Rabbi Dr. Kenneth Brander, Yeshiva University’s vice president for university and community life, has been named the new president-elect and rosh hayeshiva of Efrat-based education network Ohr Torah Stone (OTS), set to succeed the venerable Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, the Israeli education network’s founder and chancellor, who will stay on in his role as chief rabbi of Efrat. Rabbi Brander’s transition will begin in February, with Rabbi Riskin stepping down in July.
Rabbi Brander’s official role at OTS will be cemented when he makes aliyah with his wife, Ruchie, and their 12-year-old son Yitzchak, this August. In Israel, they join two sons who already have made aliyah: Yoni and daughter-in-law Yehudit, with the Branders’ first “Sabra” grandson Nadav; and Yosef Dov, a former Golani Brigade sharpshooter, who is now a student at Tel Aviv Law School. One son, Rabbi Tuvia, his wife Miriam and daughter Amalya Hodaya, the Branders’ second grandchild, will stay in West Hartford, where he is a pulpit rabbi and Miriam works at Federation. Daughter Tehillah, a genetic counselor at a high-risk OB-GYN practice, is also living stateside.
Rabbi Brander, is well-known for having been the rabbi of the vibrant 700-families-strong Boca Raton Synagogue in Florida, which had 60 families when he joined, and, later, starting in 2005, as founding YU Dean of the Center for the Jewish Future. He also teaches pulpit rabbinics at the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary (RIETS).
During his time at YU, he is most proud of his imbuing a sense of service to the student body by providing opportunities for them to engage outside the classroom, which has created strong lay leaders in communities across the country, and in his stewardship of YU’s Israel programming and Stern College’s GPATS (Graduate Program in Advanced Talmudic Studies), which have been under his purview since he began his role as vice president in 2013. “We also developed YUTorah (YUTorah.org) and the Holidays-to-Go publication series, which have impacted hundreds of thousands in our community,” Rabbi Brander told The Jewish Link.
Rabbi Riskin told The Jewish Link that he thinks Rabbi Brander is a true fit for OTS. “At the present time, Rabbi Brander is very well known in many circles in Israel, as he heads YU’s Israel-based initiatives. I’m certain that he will become known throughout Israel as an educational leader and a Modern Orthodox halachist in fairly short order,” Rabbi Riskin said.
Rabbi Brander noted that Rabbi Riskin is “a personal hero,” and working with him and Rabbi David Stav is an opportunity he anxiously awaits. His aliyah is also an exciting move in and of itself, as he explained that Rabbi Yehoshua Fass, the founder of Nefesh B’Nefesh, was Rabbi Brander’s assistant rabbi at the Boca Raton Synagogue, and NBN was incubated in Boca. “My wife and I have talked about aliyah multiple times; it has been a lifelong dream. We have consulted multiple poskim about our potential aliyah at various times since we were so engaged in Jewish community work in the Diaspora. I think what OTS did for us is provides us with the impetus to join an educational network that has had an immense impact on the Religious Zionist community in Israel,” with the various programs having “multiple portals of entry” for Jews to engage and further their learning, as well as the fact that OTS has also a strong impact on Diaspora Jewry.
“OTS is an incubator for academic excellence, outreach and social advocacy. With the help of Rav Stav and the professional and lay leadership of OTS, we are hoping to make an even larger impact on Israel and the Diaspora as well.”
“I think you are seeing a shift even in the Israeli government, of being concerned for Jewish continuity in the Diaspora. They are no longer the poor cousins but wish to impact the Jewish world and society at large. OTS plays an important role in that narrative. I won’t use my new role as a bully pulpit to encourage people to make aliyah, but to help impact Jews and society in Israel and the Diaspora as we see this shift in Israel itself,” he said.
Early publicity surrounding Rabbi Brander’s move to OTS has heralded the “women rabbis” aspect of one of the 24 programs that OTS runs, one that provides advanced Talmudic studies for women. However, Rabbi Brander stressed that OTS is a large institution with many moving parts and multiple innovative, unique programs. His focus will be on all of the organization’s programming and advocacy, not just the single one that helps foster more and better halachically permissible opportunities for women to serve as leaders.
“OTS has 24 institutions and is educating thousands of men and women in their network of high schools, yeshivot hesder, mechina programs, Midreshet Lindenbaum and its branches in which women study for one or two years before doing army service or sherut leumi. OTS trains them on how to engage in the army and life through the ideals of Torah,” said Rabbi Brander. “Its Darkeinu program has allowed hundreds of young men and women who have special needs to spend a year or more of study in Israel,” he added.
Rabbi Brander explained that his perspective as a YU and OU-affiliated rabbi is not changing, but the Israeli context will provide a notable nuanced difference in the nature of his work, which may explain why the women’s education issue appears to be larger than it is. “In Israel, there are more institutions welcoming women for post high school, pre-army and post-college learning. In America you can count post high school/college formal learning opportunities on one hand. Therefore, the speed in which women’s learning and halachically appropriate roles for women in leadership are being thought about in Israel is, perhaps, at a faster pace,” he said. Rabbi Brander noted that at OTS, Rabbi Riskin has been very clear that the diploma given to women graduates of this program is not semicha but a recognition of their learning and competency to answer questions in areas in which they have rigorously studied and been tested.”
However, Rabbi Brander added that his experience working with “fabulous” GPATS graduates over the past decade, particularly community members such as Nechama Price, who is a professor at Stern College as well as a yoetzet halacha, has led him to believe that more can be done to ensure that solid, rigorous, challenging roles for women in community life are open to them and there are many options for them from which to choose. For example, “The fact that Rabbi Riskin has trained women who can defend agunot in the rabbinical Israeli court system is amazing,” he said.
“At GPATS, women study for two years, Talmud and Halacha. It’s a rigorous, beis-midrash style learning and it has been a privilege to engage with these women. Many have graduated to do great things for the Jewish community. Most of the yoatzot and the women Talmud teachers in North America are graduates of GPATS. The women of GPATS are playing meaningful roles in high schools, seminaries, on college campuses through OU-JLIC and in synagogues. Many of the GPATS graduates are serving as doctors, lawyers, scientists and business people. That is also crucial. In fact, this year we have two women who were accepted to Harvard and Penn Law Schools with academic scholarships and deferred their admission to study in GPATS.
“YU deserves the credit for starting this evolution—from the time Rabbi Soloveitchik gave the first class in Talmud at Stern College. Many of the women and men who are now in Israel leading organizations and seminaries to promote women’s learning have come from YU as well. The challenge is to thread the needle, promoting women’s learning and leadership roles through the prism of Halacha,” he added.
Rabbi Riskin shared that he has known Rabbi Brander for close to three decades, since he was a young rabbinic intern at Lincoln Square Synagogue where Rabbi Riskin was still serving as a young rabbi. “Over the years he has had critical experience in creating and developing religious institutions of learning as well as taking financial responsibility to enable them to continue functioning and developing further. He has also been very much involved in higher education for women—especially in terms of women learning Gemara and Halacha—and as the inaugural dean of YU’s Center for the Jewish Future he developed rabbinic leadership in many far-flung corners of America. All of this is crucial experience for heading the Ohr Torah Stone network of institutions,” said Rabbi Riskin.
The OTS network is comprised of educational institutions, leadership development, outreach initiatives and social action projects, accommodating more than 3,000 students on 12 Israeli campuses. Thirty of its graduate rabbinic couples and emissaries serve Jewish communities globally each year.
Rabbi Riskin, who is 77, will still have involvement in the organization he founded in 1983. Co-chancellor Rabbi David Stav will continue in the significant role he holds today.
By Elizabeth Kratz