Tuesday, June 18, 2024 -
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The rumor is, Rabbi Brander breathes

I don’t know how Rabbi Kenneth Brander breathes. Judge for yourself.

He told me the things he’s got going, and I thought he was giving me an annual event calendar. Actually, it’s a two-week event calendar.

I got into this via an intriguing email in which he stated that he sends rabbinical students to the “GA,” the annual North American federation gathering, held this year in Jerusalem.

Rabbi Brander put two and two together: American rabbinical students studying in Israel with a GA held in Israel. Let aspiring rabbis learn something about how the American Jewish community operates.

Brander is head of the Center for the Jewish Future, a think tank and action center established by Richard Joel when he became president of Yeshiva University in New York a few years ago.

Brander always sends YU rabbinical students to the GA, but this year he faced a financial dilemma. Usually, he needs to fund an airline ticket from New York to an American city. This year, with the GA held in Israel, the expense loomed too large. Presto. Don’t send the students studying in America, send the ones studying in Israel. And so it was. Thirty rabbinical students and their spouses hobnobbed with leaders of the American Jewish community, attended the sessions, widened their horizons.

Lest this not seem to be a big deal, Brander says the YU students were the only group of rabbinical students at the GA this year.

“If we’re going to train future Jewish leaders,” explains Brander, “we want them to understand the larger Jewish community. The GA represents that.

“I want our students to see that there are serious Jews who are thinking about the Jewish community who are not Orthodox, and how the Orthodox voice can play a significant role at the community table.”

Can this really happen from a brief, one-time encounter at a GA?

It’s not one-time. Brander’s students meet with federation leaders on a monthly basis; with, for example, Jeff Klein from the Palm Beach federation, via videoconferencing.

Klein, like many of the other mentors of Brander’s students, is Sabbath observant (shomer Shabbos). Whatever he might contribute by way of direct counsel, he conveys to the rabbinical students that to be religious and to operate within the federation framework is a distinct career possibility.

But it’s not just religious federation professionals that YU rabbinical students encounter in monthly meetings. It’s federation presidents and professionals at the Jewish Agency for Israel or Joint Distribution Committee.

This can be spiritually confusing.

“The students come to recognize the fact that there’s a larger Jewish community out there that passionately cares about Israel and Jewish community. The students are concerned that this passion is not rooted in a halachic context. That is a little confusing. If you don’t have that halachic relationship, why is Israel and Jewish peoplehood central? they ask themselves.”

Which brings us to breathing.

Anyone who’s arranged an event over the course of a few days for 60 people knows how much time it takes. Well, the student visit to the GA was just a single activity of the Center for the Jewish Future last November. In a two week period, Brander’s center also:

• arranged a “yarchei kallah” for 60 rabbis’ wives. How does a rabbi’s wife nurture her own spiritual growth while dealing with the shul and balancing that with the responsibilities at home and at work? The additional responsibility a person takes on when marrying a rabbi needs its own retreat.

• ran an executive rabbinic seminar for 15 communities for rabbis and incoming presidents. Topics on the agenda: strategic planning; how to use a lay board effectively; emotional intelligence tests. Among the seminar leaders: business coaches from YU’s Sy Symms school of business. “We have done this for 45 communities in the last year-and-a-half,” says Brander.

• ran a conference at YU on Tanach, the Hebrew Bible. 700 people attended.

• loaned video conferencing equipment to 30 high school and and middle schools. They will be used for periodic conferences and seminars.

• held a conference on the center’s mentor-mentee program. It’s for senior rabbis and newly minted rabbis. The conference was to make sure that the expectations of the mentoring are real.

“We pay the mentors,” says Brander. “It’s not just an informal program.”

The common denominator behind all these programs is an aspiration to take Yeshiva University national, to stretch it beyond its walls in Washington Heights in upper Manhattan.

“Our larger philosophy at the center is to convene the resources of YU to shape, enrich and inspire the contemporary Jewish community,” says Brander. “We want to give our students a sense of leadership and klal Yisrael, and to to build and cultivate communities and their lay and rabbinic leaders.”

Brander stresses the importance of rabbis accepting pulpits outside of the New York area.

Brander himself was a very successful pulpit rabbi in South Florida before moving to New York to head the center. He’s proud that he and his colleagues have placed 40 pulpit rabbis outside the New York area. “Interest in this has exponentially grown,” he says. “People see the quality of life.”

YU regularly sends rabbinical students to scores of communities for Simchat Torah or on longer, more serious programs, such as the kollel stationed the past two summers at EDOS.

“We need to convey to our students that not all serious Jews are Orthodox and that the Jewish community does not end with the New Jersey Turnpike — so now you see students interested in having those [Simchat Torah or kollel] experiences in or out of the New York area. They see the richness of the Jewish experience, latitudinally and longitudinally — that one can grow with the larger Jewish community.”

They said of Abraham Lincoln that he was a little engine that knew no rest. If you can keep up with the Center for the Jewish Future under Rabbi Kenneth Brander, you’ll find that out about him, too.

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