Kenneth Brander wasn’t sure he wanted to be a rabbi when he applied to rabbinical school.
Thirty years later, it’s pretty clear that the rabbinate was a good match for his talents. After he was ordained at Yeshiva University’s rabbinical school in 1986, he worked at Lincoln Square Synagogue in Manhattan before going to the Boca Raton Synagogue in Florida in 1991. In 2005 he was tapped by Richard Joel, then the new president of Yeshiva University, to head the school’s new Center for the Jewish Future, relocating from Florida to Teaneck.
And now he is leaving his post as YU’s vice president for university and community life to follow Rabbi Shlomo Riskin at the helm of Ohr Torah Stone, the complex of Israeli educational institutions that Rabbi Riskin founded, and from which he is retiring.
That’s how Rabbi Brander’s rabbinic career looks today. But back in 1984, in his senior year at Yeshiva College, he was a computer science major who had taken courses at NYU’s Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences and spent a summer working at Bell Labs. The lure of a career in computer science was real.
So too, though, was the lure of Talmud study. More than that: Rabbi Brander had taken on the privileged role of shamash, assistant, to Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, the rav, the towering leader of Yeshiva University’s modern brand of Orthodoxy. The Rav was an octogenarian, beginning to show the effects of Parkinsons disease as well as of age. He would retire two years later.
The rav lived in Boston in 1941, when he was appointed to replace his recently deceased father on the YU faculty. He never relocated. For all his decades at YU, he was a commuter, coming at the beginning of the week, leaving on Thursday evening, and spending his weeknights in a small apartment on the ground floor of one of the school’s dormitories. During his last years, when his health began to decline, an assistant would stay in the apartment with him.
In 1984, Kenneth Brander was that assistant.
So when Kenny, as he was known then, started working on his application to YU’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, unsure whether that was the path for him, he left the application on the dining room table in the rav’s apartment when he went to class.
“I came back from my college class, and there was a handwritten letter of recommendation from the rav,” Rabbi Brander recalled last week. Any questions about his career path were put aside. “That nailed it,” he said.
“I actually asked for the original back. I still remember the rabbinical school dean telling me, ‘You realize your letter of recommendation will be worth more than your smicha,’” the ordination certificate he eventually would receive.
What did Rabbi Brander get from his years by Rabbi Soloveitchik’s side?
“Those people who spent time with Rabbi Soloveitchik privately know that the greatest piece of Rabbi Soloveitchik was not just his unbelievable knowledge of Torah and general knowledge, but his caring for people,” Rabbi Brander said. “He cared greatly for people. Not just those people who played leadership roles in the Jewish community. Not just for Jews. For every single human being.
“He knew the names of the children of the person who cleaned the apartment. He wouldn’t walk on a floor that was wet because he didn’t want the person who washed the floor to think he didn’t appreciate their work.
“When someone asked a question and he knew they would be troubled by the answer he would give, he lost a night’s sleep the night before. He cared for people,” Rabbi Brander said.
Rabbi Soloveitchik would tell stories of his grandfather, Rabbi Chaim of Brisk. One story had Rabbi Chaim allowing the townspeople to provide him with a woodshed full of firewood, only on the condition that it would be open to anyone who needed some wood. In another, when a fire struck the town and poor people’s houses weren’t being repaired, Rabbi Chaim moved out of his own home and slept on the porch of one of the burnt buildings.
“I’ll never be one of Rabbi Soloveitchik’s greatest intellectual students,” Rabbi Brander said. “I was too young to be in that category,” only studying with the rav for a couple of years before he retired. “I did see his humanity. His humanity was unbelievable.”
“It reminded me, both as a rabbi in Boca and at YU, that it’s not about building buildings, not just making grand statements, it’s really about the capacity to use the roles that you have to change the lives of the individuals and to care for the individuals.”
As for Rabbi Brander’s own grandparents — “both sets went through the Shoah in different ways,” he said.
Rabbi Brander’s father’s family came from Poland. His grandparents gave his father and his aunt to gentiles to keep them safe after the Nazis came. “My father grew up as a Christian,” he said. “He had blond hair and blue eyes so he could go to church.” After the war, the children were reunited with their parents.
His mother’s family came from Germany. His grandfather was saved by the bedbugs that infested his bedroom. Because of the bedbugs, he wasn’t at home the night the Nazis came and took Rabbi Brander’s great-grandparents. He obtained forged papers to escape to London. Along the way, he met Rabbi Brander’s grandmother. They married — probably in London. By the time they made it to America, “my grandmother was pregnant with my mother.” His father, who arrived when he was 14, had celebrated his bar mitzvah in a Displaced Person camp.
Rabbi Brander’s parents didn’t speak much about the Shoah when he was growing up, first in Detroit, then in Queens. For high school, he went to a local black-hat high school that left him uninspired. A year in Israel at a Zionist hesder yeshiva, however, “was a transformational experience in my life,” he said. “I saw the ability to celebrate Torah and service in society.” He was inspired by a Talmud teacher who was a paratrooper, and by the combination of Torah study and religious Zionism. That led him to Yeshiva College.
Toward the end of his rabbinic studies, Rabbi Brander started working at Lincoln Square Synagogue in Manhattan, the American congregation that Rabbi Riskin founded. Then Rabbi Saul Berman, Rabbi Riskin’s successor, left, and the congregation asked Rabbi Brander to step in as interim rabbi. “Rabbi Riskin was kind enough to spend some time with me in helping me prepare,” he said. “Lincoln Square Synagogue had 1,600 families. I was 27 years old. He was very kind and helpful to me.”
Rabbis Riskin and Brander remained in contact with each other over the years. Rabbi Riskin grew his Ohr Torah center to encompass 24 institutions that included high schools and post-high school yeshivas for men and for women as well as centers “engaging with the larger issues of Israeli society,” as Rabbi Brander put it.
And then, earlier this year, Rabbi Riskin asked for a meeting.
“I’m 78 years old,” Rabbi Riskin told Rabbi Brander. “I want someone to continue my legacy.”
Rabbi Riskin wanted to step down from the leadership of the institution he had founded to spend more time teaching and writing.
Rabbi Brander discussed it with his wife, Ruchie. It wasn’t a hard decision. Two of their five children — and one of their two grandchildren — live in Israel.
Looking back at his years as a Yeshiva University administrator, the work he’s most proud of involved working with people. “The entire student experience at YU has changed,” he said. “Service learning, engaging with the larger society, going to Guatemala — that’s now part of the DNA of YU.”
When he started offering these opportunities, the student newspapers made fun of the endeavor. Now, “it’s become part and parcel of the YU weltenschaung,” he said. “Basically, it’s a whole new paradigm, that service to society.
“There are literally thousands of students who have worked in public schools, or helping kids in inner cities go to college, or using music therapy, or doing midnight runs where they deliver winter coats and food — all within the context of the halachic responsibility to do that,” he said.
And the university has taken the human needs of its students more seriously. “Resident advisors are now trained to be 911 responders, to deal with mental health crises in a whole bunch of different ways,” Rabbi Brander said. “I’ve had the privilege of working with students and watching them grow, helping them through difficult times, and then being asked to perform their weddings.”
As he sees it, for YU’s students, “The journey of self exploration is the most important journey they can be on, whether they work in Thailand or around the country or in Kiryat Gat.”
He is quick to point out that these accomplishments were not his alone. He worked with colleagues, and under the overall direction of Richard Joel, who hired Rabbi Brander at the beginning of his presidency and who retired over the summer.
When Rabbi Brander talks about his new position, about Ohr Torah Stone, it’s clear that here too what excites him about the institution is the different ways it touches people. And for those people who are most familiar with those branches of Ohr Torah like Midreshet Lindenbaum, which educate students from the diaspora, its reach into Israeli society and beyond comes as a surprise.
Ohr Torah Stone has 12 campuses and many programs.
It has a program that sends Israeli rabbis and their wives to Jewish communities in South America and Europe, and a similar one that sends them to various community centers within Israel. There are six high schools “that educate young people to be connected to their Judaism.” There are programs, some for men and some for women, where Israeli high school graduates study Torah and volunteer in a pre-army gap year. There are high schools and junior high schools. There is a rabbinical seminary. There is a hesder yeshiva, where men alternate army service with Torah study and secular college classes — and some Tai Chi that is thrown in as well.
As he learns about the programs, Rabbi Brander is finding ideas he would like to spread throughout the Jewish world.
There’s the school in Karmiel, in the Galilee, where young men study the Talmud based on the cycle of the year, rather than the rotation of tractates chosen by the leading yeshiva of the 19th century.
“There’s a creative edge there,” he said. “I think there’s a whole bunch of sixth and seventh and eighth grade students, and high school students and college students, who might benefit more from studying that way than the classical way.”
After all, “At YU, the rav taught totally different tractates than what everyone else learned.”
That school in Karmiel, he said, is the sort of yeshiva where students take out musical instruments during their lunch breaks and prepare for morning prayers with half an hour of yoga.
“On the other side of town, I saw a tremendous amount of creativity in how a women’s yeshiva prepares women to go into the army. They want them to understand the notion of mesora,” tradition. To do that, the school set aside an hour a week where students research a book of Jewish law or thought that reflects their roots. Perhaps their grandparent’s town is mentioned, or perhaps the connection is closer.
“I met a young lady whose grandfather was a rav, a rabbi, in Egypt,” Rabbi Brander said. “She was learning about her grandfather’s customs, how he dealt with Jewish law.”
With more than 52,000 Hebrew religious books digitized on HebrewBooks.org, it’s easier than ever to find the obscure tract that your great grandfather published in Egypt or Ukraine.
“They’re teaching them the tradition not just by expanding their knowledge of halacha and Talmud and Tanakh, but by expanding their roots,” Rabbi Brander said. “I’ve never seen that.”
Rabbi Brander’s transition to Ohr Torah Stone will begin in earnest in February, when he’ll start spending 10 to 12 days a month in Israel. Rabbi Riskin plans to step down in August. In the time until then, Rabbi Brander wants to meet the stakeholders in Ohr Torah Stone. He also wants to meet with people in the broader Jewish community around the world, to get ideas on developing community. “I need to be educated,” he said. “I want to hear.”
He’s started writing down new ideas, filling notebooks with plans and objectives and deliverables. It’s clear from the scope of these preliminary thoughts that he sees Ohr Torah as big enough to influence Israeli society. “OTS is illuminating the relevance of authentic Torah Judaism in the modern world and making a transformative impact on Jewish life, learning and leadership,” proclaims its website. Rabbi Brander’s question is just how that should happen in the years ahead.
That, and starting to prepare for his family’s move to Israel. What to leave behind? What to take?
Not all that long ago, Rabbi Brander’s parents moved from their house in Queens to Long Island, to be in a smaller place, closer to their daughter.
“Five days before the movers were coming, my parents’ children and grandchildren descended upon the house. My children and I packed up my father’s seforim,” his Jewish books, he said.
He discovered copies of the seforim that the Joint Distribution Committee had sent to the DP camps, including a copy of the talmudic tractate of Megillah and the book “Mesilat Yesharim” — “Paths of the Just.” They were printed cheaply, on paper barely better than newsprint.
Those books certainly are going to Jerusalem.
“My father also gave me the suitcase he had when he came over from Europe to America.” Rabbi Brander said. “It’s very obviously American army issue. I told my wife that when we make aliya, I’m going to use that as my carry-on piece.”