Rabbi Dr. Chaim Brovender has lived in Jerusalem for the last 45 years as a Torah educator. He and his wife Miriam have six children and many grandchildren, but the size of his Torah family of students and colleagues is inestimable.
Rabbi Brovender was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1941, attended the Yeshivah of Flatbush, and learned with Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik at Yeshiva University before making aliyah in 1965. In 1974, he received his doctorate in Semitic languages from the Hebrew University. Of course, while working on his doctorate, this indefatigable teacher was teaching students who came to Israel to study at Hebrew University’s overseas program.
With the founding of Michlelet Bruria (later called Midreshet Lindenbaum), he revolutionized Orthodox women’s Torah study by introducing comprehensive Talmud study, being the first to open the beit midrash to women. Indeed, this popular women’s program for Torah study was always simply referred to as “Brovender’s” by its students. In a 2007 video tribute to Rav Brovender, Professor Tamar Ross discussed the significance of his founding of Michlelet Bruria. Still others remarked on the lack of hierarchy and pervasive spirit of collaboration that they felt while studying at this groundbreaking yeshiva.
Rav Brovender has always been a Zionist, fulfilled not only by making aliyah but also by proudly serving in the IDF. Rav Brovender served as a rav tzavai (army rabbi) for more than 20 years, retiring with the rank of seren (company commander). He also founded Yeshivat Hamivtar (located first in Jerusalem, then in Kiryat Moshe, and finally in Efrat). The yeshiva experienced its share of challenges but endured and thrived due in large part to the dedication and perseverance of Rav Brovender. In 2000, at the start of the second intifada, Rav Brovender was severely injured during an attack by a Palestinian mob that pulled him from his vehicle while he was driving back to Jerusalem from Efrat. The courageous Rabbi never dwelled on his injuries, only saying of his ordeal that he was part of Jewish history. His wife, Miriam, had to tell the full story: Rav Brovender was hospitalized for weeks and upon his discharge went directly from the hospital to officiate at a student’s wedding, showing his constant and total dedication to his students.
Rav Brovender is not only an educator but a “baal chesed” (a model of giving). I can recall seeing what seemed like an endless flow of people knocking on his door asking for financial help and Rav Brovender would unhesitatingly give to each person. Considering how modestly his family lived, it was abundantly clear how the Rabbi lived in accordance with his values and prioritized helping those in need above all else. He constantly modeled his values in the most humble of ways.
Incredibly, Rav Brovender has found time for other activities. He spent a year in Russia (1990-1991) as Rosh Yeshiva at the Makor Chaim yeshiva, and he has administered Keren Chaim veChesed as a charity fund to help the indigent and to support needy students who want to study. If you have been in the Rebbe’s basement you have seen that his intellectual commitments are as remarkably broad as they are deep.
Currently, Rav Brovender is the President of ATID (The Academy for Torah Initiatives and Directions in Jewish Education), which he founded in 1999. At ATID, he has been training Jewish educators to think more creatively and strategically about educational challenges and opportunities. He has always cared passionately about advancing the arts within Torah education, and ATID has been a wonderful platform to further this work as well.
In 2007, Rav Brovender and ATID launched the WebYeshiva, which is the world’s first fully-interactive Torah study program on the internet. WebYeshiva has registered more than 10,000 students to date. In addition to the standard English program, classes are offered in Hebrew, Italian, Spanish, Russian, and Polish; there are also classes for the hearing impaired (part of Rav Brovender’s inspiring commitment to make Torah accessible to all). Rav Brovender wanted “to give people the experience of an ‘event’ of learning,” to create a new kind of Torah study, not just taped lectures or online text, and he has been incredibly successful. The WebYeshiva program has had a great impact around the world, and is truly a revolutionary type of Torah education in which male and female students and teachers connect live via Webcam, with online interactive components. WebYeshiva offers four levels of Talmud study, a variety of courses offered on a semester basis, a Mastery in Halacha and Semicha Program, Torah tutoring, and a Hebrew ulpan for those planning on making aliyah, among other programs. In addition, with students from the United States, Israel, Europe and Australia, the courses need to be available at many different times, and Rav Brovender wakes up at 5 AM every morning to teach a Gemara shiur.
Yeshivat Hamivtar was the only adult beginners-advanced learning program for Modern Orthodox men in Israel. He pioneered this path and sadly today there is nothing remaining like it for post-college Modern Orthodox men looking to immerse in Torah learning. He filled a crucial gap in the Jewish world and inspired the creation of many other learning institutions.
Rav Brovender did not embrace the recent-emerging model of daas Torah (that a great Torah scholar held ultimate truth and all of their positions are binding upon us). He wrote in a Petach journal article in 1975: “Certainty is man’s quest but not his lot. Other than those matters where the Torah has determined a method for achieving a formal decision (halakha), any decision rests on man’s capacity to evaluate a particular situation.” This guiding principle has led Rav Brovender to combine the best of tradition and new learning in his teaching and beliefs. These ideas include:
1) It is crucial to live and learn in Israel. He was raised in a Zionist home and has been an ardent Zionist his entire life. His love for Israel has always emerged in his teaching and story-telling.
2) Women should have a critical intellectual Jewish education and should be engaged in learning Talmud. Rabbi Brovender was the first to establish a yeshiva where Orthodox women had the opportunity learn Talmud. He has often made the point that we can’t sustain a community where women can become neuroscientists, CEOs, and politicians, yet they are barred from advanced Torah study. His pioneering position and establishment of an inclusive yeshiva has earned him the respect of many Orthodox women. In a 2007 video tribute to Rav Brovender, women who had studied at Michlelet Bruria praised him for the opportunity that he had allowed on them, an opportunity that had not been available to their mothers and grandmothers.
3) To be a Jewish community leader one needs to learn Torah, but learning Torah doesn’t create leaders; one must engage in a more complex intellectual development process. Rav Brovender constantly stresses the importance of chiddush, novel creative thinking about Torah and his first answer to most questions that he is asked is “I don’t know.” His response isn’t due to a lack of knowledge or insight; rather, it bespeaks intellectual humility and an ability to think in a critical and nuanced manner. One prominent rabbi in Israel (a former student of the Rosh Yeshiva’s) shared with me: “I always sensed that Rabbi Brovender knew everything, but not once did I ever feel he was a know-it-all.” His style is irreverent yet also deeply reverent, traditional yet radically creative. It’s a Torah of complexity that blossoms and expands.
4) Humor is important and teachers should not be shy about using it. Rav Brovender is an entertainer, but as one student has said, the Rabbi has “never confused comedy with content.” Rav Brovender also brought a high level of seriousness and intensity to learning to and held students accountable in their learning. Among my years learning with the Rebbe, I spent many months in Rabbi Brovender’s morning Talmud class and I often left feeling both elated and humiliated. He challenges his students and at times you may feel inadequate when learning with him since praise doesn’t come easy. But I would also experience feelings of elation since I felt like he was aware of where we, as students, were at and he would be moving us forward in some ways that we couldn’t always comprehend or understand.
I recall an experience with Rav Brovender from my first Shabbat at Yeshivat Hamivtar. On Friday night a few dozen students gathered around Rav Brovender for a tisch, with singing and storytelling. I asked some bold questions, with great chutzpah, about women’s issues in Jewish law and I made clear to the Rabbi that I strongly supported women’s learning. Rav Brovender responded in a way I will never forget, setting a high bar for Torah scholarship that he took extremely seriously: “Shmuly, one needs to learn Torah full time for at least 20 years before they can have an opinion about Torah.” He had a way of pushing you away while pulling you closer. He was totally accessible while being inaccessible. The Rosh Yeshiva’s honest pursuit of Torah attracted a very eclectic group of students who wanted to follow his lead: You would find liberal Ivy League students combined with right-wing Israeli-born students, and Carlebach-style hippies learning together with rationalist introverts. The learning environment is inclusive and all grow under the great Rabbi’s tutelage. Rav Brovender never promoted one life path and accepted all students who sought to learn Torah. Each student is special even though he has many thousands. He probably ordained about 5-10 students each year for 20 years not to mention all those who pursued other avenues of leadership.
Another meaningful experience with Rabbi Brovender that I recall from my time as a student at Yeshivat Hamivtar, involved my struggle with whether or not to leave to go to graduate school for a year in the United States before returning to back to his yeshiva. I explained to Rav Brovender that I would need a student loan to return to the States and attend graduate school and then return back to yeshiva. Despite the fact that he had advised me to skip graduate school and stay in yeshiva, he offered me a loan to enable me to return to yeshiva on the spot.
I recall, the following year, picking him up at the airport in Boston when I was a graduate student there. Before teaching and getting settled for Shabbat, he wanted to visit an art museum, and I learned more about the arts from watching his passionate gaze that afternoon in the museum than I have ever learned from reading about and observing artwork on my own. Outwardly, he is a man of the black and white world in inwardly, he is a man of many colors. He lives with an awe for heaven and an awe for creation.
After my years learning with Rav Brovender, I told him that I was going to begin my rabbinic studies in New York. While my other revered teacher Rav Riskin had disagreed with my decision because of his belief that a Torah student could achieve much more studying in Israel than in New York, Rav Brovender’s opposition was of a different nature. He felt that very few American Jews were truly interested in big ideas. He felt that my learning in New York would be too intellectual and unnecessarily complex, and that American Jews enjoyed cholent, vodka, and singing; not learning about big challenging ideas. A rabbinical student should fully immerse in Talmud and halakhah and try to block out other distractions. This is of course not his complete view. You never have access to a full view of Rav Brovender’s perspective in one conversation, but with every aitzah (piece of advice) he gave, you knew there were many levels to the thought he expressed.
The Rosh Yeshiva was a sabra in the truest sense (often times prickly on the outside but always sweet on the inside). He was tough with you until he knew you were committed and then he still held you accountable but with more intimacy. On numerous occasions I observed Rav Brovender give mussar (rebuke) to his students, including myself. He believed that one should move away from self-importance and “just learn.” He didn’t have time for accolades. He once said that “to be humble is to sit in the back row because you’re just not interested in being seen. You’re focused on too important of things to be worried about public perception.” Rav Brovender himself never looks for public attention. He just wants to learn and teach. Even when he disagrees with someone, in public he would expound upon his or her merits and only gently state disagreement. For example, in this short clip, he respectfully shares his disagreements with Rabbi Meir Kahane.
Rav Brovender would open up his home to us for holidays and simchas. I fondly remember sitting in his family room many times – learning Torah, singing, and discussing Israeli society. While he remains a Modern Orthodox Jew and a religious Zionist Israeli, he is multi-dimensional. One of his many dimensions is his deep connection to the ultra-Orthodox community. He lives in a Haredi community in Jerusalem and he wears black and white with a black hat for prayer yet his relationships and commitments transcend any one type of community.
One of the touching stories in the Talmud about the relationship between a teacher and a student is between Elisha ben Avuha (Aher) and Rebbi Meir.
Our rabbis taught: It happened with Aher that he was riding on a horse on Shabbat and Rebbi Meir was running after him to learn Torah from his mouth. He said to him: Meir, return from running after me for I have measured the steps of my horse and at this point is the tehum of Shabbat, (Hagigah 15a).
Rabbi Elisha ben Avuha (Aher) had determined a new spiritual place for himself yet he was still deeply concerned about the boundaries and positions of his beloved student Rebbi Meir. Rabbi Brovender cannot be compared to Aher in the sense that Rabbi Brovender has always had an unswerving commitment to Jewish tradition. However, he is comparable in that he has learned to exist in his own spiritual place but to stand with his students where they stand. He “measures the steps” toward the boundary differently for each student. This is a beautiful virtue for a Torah teacher.
Rabbi Brovender understands that language is complex and people explain their religious viewpoints in very different ways. These different language styles and value choices are not cause for alienation but for deeper exploration. This position can be summed up well by Rabbi Abraham Isaac HaCohen Kook, the first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel.
There is denial that is like an affirmation of faith, and an affirmation of faith akin to denial. A person can affirm the doctrine of the Torah coming from “heaven,” but with the meaning of “heaven” so strange that nothing of true faith remains. And a person can deny Torah coming from “heaven” where the denial is based on what the person has absorbed of the meaning of “heaven” from people full of ludicrous thoughts. Such a person believes that the Torah comes from a source higher than that! Although that person may not have reached the point of truth, nonetheless this denial is to be considered akin to an affirmation of faith. “Torah from Heaven” is but an example for all affirmations of faith, regarding the relationship between their expression in language and their inner essence, the latter being the main desideratum of faith (Orot Ha’emunah, 25).
Rav Brovender has always been a very loyal, supportive, and principled leader. When I was in the midst of a major international boycott, I can recall Rav Brovender calling me to express his support for Orthodox public leadership in the promotion of righteousness and in never allowing scoundrels to hijack the Torah. He wrote a testimonial for the Uri L’Tzedek website expressing how important it was that Jewish law has an impact on society.
Learn more from Rav Brovender’s students’ experiences in this tribute video. You can learn his OU sessions on the Psalms, his Ask-the-Rabbi answers on Jerusalem Post, his YUTorah Online, and learn from his popular YouTube videos. Others have written about the important work of Rav Brovender:
His intellectual integrity and his commitment to teaching his students the skills to become independent scholars made him a Torah teacher par excellence. His philosophy also made him a natural leader for the most talented and intelligent Jews seeking access to the world of Jewish literacy and profound Jewish thought. Rabbi Brovender is an unlikely revolutionary. He is scholarly, witty and unassuming. His lack of pretension is legendary and disarming…
Rav Chaim Brovender often teaches a shiur on the Pirkei Avot (The Ethics of Our Fathers), and embodies its wonderful maxims, such as “Say little and do much” (1:15). He reminds us of the awesome responsibility that the residents of Jerusalem have to our Orthodox faith, and the magnificent way in which he fulfills that 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 … holidays anywhere, but not like 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…. They are kind of a showcase for the Jewish people.
I submit this with humility since I know that I have not succeeded at capturing a fraction of my admiration. I also write with trepidation since I know that the Rosh Yeshiva would not like the attention. Further my knowledge of his personality and deepest values is inadequate and I would never claim to truly know his complete personality and commitments. I nevertheless decided to write this because I have a lot of love for the Rabbi and I believe love transcends reason. Further the state of the Torah world has made me very sad as I continue to watch so much destructive, poor, and less thoughtful leadership hurt our community and I am on a mission to highlight all of the good and to inspire other towards Torah by showing the beautiful and powerful things happening. Further, I believe our community often waits too long to tell our teachers, leaders, and community what we think about them. We can do a better job at expressing our appreciation and of supporting what we think is good. Lastly, I am confident that thousands more students can be learning from Rav Brovender (or from his direct students teaching in his program) that are not and I want to help to highlight his solid program. I am so deeply sad that the incredible yeshiva he built for decades no longer exists and am pained whenever a student I have urged to learn in Israel finally is ready to make a choice among the current options.
Rabbi Brovender is a unique scholar, educator, and mentsch. He is a rebbe’s rebbe and a light among our people. I am incredibly fortunate to be his student. Rav Brovender taught me how sweet and deep Torah learning can be and for that I will forever be grateful. I hope many of his talmidim will share their stories of our teacher so we can be inspired by one another. May he live and teach for many decades to come!
Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Executive Director of the Valley Beit Midrash, the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz Institute and the author of “Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century.” Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America.”