Arrivals: A mission-driven life in a mission-driven country

Sara Brandes, 37, from Los Angeles to Hanaton, 2014.

Sara Brandes lives on Kibbutz Hanaton with her husband, Hyim, and their children (photo credit: Courtesy)
Sara Brandes lives on Kibbutz Hanaton with her husband, Hyim, and their children
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Rabbi Sara Brandes is not a voice commonly heard.
She’s a liberal rabbi and a new immigrant. She works as a business intern at a café in Zichron Ya’acov, in preparation for opening the café of her dreams. She’s also a yogi, an author and a mystically inclined Jewish seeker.
Brandes describes her childhood as Jewishly identified but not especially Zionist.
A product of Jewish day schools, she grew up in a liberal Jewish family in Los Angeles, with grandparents who were very involved in the local Jewish federation. Many summers were spent at the pluralist Jewish Camp Alonim in Brandeis, California, which Brandes describes as “3,000 acres in Southern California that look like the Galilee.”
“Camp was my happy place,” recalls Brandes, “where we were doing good Jewish work, where I found meaning.”
Camp Alonim staff member Rabbi Aryeh Ben David planted an important seed for Brandes about her ultimate future in Israel. “If what you’re engaged in is the process of truly building intentional Jewish community, the place to do that is Israel,” he advised.
At 15, she came to Israel on an eightweek program for affiliated and unaffiliated teens from Los Angeles. The program, based in a youth village in Petah Tikva, included studying and touring, and one week was spent on a kibbutz, where Brandes, just 1.43 meters at the time, stood on a ladder and weeded date palms.
“It was really hard work. It was exactly as I expected. Hard work in the land, getting my hands dirty on a kibbutz,” she says.
After completing an undergraduate degree in religion at Emory University in Atlanta, Brandes returned to Israel to study at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem. Her time at Pardes overlapped with the second intifada.
She lost two friends, Marla Bennett and Ben Blutstein, in the Hebrew University bombing on July 31, 2002. A premonition kept Brandes and her future husband far from the scene of the terrorist attack.
Despite the associated tragedy, Brandes recalls that “Pardes completely shaped who I am and the way I see the story of my life. My husband and I got engaged while we were there.”
In addition to becoming engaged for marriage, she became engaged with halachic Judaism and with yoga.
“I started considering myself observant and practicing yoga at the same time.” She studied yoga with a redheaded dentist she’s “90 percent sure” was Scottish. He had a small room with just enough space for three students at a time. With great affection, she remembers the glowing warmth of his space heater, a treasure during the cold Jerusalem winter.
After her rabbinical ordination through the Jewish Theological Seminary, a program she wanted to drop out of “six times, once a semester for my first three years,” Brandes spent time in India. “I really value authenticity. It’s why I left America and why I live the life I do. I found authenticity in India.”
India was a great model of authenticity, but it wasn’t hers. “At the end of the day, I’m here [in Israel] because this place has entirely different spiritual resonance [than India has]. I’ve always been a seeker. I spent some time in India.
This is the place for me for sure.”
Brandes, who speaks Hebrew comfortably, moved with her husband, Hyim, and two young children to Kibbutz Hanaton in the North in September 2014. According to Brandes, there are about 50 communities in Israel that coexist under the principle “live and let live.”
The 80-plus families on Hanaton have a deeper goal, which Brandes captures with these words: “Human beings are diverse, and Judaism has evolved in a wide variety of ways, and the full expression of a vibrant Jewish community reflects that diversity.”
Kibbutz Hanaton is a workshop for conscious Jewish living. Everyone at Hanaton agrees to keep Shabbat in public spaces. There is only one synagogue on the kibbutz and it conducts a full, traditional prayer service with a full Torah reading. It’s also a fully egalitarian synagogue with no mehitza (divider between men and women).
Brandes is one of 10 rabbis in the community.
She serves on the synagogue’s governing board and helps run the communal prayer services.
“I feel completely that everything in my life has been bringing me here. All my life experiences until now have prepared me to be a member of this community,” she says.
Even being a fluent Hebrew speaker in an intentional Jewish community that resonates with her values isn’t enough to make the transition effortless. There is, according to Brandes, “definitely a cultural divide. We had always lived in Jerusalem. When we decided to make aliya, we knew we wanted to live in an Israeli community, with an Israeli culture.
I adore Israelis. There are so many aspects of Israeli culture that I love. The thing that has been the hardest was not something I expected.
“The Israeli relationship to order and chaos is so different from the American relationship to order and chaos. Also, Israelis value democracy very highly.
The kibbutz legacy for consensus-based democracy is challenging. There is no American-style leadership, because there’s such a deep value for the collective and consensus. Here, really major decisions are made by consensus, by majority vote,” she explains, so it’s challenging to understand how to get things done.
Asked what advice she has for liberal Jews considering making aliya, Brandes is encouraging. “There are small but growing liberal communities in Israel.
The Jewish people have a historic connection to this place that transcends the rational. It’s visceral and it’s real, even if it doesn’t make sense.
“At the end of the day, Judaism has a message, the Torah has a vision for how to build a just society, and this is where we’re trying to do it again. There’s a basic value for creating a just society, where human beings can live joyfully. We’re creating that here in Israel.”
In 2015, Brandes published a small book about her journey in life so far.
“I never intended to write the book. It was just a celebration of the first year of being here. Many thousands of dollars and resources were spent sharpening my rational mind. With that brain in my head, everything about being here transcends the rational. The book is a celebration of how glorious it is to be here, even with the painful chapters.”
In the book, one finds Brandes’s most compelling articulation of her need to live in Israel.
“The Torah makes no secret about life in the Land of Israel. Blessed, sacred, flowing with milk and honey, she is also a land that ‘devours her inhabitants.’ In this move, I take my young, beautiful family into the eye of the storm, and I pray for the Shechinah’s help and protection. But, as a Jew, if I am to merit a home of my own, it is my turn to do my part. I live my Zionism by walking the land, engaging in commerce, voting and living. More important, I bring my nerves – not yet frayed – and my patience to a culture that has had its worn down. I bring the conviction that my home will be a good and just one. And, I pray. I pray that in the coming years, I will do my tiny part to bring healing to the wounded Middle East and peace to our land.” 
Magical World: Stories, Reflections, Poems by Rabbi Sara Brandes is available on and, and at Olam Qatan in Jerusalem.