Interview With Outgoing Vice President Rabbi Kenneth Brander

By: Mindy Schwartz Miriam Pearl Klahr  |  October 26, 2017

Earlier this month Rabbi Kenneth Brander announced his departure from Yeshiva University, where he has served as Vice President of University and Community Life since 2013. The Observer sat down with him to discuss his twelve year long career at YU along with his new position at Ohr Torah Stone.

Miriam Pearl Klahr: What made you decide that it was time to move on in your career and leave YU?

Rabbi Brander: Nothing made me decide that, because I wasn’t planning on leaving, but just the opposite. Rabbi Riskin came to me. It was just like my job at YU which I never applied for–President Joel came to Boca and said “show me around Boca.” At one point he pulled the car to the side and said “how about creating Bocas all over the world by doing this at YU?” It took a year and a half for me to agree [to come to YU]. With Rabbi Riskin it was a conversation for a little more than 6 months.

To have the opportunity to be able to work with unbelievably talented professionals and lay leaders just like I’ve had the opportunity to do at YU, but to do it in Israel on twenty-four different schools and twelve different campuses that have a reach in [both the] Religious Zionist of the community and the tzibur harachav [secular community] while continuing the legacy of Rabbi Riskin, coupled with having children and a grandchild who live in Israel, it was just an opportunity of a lifetime–just like this job was.

MPK: Have you turned down other job offers since you came to YU?

RB: I’ve been offered multiple jobs, as many people at YU are. Multiple jobs in the rabbinate, as well as in the philanthropic world, namely to run foundations that give away tens of millions of dollars a year. While they were unbelievable opportunities, working at YU is an unbelievable opportunity. Being able to be inspired by students everyday is something that I have experienced for 12 years, so I never pursued those. [But] when Rabbi Riskin knocked on the door, that was something that peaked my interest.

Mindy Schwartz: How are you balancing your transition out of YU with your regular responsibilities?

RB: Right now I have to focus on the transition to make sure that the things we’re all doing now don’t get lost. People will still be able to reach me, but the bottom line is that there has to be a solid and good transition.

MPK: It seems like no one is taking over your job [as Vice President of University and Community Life], but rather, that it is being split between several people. Do you think is it wise that the University is not filling this position?

RB: I think that is a conversation you’re going to have to have with the president who makes those sorts of decisions.

MS: So how are your responsibilities being divided up once you leave?

RB: [Vice President] Rabbi Joseph will take over a lot. Student Life will report to him through Dr. Nissel [Dean of Students], and the student admissions team and undergraduate student finance team will report to him [as well]. Rabbi Glasser [Dean of the Center for the Jewish Future] will report directly to Rabbi Berman. I’ve [also] been responsible for the YU Israel– that will [now] report partially to Rabbi Berman. The legal components will report to the General Council’s office, and all of the recruitment and student life [aspects] will report to Rabbi Joseph.

MPK: What do you think are your biggest accomplishments over your time at YU?

RB: I’d view [my accomplishments] in three different realms–though I don’t think that the greatest things I had the opportunity to participate in [were just] one person’s accomplishment, we accomplished them as colleagues working together. First, the Jewish community realm. Just to give you an example, we have professionalized rabbinic placement, so we are placing rabbis and rabbinic couples in a much more sensitive and holistic way. YUTorah [also] started with the development of the Center for the Jewish Future and now it hits hundreds of thousands of people.

The second thing I’m very proud of is the student experience. If you look at the landscape of the Orthodox Jewish community 12 years ago, no one was taking Orthodox kids on service missions, whether to Nicaragua or Thailand. We were the first ones who did that. These are all initiatives which have now become part of the genetic makeup of YU students. We don’t want to take credit for every student initiative–because we don’t deserve it–but I do think that we created the environment where service to people–Jews (expanding Torah Tours, starting Counterpoint Israel) and non Jews–became a conversation. I think that that’s something which will be part of the conscience of YU way after I’m gone.

[Third], the entire admissions piece of YU has gone through a wonderful metamorphosis. We’ve never turned anyone away for a lack of funds. At the same time net tuition revenue has gone up 10 millions dollars or close to that. This too was done with my colleagues in the admissions and student finance offices.

MS: Can you speak a bit about how you ran GPATS for the past few years? What was your vision?

RB: That is one of the nicest opportunities I have had at YU. Working with the women in GPATS is just inspiring, and [even though] it was floundering for a while, I think it’s stronger now than it’s ever been. We brought Professor. Price on board [because] I found it extremely interesting that we had a women’s learning program, and there weren’t any women that were part of the administration or faculty–it was all run by men. [So we thought:] doesn’t it make sense that GPATS should have at its epicenter a women as a role model, [Professor Price]. [We have also ensured that] GPATS is no longer an island onto itself that happens to be located at Stern College. It is now embed into the school, whether it is [through] the learning programs, the Shabbat experiences, or other things of that nature. I am in President Joel’s debt for giving me this opportunity.

And the women graduating [from GPATS] are doing wonderful things, whether it’s Jewish community work, interns or educators in synagogues, Talmud teachers, yoatzot [halacha], academia, as well as doctors, lawyers, business people, [and] stay at home moms. [They are] not only sharing Torah but shaping Torah, and to have been part of that narrative is a privilege.

MS: You mentioned that GPATS was floundering, do you feel comfortable leaving it, and is it in a place that is sustainable into the future?

RB: I took on the fundraiser responsibilities [for GPATS] when YU was going through deep financial stress, but [since then] we’ve increased the donor base, we’ve made a [promotional] video and newsletter, and there is a small advisory council. And now it is financially stable. I have the commitment of Rabbi Berman that he’ll make sure GPATS continues to thrive–you can’t ask for more than that.

MPK: Is Rabbi Berman taking over the fundraising aspects [for GPATS]?

RB: [GPATS] is only a few hundred thousand dollars, [so] I imagine his fundraising responsibilities are much more than that. The YU Institutional Advancement department has a whole range of responsibilities. How [Rabbi Berman] feels he is going to do [GPATS fundraising] is something you’ll have to ask him specifically.

MS: Is there someone at YU  who will be the visionhead for GPATS once you move on?

RB: Rabbi Berman and I are working on that. The Provost [Dr. Botman] will be involved with [GPATS] and we are talking about someone else, but we have not finished concluding [that] ourselves. GPATS is in wonderful hands with its faculty and Professor Price. Most of the transitional components have been finalized, this the only thing that hasn’t [been fully announced], but it is in good hands the way it is already.

MPK: Are there things that you wanted to accomplish at YU that you were not able to?

RB: There are always things that I think of everyday that I would have liked to do. For GPATS, what I won’t accomplish in my tenure, but [what] we have started having a conversation about, is another track. Another cohort of women would study gemara in the morning, [but] instead of studying halacha [in the afternoon], they could learn Tanach in depth and do it in partnership with Revel.

MPK: After being at YU for a number of years, are there notable changes that you have seen in the university?

RB: I think that the greatest thing that has not really been told about President Joel’s presidency is the fact that he left a leadership cadre for Rabbi Berman to work with that allows Rabbi Berman to move to next step. The senior leadership of YU, the VPs, they’re unbelievable. Their integrity, their commitment to the values of YU, their sacrifice [is unbelievable].

MS: You mentioned [in an interview with The Observer this past summer] that you have done considerable fundraising for shabbat on the Beren campus. Do you see that sort of fundraising effort as something you’ve left in the framework, or will it dry up once you’re gone?

RB: I view the contribution that we put together as just an impetus to allow exciting things to happen [on Shabbat] without concern about budget. So that we can have Shabatot like [the one with] Yonina, the Nefesh b’Nefesh shabbaton, [because] there is now a chunk of money to do stuff. I want there to be free shabbatot; I want more and more people to feel that this is a place for them [on Shabbat]. [Also] Rabbi Rappaport, one of the significant Torah personalities that speaks on the LGBTQ community, will be on the Stern campus around March or so.

And [this funding] is going to go forward. The people who contributed to this would be willing to contribute in the future if somebody reaches out to them and they see that there are measures and metrics of success. So there is no reason that [funding] shouldn’t continue

MPK: You mentioned that Rabbi Rapport will be at Stern for shabbat to address LGBTQ issues. How do you view YU’s role in addressing LGBTQ issues which are so critical for this generation?

RB: Issues of gender in general are changing. We live in a society that says that what gender you are is up to you. So it’s a whole new conversation, [and] not to have a conversation with our students on both campuses about how to deal with that [would be a disservice because] you are the future leadership of the Jewish people. You have to think about these things, [and] you should be thinking about them in an environment that that looks at things through the prism of Torah values. We have to find ways to ensure that those within the LGBTQ community that wish to be part of the Orthodox [community] feel welcomed–even if we cannot fully celebrate [their] life choices– and they [should] feel that there is a home for them. But even besides that, if we are not going to have the conversations with the group of young men and women–the [students] at YU–who will be the next leaders of our people, where else should those conversations happen if not in appropriate forums on our campus?

MS: Do you expect there to be any controversy or backlash with this kind of event?

RB: We’ll see, [although] I don’t think that would be a reason not to do it. I’m sure there will be something. [Still] I think we should do it, but in a way that it is most beneficial YU students. I don’t think it’s our responsibility to do an event for the entire collegiate community. We had a Shabbat event on the Wilf campus with Rabbi Rappaport and it worked out really well.

MS: We are going to switch gears and talk about your new position–had you thought much about Ohr Torah Stone before Rabbi Riskin approached you?

RB: I didn’t really. There was a time several years ago when Rabbi Riskin talked to me about being part of it but it was [only] a twenty minute conversation.

MPK: A lot of articles have been written about the significance of your appointment to OTS and what this means in terms of their organization and their legitimacy. Can you comment on that point?

RB: I’m not sure I can [answer that]. Maybe you should ask that question to Rabbi Riskin. I think that OTS has legitimacy whether they appointed me or not. I mean these are super talented leaders at OTS. I’m not sure I bring the validity; I think they have validity without me. But it’s nice to hear that people feel that way.

I’ll have responsibilities in OTS, as any president does, to raise money. [So] it might be–and again you’d have to ask Rabbi Riskin this–that I’ve been involved with a community in Boca where we found ourselves able to build a community from sixty families to 600. You can’t be involved in doing that without learning how to fundraise. [And] at YU I’ve been given the opportunity not only to fundraise, but, [because] YU is really a nexus of the Jewish world, from here I’ve developed relationships with rabbinic personalities and lay leaders all over the world. So in some ways I bring that knowledge to OTS.

MPK: OTS has a program where women learn the same things as their male counterparts getting Rabbanut semicha. It obviously shares certain similarities with GPATS but also significant differences–can you comment on that disparity at all?

RB: It is very exciting that they give the certificate of a heter horah, recognizing that women have achieved competency in certain areas, [and that] they take the same Rabbanut bechinas as their [male] counterparts do. I think it’s a great thing. One of my jobs is [to figure out]  how we can make sure that we champion opportunities [for these women] to play leadership roles in the jewish community both in Israel and in the Diaspora and to insure that it is done in a normative Halachic way.