Tzohar, YU aim to create 200 independent congregations here within 10 years

Goal is to change interactions with rabbis from a "cold, indifferent, experience to an empowering one."

minyan prayer 248.88 jta (photo credit: Ben Harris / JTA)
minyan prayer 248.88 jta
(photo credit: Ben Harris / JTA)
New York's Yeshiva University and the Israeli rabbinic group Tzohar are teaming up to create a network of independent Orthodox communities in Israel focused on outreach and education for Jews from all walks of life. At a Shabbat gathering last weekend in Jerusalem, YU's Center for the Jewish Future (CJF) met with some 40 rabbis and lay leaders of several synagogues that receive no government funding to discuss ways of transforming them into "spiritual community centers," explains CJF head Rabbi Kenneth Brander. Brander, who flew in for the weekend to attend the conference, explained that the initiative comes after a number of Tzohar rabbis visited American Jewish communities three years ago and experienced the effect a self-organized, spiritual community can have on its members - particularly in contrast to the state-appointed rabbis and government-funded synagogues most Israelis shy from. Tzohar is an Orthodox rabbinic organization seeking to bridge the religious-secular divide in Israeli society. "Tzohar is the senior partner in this, but we're going to help them develop it," explains Brander. "They have established communities around Israel where the rabbis are funded by the kehilla [community]. It's no longer a bureaucratic, cold, indifferent, challenging experience to interact with a rabbi, but an empowering one. "There's a real opportunity here," he continues. "People [in Israel] are frustrated with the fact that there are not healthy ways to have conversations on one's Jewish roots or Jewish soul because people feel that the rabbis are bureaucrats." Brander is careful to note that YU is playing an advisory role, "not bringing Torah to Israel, but bringing our expertise in how to shape communities, something we have experience [with] in America." In the American Jewish community, a community is created at the initiative of its members, and has to provide them with a reason to be involved, Brander says. That experience, "how to develop not just a synagogue for prayer, but a place where the rabbi can be a personal role model and someone who interacts with the personal and spiritual needs of the community," is what YU can bring to the table. In June, the CJF will bring business professors who have worked on development and growth strategies for American Jewish communities to another meeting with the Tzohar rabbis and lay leaders, Brander says. "Imagine if in various communities, not just the 20 [Tzohar-led communities currently running], but in 100 communities, you had religious Jews learning with secular Jews, and a rabbi who wasn't seen as belonging to 'the religious,' but to everybody, who could engage the larger community. "If Tzohar can create 20 new communities a year over the next 10 years - that is their goal - you can change the face of Israel."