Jewish identity, taught by emissaries and suitcases

Jewish identity, taught by emissaries and suitcases

Rabbi Kenneth Brander, lately of Teaneck, on moving to Israel and new programs from Ohr Torah Stone

At the airport, Rabbi Kenneth, Ruchie, and Yitzchak Brander are ready to board Nefesh B’Nefesh’s flight to Israel. (Nefesh B'Nefesh)
At the airport, Rabbi Kenneth, Ruchie, and Yitzchak Brander are ready to board Nefesh B’Nefesh’s flight to Israel. (Nefesh B'Nefesh)

It’s not at all surprising that the iconic object that Rabbi Dr. Kenneth Brander brought with him on the Nefesh b’Nefesh flight that he, his wife, Ruchie, and their youngest son, Yitzchak, took together last month was a suitcase.

The case is battered, heavy, oversized, defiantly unwheeled, and old, probably more accurately less a suitcase than a valise. It went with Kenneth Brander’s father, Rabbi Aaron Brander, when the then-12-year-old Holocaust survivor left the DP camp in Europe for New York.

We’ll get back to the valise itself, but first, let’s consider what you use one for.


Rabbi Brander is the new head of Ohr Torah Stone, the Israeli-based modern Orthodox network of schools, programs, and initiatives that Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, who had headed Lincoln Square Synagogue on Manhattan’s Upper West Side before he made aliyah, created 35 years ago. Rabbi Brander, who spent many years in many capacities at Yeshiva University, and who made aliyah from Teaneck, went back and forth between Israel and the United States repeatedly as he transitioned into his new job, and he plans to continue traveling.

Among the many programs that he’ll oversee is one that involves almost constant traveling. It’s a new initiative from Ohr Torah Stone’s Beren-Amiel and Straus-Amiel foundation programs. (The Straus-Amiel initiative is sponsored by Daniel and Moshael Straus, both of Englewood, and their families.)

“There are 200 couples from Ohr Torah Stone institutions who serve diaspora communities all over the world, from Teaneck to Warsaw to Tblisi, and every place in between,” Rabbi Brander said. “From Latin America to North America to Australia. We have 45 rabbinic couples who are taking on new positions” — the husbands are rabbis and the wives are educators. “Two of them are in Teaneck — the Waks family, who are going to Ben Porat Yosef, and the Fish family, going to Yeshivat He’Atid. The Straus and Amiel foundations produce rabbis and educators for the diaspora.”

Those families largely stay put, at least for a year or two at a time. But there’s more. “The Ministry of Diaspora Affairs came to us and said, ‘You are doing such a great job that we want you to expand your portfolio,’” Rabbi Brander reported. “‘We want there to be 25 communities across the globe where you send delegations of three people seven times. We want you to do Jewish identity education, Israel education, and Jewish art and music.’”

Do the math. That’s a lot of trips.

The senior educator will stay the same for each of the seven trips, Rabbi Brander said; the other two will vary, depending on the content.

It’s a logistically complicated program to run. Each community must have an active core of Jews, but no more than 10,000 of them. The visitors — they’re called emissaries, or shlichim — will try to stay in a geographic region, if you define region broadly; in the United States, one set will go to Ottawa, Ontario; West Hartford, Connecticut; and Buffalo, New York. Another will go to New Orleans; Charleston, South Carolina; and Cherry Hill, New Jersey. Other trios will go to South America —one Spanish-speaking group to Uruguay and two cities in Argentina, another to Peru, Ecuador, and Colombia, and a Portuguese-speaking group will go to three communities in Brazil. Another group will go to Central America — Guatemala City, Mexico City, and Cancun. In Europe, one will go to three cities in Poland, and another to Denmark, Norway, and Finland. That means having a group of three people, all able to speak Danish, Norwegian, and the (entirely different) Finnish. How is that possible? “Welcome to the state of Israel,” Rabbi Brander said in explanation.

Each trio offers about 10 or so programs at each stop.

Rabbi Aaron Brander hands the suitcase he carried out of Europe to his son, Rabbi Kenneth. (Nefesh B’Nefesh)

“We have just started this program, and already we have had 258 identity programs, and we have had 7,881 participants come to the 25 communities. And this is literally just the first 35 days.”

The visitors work with the on-site emissaries, who can give them a good sense of the community, and allow them to tailor the programs to the people they want to attract. “We are calling the program Amiel BaKehila,” Rabbi Brander said. “As opposed to the more permanent emissaries who we have in place, these bring in a surge of energy. They bring that energy in, and then they leave, and then they go back. And then they leave, and then they go back.”

Amiel BaKehila is not aimed just at the Orthodox community, Rabbi Brander said. “We are working with the entire community, and although most of our shlichim are Orthodox, they aren’t all. Our goal is to reach out to all the schools and synagogues and federations and supplemental schools.” The goal, he said, is to build Jewish identity, in the way that works best for each community and each Jew.

Therefore, he continued, Amiel BaKehilah is not like the traditional keruv programs. It’s not standard outreach. “Our agenda is not to make people Orthodox,” he said. “It is to inform them, and help them find a spiritual wave, and catch it, and take it wherever it takes them. It creates multiple portals of connection. For some it will be traditional classes. For some it will be the Israeli component. For some it will be music and art.

“To the credit of the Israeli Ministry of diaspora Affairs, its agenda is not to make Zionists, but to educate Jews about Judaism. Not to educate them about Orthodoxy, but about Judaism.

“It is the Israeli government’s way of giving back.”

Rabbi Brander also talked a bit about his own aliyah. “It’s wonderful, exciting, and scary, all at the same time,” he said; it also was so new that he did not feel qualified to offer retrospective wisdom. “We were at a wedding tonight,” he said. “It took place overlooking a pathway from the Judean Hills to Jerusalem. Knowing that in that valley, 2,000 years ago, there were Jews who used that pathway as a walkway to Jerusalem… Knowing that when the Jewish people were banished from Jerusalem they probably also used that pathway…

“There are a few moments when it just hits you.”

Did he think, at that wedding, that he wasn’t just going to a hotel, but going home? No, not really, he said. “Maybe I’ll think about that more the next time, but now it is too new.”

On the other hand, “We were at a concert, at the artists colony by Yemin Moshe, and the mayor, Mayor Barkat, introduces it, and says by a show of hands, how many people in the audience are Jerusalemites?

“So we look at each other, and we realize that we actually fit that category, and we raise our hands, and all of a sudden we realize that we don’t live on Winthrop Road anymore.”

Then there’s the story of the suitcase, which his father lugged to America and he took on to Israel.

Amiel BaKehila emissaries visit Jewish children in Poland. (Ohr Torah Stone) 

It became a bit of an Israeli phenomenon, Rabbi Brander said. Because it’s too big to fit in an airplane overhead bin, or under a seat, he had to explain its history to the airline employees who were checking in luggage. They didn’t want to let him bring it on the plane. “So you tell them, and all of a sudden there is no question that you can bring it on, and they even call over a few people to show it to them, and then you take it with you when you go through the TSA check and then you get onto the plane, and you have to explain it to the flight attendants, and then all of a sudden they are bringing over all their friends, and finding the right place for it, and talking about it as they bring it back to find room for it in the closet.”

This was a Nefesh B’Nefesh flight, so there was press attention. “I didn’t plan to make it a media thing,” Rabbi Brander said. “But I got interviewed on television and in the national media. And then people stop you in the street who don’t know you to ask you about the suitcase.”

It had gone viral.

There are two vitally and equally important messages to the suitcase story, Rabbi Brander said.

First, “You realize that the story of the suitcase isn’t a personal story. It’s a national story. You are making a statement.

“For so many years the Jewish people have had to pack up their belongings in the places where they resided. That suitcase had been touched by people who saw the most horrific things. And now it gets to a place where that won’t happen.

“Now it is a vehicle of redemption, in a place where it doesn’t have to be used in that same way again.”

But don’t forget the second meaning of this iconic object, Rabbi Brander said.

“Because of the beauty and freedom of the United States, we are not running away from anything,” he said. “We were the first holders of that suitcase who were not running from something, but to something.

“That is a blessing that every Jew, whether they live in the United States of America or anywhere else in the world, has to realize,” Rabbi Brander said. “The United States of America represents a different paradigm of what it means to live outside the land of Israel.

“That can’t be ignored and shouldn’t be whitewashed or understated or dismissed. It is critically important.”

He recalls that he saw Joseph Lieberman, the retired Democratic and then Independent senator from Connecticut, at the airport, with his wife, Hadassah. Their daughter was making aliyah. “I showed them the suitcase,” Rabbi Brander said.

“So here was Senator Lieberman, an observant Jew who ran for vice president. And we used to live in Florida before we moved to Teaneck, and we lived in Boca Raton, the hanging chad district.” (He was talking about the infamous paper ballots, with their dangling bits of paper, that decided the perilously close 2000 presidential election for Bush and Cheney — and against Gore and Lieberman.)

“That’s not the typical history of the Jewish people in the diaspora,” Rabbi Brander said. “That can’t be lost on us.”

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