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A conversation with Rabbi Chaim Brovender, educator

by simone September 21 2008
InterviewHolidays

 Rabbi Brovender

With the High Holidays almost upon us, Jerusalemite has decided to go rabbinic with this week's interview, speaking with Rabbi Chaim Brovender, long-time Jerusalem resident and founder of the Web Yeshiva, which is bringing the Torah of Jerusalem to the far reaches of the globe. The Web Yeshiva is headquartered on HaNassi St., next to the President's house, though Rabbi Brovender is quick to point out that he's not sure the President knows they're there. Prior to his involvement with the Web Yeshiva, Rabbi Brovender was the founder and  long-time Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Hamivtar in Efrat.

Elul and the High Holidays can be felt in the air in Jerusalem probably more than anywhere else. How would you characterize what goes on here for those who are not familiar? In Jerusalem, the world operates according to the holidays. It's not as though people run into them. It takes a long time to get to Rosh Hashanah, it takes a long time to get to Yom Kippur, and that process if felt here. Sukkot is sort of likeRabbi Brovender chatting a festival in Jerusalem, everyone has a sukkah. In other places, the ambience isn't there, you have to find a little corner to go do the mitzvot [ritual commandments], but here everyone is doing them and everyone who comes here feels that. Having lived in Jerusalem for a long time, I never cease to wonder how seriously everyone takes these holiday-related mitzvot. Even the act of buying a lulav and etog [part of the four species used on the Sukkot holiday] has a festival-type atmosphere here. The whole world becomes that world. There is no other world. That's unique to Jerusalem.

Perhaps as a throwback to the good old days of pilgrimage to the ancient Temple, the autumn Holidays are a time when Jews visit Jerusalem from all over the world. What's the impact of this phenomenon on the cultural landscape of the city from your worldview? It creates a responsibility. The people of Jerusalem, whether they like it or not, are responsible for creating a center, an example of the way things could be and the way things should be. People can celebrate these holidays anywhere, but not like [the way they're celebrated] in Jerusalem. So Jerusalem becomes not just a place to go on vacation but a kind of model for all the Jewish people to strive for. And that's a responsibility that the people who live in Jerusalem have to accept. They are Rabbi Brovender teachingkind of a showcase for the Jewish people.

This is also the time of year when the post-high school yeshiva and seminary students begin arriving. You have been involved with Jerusalem English-language Torah study since the early days of this phenomenon. You served as Rosh Yeshiva at Hamivtar while their post-high school program thrived and then was eventually discontinued. For some time, one of the most popular young women's programs, Midreshet Lindenbaum, was almost unanimously referred to as "Brovender's," because of your involvement there. Right now, Jerusalem's buses, streets, bars and cafes are already filling with English speakers in their late teens, and much has been written about the various tracks that these young adults end up on thanks to the "year in Israel" experience. Where do you think the various yeshivot and seminaries in and around Jerusalem are succeeding, and what, in your opinion, do they not understand about the impressionable youth in their charge? Success in education is always partial because no matter how you define your goal, as you approach it you suddenly see many more things that you could have accomplished and didn’t. So the fact that there is still a lot to do will always remain.

Unfortunately, not all of the kids who come out of high-school in America take advantage of this year, but it is the opportunity for intense involvement with what is going on in Israel in terms of Torah and mitzvot. It provides young people with the opportunity to focus on these issues without being distracted by high school classes and college. This year is an opportunity to discover the role they want Torah to play in their lives. There are serious teachers here and I don't think [after learning with them] anyone can avoid consideration of these serious things.

On the other hand, we can always do better and always create programs that are more evolved and more serious, but as we know not every 17-year-old is ready for this level of seriousness. On the other hand, if Birthright, which brings kids for 10 days, is considered a success, than a year here can definitely be considered a success. If all these kids did not come for the year, I think we would be seeing less aliyah and less Jewish involvement. Of course it's not perfect, but nothing is.

What are you trying to accomplish with the Web Yeshiva and the Web Yeshiva blog that couldn't be accomplished with more traditional brick-and-mortar yeshiva formats? Specifically in terms of spreading Jerusalem's flavor, what does this initiative offer the world that's new? It occurred to me that there was this tremendous opportunity out there, there were people all over the world who could not access quality Torah classes because the teachers were not available and suddenly there was this technology that allowed people to sit in the same [virtual] room no matter where in the world they were located. I thought we could use this technology with the great teachers available in Jerusalem to spread Torah to places where it may not otherwise be available.

The level of study in Jerusalem is very high, and there is a remarkable number of quality teachers, both in terms of teaching ability and in terms of their knowledge. We thought we would draw on this resource, offering classes around the clock with the best teachers you could imagine. These are teachers who won't leave Jerusalem, but now with computer technology we are able to take advantage of the Torah and the teachers of Jerusalem and bring them to the world.

Photo of Rabbi Brovender talking, and in action; meeting with a former student (middle) and teaching at the ATID Fellows program (bottom) all courtesy of ATID.

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