For over 50 years Rabbi Brovender has has taught thousands of students from all around the world. This week we introduce you to Rabbi Yehudah Potok, who has worked in a variety of Jewish educational settings such as camps, congregational schools, and day schools, including serving as head of school for the past twelve years. He is currently the Director of the Jewish Education Program at Facing History and Ourselves, where he leads the organizational efforts in Jewish educational settings. Rabbi Potok lives in Silver Spring, MD, with his wife and children.
How did you meet Rabbi Brovender?
I still remember the very first time that I met Rabbi Brovender. It was at my high school and he was conducting the interviews for seniors for admission to Hamivtar, testing us on what we had learned that year. Needless to say, by the time I finished reading and explaining a particular sugya for him, in his very straight forward, no-holds back Rabbi Brovender way, he let me know that I need to focus more on chazarah.
What do you find most important or striking about the “Brovender Method” – his unique way of teaching?
Rabbi Brovender would always ask, in his Rabbi Brovender way, “But what’s the pshat?” Rather than trying to do somersaults to figure out the meaning of a text, he wanted us to look at the most straightforward approach. Breaking things down into simple structures that can easily be visualized rather than intellectualized and being precise about translations taught me the skills for life-long learning. Rabbi Brovender showed me that learning is about the zitsfleish of sitting down with a text and a dictionary and struggling with it until you can make heads or tails out of it. But most importantly, Rabbi Brovender taught me that our Jewish library is not a bunch of words that simply sit on a black and white page. Rather it is a living breathing tradition, an ongoing conversation between generations.
When it comes to Torah learning, what were you most drawn to after learning with Rabbi Brovender?
I loved learning Chassidut with Rabbi Brovender. There was a time when I was in Yeshiva when a handful of bachurim wanted to learn Tanya with him. Rabbi Brovender of course offered this opportunity and this was a time that I cherished, learning in a small group with our Rosh Yeshiva.
This small “book group” eventually developed into a Yeshiva trip to Eastern Europe, an opportunity to learn Chassidut in the very places where the great Chassidic Rebbes had taught their ideas. He told us if we put the trip together, he would be ready to teach the Chassidic teachings in each place we visited. And so it was, we organized everything and headed out to Ukraine for over a week with our Rosh Yeshiva.
This informal time with our Rabbi Brovender, outside the walls of the beit midrash, was incredible! He shared with us not only Chassidic teachings but things about his own life experiences. We stayed up late into the nights learning and talking, discussing topics of all stripes from the nature of the human soul to the tension of Judaism and modernity.
I will never forget that time that he gave us, away from his family, in order to share his Torah insights with us.
What lesson or specific Torah that you learned from Rabbi Brovender, do you keep coming back to or carry with you wherever you go?
A lesson from Rabbi Brovender that I try to remind myself of all the time is not to take myself too seriously but to take the work that Hashem has put us here in this world to do very seriously.
Instead of getting caught up in the drama of life, I am able to laugh at myself and find joy in the world, recognizing the blessings that Hashem has given me. In this way, I will be able to direct more of my energies to observance of the mitzvot, especially spending time learning Torah.