proactive and not a response to crisis.
What is the role of Shlichim in the Diaspora today?
The role of Shlichim comprises several functions, the main one being supplying Jewish congregations around the world with formal and informal educators who bring with them the Israeli spirit. The Shaliach experience is beneficial to the Shlichim themselves as they witness the co-existence between different types of Jews, which for the most part does not yet exist in Israel. As a network, we consider it important to help Shlichim who return to Israel find roles in which they can use the skills they acquired during their mission and continue to grow, especially in light of the important role they played in generating international discourse on Jewish education.
How responsible is Israel for the Jews of the world?
My father relates that when he was an adolescent in a DP camp, on the day that the founding of the State of Israel was declared, everyone – from Satmer to secular – burst into dance. For dozens of years Israel was seen as ‘weak’, and Jews throughout the world acted to help it. Today it is important that the State of Israel take responsibility for the security and education of its citizens, but at the same time it must help defend the Jews of the world, both physically and spiritually, and focus on education.
Differences in the role / view of rabbis in Israel and in the United States
Rabbis in the United States are hired by their congregations, so they are very focused on building the synagogue’s congregation and on the needs of its members. Also, they are highly qualified in the fields of pastoral advice, pedagogy, and current issues. In light of this, rabbis in the Diaspora are trained to enable their synagogue to be not only a House of Prayer but also a House of Gathering – which is the meaning of the words Beit Knesset.
I was recently asked to participate in a professional survey conducted among rabbis in Israel, and the results show that they have a strong desire to acquire skills and training that will enable them to do more for their congregants. I believe that we will see an evolutionary change in the Israeli Rabbinate as there is increasing interest in synagogue congregations.
The status of the Reform and Conservative in Israel
It pains me that many Reform and Conservative Jews in the Diaspora no longer consider Israel their home. There are no winners in the current status quo. On the one hand, deals that were signed for an egalitarian prayer space, which I think is necessary, were broken by Israeli leadership. On the other hand, the leaders of the Reform and Conservative movements in the United States took advantage of this as a political opportunity to enforce recognition. The result is a reality of division and blasphemy, which takes place every month at the Kotel. The leaders of all sects should convene and have a shared, honest discourse to find a way to turn Jerusalem into a city of unity.
The Ohr Torah Stone network topic / institute closest to your heart
Each of the network’s 27 institutes and programs has unique strengths and qualities, and I feel honored to work with their talented directors. In my first year in this position, I chose to focus on five areas that include: bolstering the efforts of Yad La’isha to prevent the phenomenon of divorce refusal; addressing the challenges of the modern world in the curricula of the Straus institute for Rabbinic ordination at the Robert M. Beren Machanaim Hesder Yeshiva and at the Straus-Amiel Institute for training Shlichim; emphasizing placement positions at the Women’s Institute of Halachic Leadership at Midreshet Lindenbaum ; and developing an international discourse on Jewish education with the participation of Ohr Torah Stone’s six high schools.
Have you encountered opposition in Israel in the field of women as spiritual leaders?
Opposition exists both in Israel and abroad. When promoting the issue, attention should be paid to two warning signs – the first is to take care not to go so far as to alienate the mainstream, which is the natural home in which women should fulfill their role as leaders. The other is not to enable the status quo for reasons unrelated to halakha and relevant traditions. I have found that the advanced educational opportunities offered to women in Israel far outweigh those in the United States.