Rabbi Chaim Brovender, a pioneer in women’s Torah study, sets his sights on an on-line yeshiva.
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By Amihai Zippor
On the night of October 5, 2000, at the outset of the second intifada, Rabbi Chaim Brovender, the founder of Yeshivat Hamivtar in Efrat, was traveling along the Tunnel Road connecting Gush Etzion with Jerusalem when a crowd of Arabs from Beit Jala stopped him. After being pulled from his car and severely beaten, he was taken to a Palestinian police station in Bethlehem, where he was further harassed before being thankfully transferred to the IDF alive. During his subsequent hospitalization and recovery, which took several months, many people, his wife Miriam recalls, asked him what he thought of the incident. “‘I’m just a part of Jewish history,’ he would say.” Brovender’s part in that history saw him become one of the most influential rabbis in contemporary Torah education. Nearly seven years after his assault and 40 years since his yeshiva was established, Brovender has left Yeshivat Hamivtar, following a disagreement with its parent organization, Ohr Torah Stone. The departure comes 20 years after Yeshivat Hamivtar and Michlelet Bruriah (now known as Midreshet Lindenbaum), the women’s seminary he founded, merged with Ohr Torah Stone. Although Brovender clearly misses his students and fellow staff, he is at peace with the decision. “I always try to teach people that you can disagree with each other and in fact disagreement is healthy. It’s a good sign. A sign you’re thinking,” he tells In Jerusalemwith a smile. “I’m very hopeful that I will continue to be able to do good things that will be advantageous for the community that is interested in learning Torah.” IJ spoke with Brovender at his Mattersdorf home to discuss his career, and issues he brought to the forefront of Orthodoxy, such as women’s Torah study.
Born in 1941 in Brooklyn, Brovender attended Flatbush Yeshiva, a coeducational modern Orthodox day school. He later graduated from Yeshiva University, where he earned a BA in mathematics and received rabbinical ordination from “the Rav,” Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik. In 1965 he and his wife made aliya and settled in Jerusalem, where they raised six children, who have since added 20 grandchildren to the family circle. Brovender, who later completed a doctorate in Semitic languages from the Hebrew University in 1974, had hopes of working in academia. But fate, it seems, had other plans for him. Unsure that his math degree would secure him a job in Israel, Brovender took the advice of an acquaintance, who suggested he study at a local kollel called the Israel Torah Research Institute (ITRI). Although Brovender was a student of Soloveitchik and had great respect for Torah study, he hadn’t planned to make yeshiva learning his life’s path.
“I wanted to be an academic because I heard they work two days a week, six hours a day and eight months a year, and coming from Brooklyn I could not imagine a better deal,” he quipped at a recent dinner to celebrate his career. However, after he arrived at ITRI, a yeshiva with a strong Lithuanian mind-set that emphasized Talmudic learning, and saw men learning Torah at a caliber he had never seen before, he was intrigued and decided to temporarily join the kollel. “When I came to ITRI I rode a motorbike and I used to show up wearing sandals with no socks. I had no jacket, and I had a metal motorcycle helmet,” Brovender smiles.ITRI, he knew, adhered to the custom of wearing a hat over a kippa when praying, but when it came time for the afternoon Minha prayer he didn’t think it would be appropriate to put on his helmet.
“The men in the kollel came over to me like a committee and said you can’t daven [pray] Minha without socks, a jacket and a hat,” he said. After several more minutes of nagging him to dress appropriately for Mincha, Brovender recalls, he looked at his fellow avrechim (married scholars) and said: “Look, I can’t do it all but pick one out of three” and they settled on a jacket.
Eventually with the jacket came the socks and a hat and during that first year-and-a-half at ITRI, its rosh yeshiva, Rabbi Mordechai Elefant, quickly recognized Brovender for his brilliance. In 1967 Elefant convinced Brovender to do what he had never thought of doing: To open an English-speaking program to teach Torah to university students, backpackers and other curious souls who in the wake of the Six Day War had begun streaming into Jerusalem. Though Brovender was still hesitant to commit and reminded his rosh yeshiva that he was part of academia, he went ahead with the program, which was the beginning of the yeshiva that later took the name Hamivtar.
Dore Gold, a former student and former Israel ambassador to the UN, believes Brovender was the right person at the right moment in Jewish history to undertake such a Torah study program. “At that time, there was a quest by Jews to return to their sources, and Brovender began going from campus to campus speaking about his yeshiva’s unique ability to teach young, curious minds to be able to read a daf [page] of Gemara. Rather than being connected to Judaism through ceremony alone and feeling somewhat disquieted that you had no basic knowledge of it, he offered the keys to the kingdom,” Gold says. “I think of Rabbi Brovender as someone who has been a key to the revival of the Jewish people today… by returning to the study of sources.”
The ITRI program for English-speaking men soon became a full-fledged yeshiva, first known as Hartmans and then as Shapells. In 1976 Brovender, who describes himself as “too far to the Left for the guys on the Right and too far to the Right for the guys on the Left,” ultimately broke off from Shapells, and moved his yeshiva to Givat Hamivtar.
“When I left ITRI it was because I was too Zionist and too academic to be in such a strongly associated Lithuanian yeshiva, which is what ITRI wanted to be. I had also started teaching women Talmud, which was not held in high esteem by the administration at ITRI. They thought about it but they decided I was too old to be retrained,” Brovender says.
ACADEMIA ASIDE, it was the women’s program, specifically its Talmud track, that generated the biggest debate among ITRI’s elite, and was innovative in the Orthodox world. But for Brovender, having attended a coeducational secondary school, “it never occurred to me that women couldn’t learn Talmud.”
“The women who came to the ITRI program had the inclination and so I followed what I knew. I wasn’t prepared to accept a particular mystical notion that for some reason woman can’t do it,” he explains.”I think they intuitively knew that this was an important part of their development and that they wanted to advance as religious people, to be able to ‘approach’ God better.”
After locating an apartment on Rehov Aza and finding teachers, the women’s Torah study program, then called Bruriah, began. Tamar Ross, a professor of philosophy at Bar-Ilan University and a longtime educator at Midreshet Lindenbaum, sees the split from ITRI as a turning point in women’s Torah learning. “It developed the whole movement of seminaries for women and established the legitimacy of their unlimited freedom in their ability to learn Torah She-Be’al Pe [Oral Torah],” she says, referring to the sections of Torah that for so many years were off-limits to women. Former Bruriah Scholar Rahel Berkovits wholly agrees and appreciates the courage it took for Brovender to initiate such a program since at the time there was no other place for women to receive a sophisticated Torah education. “I think the Jewish people have been made better due to the fact that [the other] half of the population can take Torah learning to its highest level,” she says. “Today people call it ‘Brovenders’ but they forget what it was like when our mothers and grandmothers didn’t have the opportunity to learn. “The entire face of modern Orthodoxy has been changed because women can learn in a serious way and that’s because of Rabbi Brovender.”
Practically speaking, Rabbi Brovender believes the program’s success was due in part to the fact it had never been tried before. “It was just a market that no one else had explored yet and the women did not have a plan, weren’t learning for smicha [rabbinical ordination], and weren’t learning for some advanced degree. They just wanted to be let in and I tried to open the door,” he says. “When it comes to women’s learning you have to do it out of a sense that it is the right thing to do and understand the issues involved.”
THE ISSUE of remaining in the bounds of Halacha is often discussed when dealing with outreach programs or places of mixed learning. Brovender is insistent that when dealing with such matters a person has to be knowledgeable, understanding, and get good halachic direction to determine “how far off the deep end one can go.” “There are tactical questions and there’s a question of where people come from, what they’ve been doing. Take Mea She’arim – there you’ll find a falafel stand with two lines, one for men and one for women, and that makes sense because these are people who are very careful not to mix the sexes in whatever they do,” he says. “But there are other kinds of worlds that Jews live in and if you want to attract somebody you have to go to the place that he happens to be in as long as it does not contradict Halacha.” Unlike other yeshivot and midrashot, students in the Brovender enterprise were not told what to do or pressured to be a certain way because it was Brovender’s personal belief that any attempt to “make” someone religious would ultimately fail if it didn’t rest on something authentic. Instead, Brovender integrates humor and cleverness in his teaching, while focusing on the text. While characterizing himself as “not the best rosh yeshiva but certainly the funniest,” many of Brovender’s former students will note that whether in the classroom, outside it, or in dealing with life’s most difficult moments, he never substitutes humor for content.
AFTER ALL Brovender has set into motion, he is critical of the lack of Jewish learning nowadays, saying that it seems to him that both men and women are content, more than in previous years, with not knowing much about Judaism. “People today find greater solace in the fact that they clearly define themselves as part of a certain community, granted they don’t know how to learn Torah very well or don’t know how to get involved with a particular textual issue. It doesn’t seem to bother them that much,” he says. Even though it is said there are more people learning Torah today than ever, Brovender believes this statistic is “mostly in the haredi, or yehivish [Lithuanian] or hassidic worlds,” which is only a small percentage of the Jewish population. For him this trend translates into religious neighborhoods in Israel being too insular, which, he says, was not true years ago when secular people could comfortably walk into religious areas. “Unlike then, today most buildings that are built for religious Jews, whatever kind they think they are, are in neighborhoods where everybody is that kind of religious Jew, and therefore, I think we in general become more oppressive to those who are outside,” he says. “When I first came to Israel,” he recalls, “if you walked through Kiryat Moshe where I lived, there was this kind of person, and that kind of person and if you walked across the neighborhood and had a ponytail or sandals or shorts, you didn’t feel like you were from a different world.”
BROVENDER PLANS to continue teaching Torah through the Academy for Torah Initiatives and Directions in Jewish Education (ATID), an organization he co-founded 10 years ago whose aim is “to train the future leadership of Jewish education and… deal with the crucial issues facing the field.” The institute also acts as a forum to advance Brovender’s longstanding interest in finding a place for the arts within Torah education. In recognition of Brovender’s 40 years of service in the field of Jewish education, ATID recently sponsored an evening at the Dan Pearl Hotel in his honor, which was attended by nearly 400 guests, many of them former students who are now educators themselves or hold esteemed positions in educational and political institutions. Brovender announced at the dinner that through ATID he plans to open a first-of-its-kind online yeshiva, which will use the latest technology to simulate the workings of a regular yeshiva-learning environment on the Internet. “Technology just provides an opportunity to teach people you would otherwise not be able to teach. It’s not about proving something through technology. I’m just trying to find a way to teach students who might not otherwise have an opportunity to learn. “And if they are in a place that is somewhat godforsaken and they have a will and desire to learn Torah, this will make it possible,” he says.