The best way for people to overcome senseless hatred is to meet each other. It’s much harder to feel abstract loathing when you’re looking into someone’s actual face.
That’s age-old wisdom, it’s true. And it’s wisdom that’s particularly relevant at this time in the Jewish year; on Sunday, at the beginning of the Three Weeks that lead to Tisha b’Av, the time that we commemorate the senseless hatred that led to the destruction of the second Temple and the radical change in Jewish life that followed.
Rabbi Kenneth Brander, who made aliyah from Teaneck almost exactly four years ago, after having served as a vice president at Yeshiva University, is the president and rosh yeshiva of Ohr Torah Stone, the sprawling Israeli-based modern Orthodox network of schools, initiatives, programs, and ideas. Ohr Torah Stone educates modern Orthodox men and women, and also does outreach to Jews around the world. The value it places on Jewish identity and Jewish belonging is clear in its work, as is its fidelity to its Orthodox values; in fact, the value it places on Jewish identity and Jewish belonging stems from its Orthodox values.
Given all that, Rabbi Brander was disturbed by the melee at Robinson’s Arch, the place at the southwestern corner of the Western Wall complex where egalitarian services are held, and non-Orthodox Jews, many of them North American, celebrate children becoming bnai mitzvah.
Although many Jews who are visiting Israel go to the Kotel, the Western Wall, the place often seen as at the heart of Jewish history and spirituality, and find great solace and connection there, when non-Orthodox Jews try to hold services they often run into hostility.
On Rosh Chodesh Tammuz — Thursday, June 30 — three separate groups of American Conservative Jews gathered at Robinson’s Arch, which is close to the main Kotel but not part of it — its “entrance is secluded, modest, and before the main entrance to the Kotel plaza,” Rabbi Brander said — for two bar mitzvah and one bat mitzvah service. They were met by young far-right Orthodox men, who disrupted the services by calling the American Jews names, including “Nazis,” blowing loud whistles to drown out the service, and doing whatever else they could to keep the services from going forward. (They failed at that attempt.) One of the Orthodox men, in an action captured on an Instagram video, grabbed a Conservative siddur, tore out some of its pages, and used them to wipe his nose.
This is unacceptable behavior, Rabbi Brander said.
Instead, he is “advocating for respect and unity,” he said. “When people who are at a discrete part of the Western Wall, which is not even part of the main plaza, have an egalitarian prayer service, it seems to me that they are not being intrusive or interfering with anyone else.
“And it seems to me that we should be working to create an environment that is about peace and unity.
“Here you have a group of people who came to celebrate a bar or bat mitzvah,” he continued. “Maybe they don’t celebrate it in the way that I do, but that is not important. What is important is that there is respect and unity among the Jewish people.
“I feel that way for a host of reasons. Perhaps foremost among them is that Robinson’s Arch, you can still see the darkened area where the Temple was burnt, and if you look carefully you also see the Herodian stones that fell from the wall as the Temple was destroyed.
“It seems to me that if we don’t have respect and unity, we just add to the challenge formed by the destruction of the Temple.
“The Second Temple was destroyed because Jews, in the name of being God’s policemen, mistreated other Jews. They called them names — names that are far tamer than the ones we use now.” (Those Jews, in other words, despite their general vileness, did not call other Jews the equivalent of Nazis.) “It seems to me that if we really want to rebuild the beit hamikdash” — the Temple — “we really need to work on unity and respect.
“The Second Temple in particular was not destroyed because we didn’t engage with God,” Rabbi Brander said. “It was destroyed because we didn’t engage with others.” That idea is in the Talmud, and it is highlighted by the Netziv, Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin, the 19th century scholar and commentator who headed the famous and influential Volozhin Yeshiva. “In his introduction to the Book of Beresheit, the Netziv writes that the reason the patriarchs are called “yesharim” — people of uprightness — “is because they knew how to treat both other Jews and non-Jews with respect.
“I don’t have to pray as a Reform or Conservative Jew to acknowledge that,” Rabbi Brander said. “I have never prayed in a Reform or Conservative synagogue, but I believe that Reform and Conservative Jews have the right to have their own prayer services, as long as they are not forced on me.
“So why should I migrate to the place where they have their prayer service and intrude on them?
“We have to learn to disagree agreeably.”
That’s from the purely religious perspective, Rabbi Brander said. “I, like everyone else who lives in Jerusalem, use the hospitals in Jerusalem. When you walk into a hospital in Jerusalem — into Shaare Zedek, or Hadassah — you see that many of the people who have contributed to the building of these institutions and its technology are not Orthodox. I am not aware of anyone who says ‘I am not going to go in an ambulance sponsored by a non-Orthodox Jew.’ I’ve never seen a Jew go the hospital and say ‘I won’t use this CAT scan machine or this MRI machine, because it was sponsored by a Jew who doesn’t pray like me.’
“We are a community when it comes to our needs, so why compromise their ability to pray as they want, even if we don’t agree with it? Why not show respect and unity? Particularly now, in a time when there is just not enough of that.
“When you stand in front of the Kotel, and you realize that you had a Temple that was destroyed, and what will bring the Temple back as a house for all nations, is the way we create rendezvous with God, to make sure that ills in our community are repaired.
“One of those ills is not having respect and giving dignity to the other, to all different types of Jews. Another is alleviating the suffering of agunot — women whose marriages are no longer viable but whose husbands refuse to grant them a divorce. “Another is helping people who are impoverished. We have to deal with societal ills if we want to rebuild the beit hamikdash, because rebuilding it is predicated on these ideals.”
Because Rabbi Brander believes that the lack of respect that some Orthodox Israelis have for Jews who do not pray, or for that matter live, the way they do comes from never having had met any of those other Jews — “because of that, I want to make sure that my students, and more importantly, because students are a moving target, my faculty and my colleagues, understand what unity is all about.
“They’re serious Jews, but most of them who are Israeli have never met Conservative or Reform leaders.”
So Rabbi Brander is planning to bring prominent American non-Orthodox leaders to Israel for conversations with Ohr Torah Stone faculty and staff. “I want them to meet,” he said. “I want them to come. I want there to be some sort of dialogue with my senior facility.”
Which of his students does he want to meet the visitors? As many as possible. “Post-high-school students, whether they’re Israeli women in Midreshet Lindenbaum, or the men who are in our hesder yeshivot programs, where they sit and learn and serve in the IDF and then come back and learn again, and those who are studying to be rabbis in our kollel, or women studying in advanced programs, or the ones studying to be emissaries in the Jewish world…” Just about all of them.
“I want them to meet because then they will engage in different ways,” Rabbi Brander said. “If they meet, if they can have conversations, they will have a better understanding of how they can engage with tolerance and respect. They don’t have to adopt their principles, but they can recognize that we all care about the future of the Jewish people.
“Even if I don’t agree with them, I want to acknowledge that they are part of the tribe. They are part of the family.”
Jason Shames has been the CEO of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey for more than a decade, but his connection to Rabbi Brander predates his move north. When the both were in Boca Raton — Rabbi Brander as senior rabbi of the Boca Raton Synagogue and Mr. Shames at the local federation — “I knew even then that he was a bit of a pioneer,” Mr. Shames said. “He was trying to bridge the gap between Jews, because he believes that Jews need each other to survive, regardless of how they practice.
“He is a unique person, and I want more people to listen to him.”
Mr. Shames has strong feelings about the people who disrupt services at the Kotel or Robinson’s Arch. “Those people are not at all like Rabbi Brander,” he said. “They have no respect for other Jews, and that is unacceptable.
“It is our job as American Jews to ensure safety and respect for anyone who wants to pray at the Kotel, no matter how they want to pray. This is not about changing Israeli society. It is about respect and unity.
“Rabbi Brander is helping the modern Orthodox and traditional Orthodox understand more about Reform and Conservative and Reconstructionist Jews,” Mr. Shames said. “His students probably don’t know much about how those other Jews conduct their business.” Like Rabbi Brander, Mr. Shames believe that with more knowledge comes more respect.
It’s a hard task, because people often don’t know what they think they know and don’t necessarily want to go from the solidity of black-and-white knowledge to the complexities of living color, but, Mr. Shames believes, if anyone can do it, Rabbi Brander can.
“He is a pretty special guy,” Mr. Shames said.