TODAY’S fast-growing charedi community, particularly its male members, are in danger of becoming a community of clones.
But Rabbi Chanan Brill is determined to change that image and concentrate on individual fulfilment, rather than rigid conformity.
Rabbi Brill, who recently launched Project Tikun Olam, was born into a totally assimilated Jewish family in Chicago.
He told me: “I did not know what tephillin were. I didn’t have a barmitzvah.”
After graduating from Wisconsin University in journalism and advertising, aged 23, his parents funded a trip to Israel, which was due to end up with work on a secular kibbutz. Rabbi Brill never made it to the kibbutz. First, he went to an Aish HaTorah Discovery seminar in Jerusalem’s Old City.
“That is where I discovered what Jewish life was all about,” he said. “The seminar was very hard-hitting. At the end of a symposium, I was asked how I would summarise in one word what I got out of the seminar. I said, ‘convinced’.
“After the seminar, they asked me if I wanted to take some time off before starting the kibbutz and if there was anything they could do for me.
“I told them that I did not want to take time off and that there were two things they could do — cancel the secular kibbutz and get me a tutor to teach me ‘Aleph Bet’, so I could start learning.”
Rabbi Brill stayed at Aish HaTorah for four months.
He said: “Aish gave me the fundamentals of Judaism in a real way, taught me how to serve Hashem, what was the function of a Jew and how to get close to God.
“Aish founder Rabbi Noah Weinberg, who was a tremendous inspiration to me, emphasised kiruv (getting involved in outreach).”
But Rabbi Brill felt he was not yet ready to do outreach and needed to learn more.
He said: “I felt I couldn’t save the world without saving myself. I left Aish HaTorah and became more serious in my learning.”
After a short period in the Telshe Yeshiva, Chicago, he returned to Israel and studied at a yeshiva in Zichron Yaakov, where there were no distractions. After five years there, he went to a kollel in Jerusalem for another five years.
Then, married to his South African-born first wife, he went to an outreach kollel in Ra’anana, which catered to the wealthy Anglo-Saxon community there.
He also became outreach director of outreach organisation Arachim’s English division.
He first hit upon his current emphasis on individual fulfilment when he was preparing a speech for the barmitzvah of his eldest son.
He told me: “I was reading a book by the Slonim Rebbe, Netivot Shalom. It really shook me up and gave me a whole new perspective.
“The rabbi said that our primary purpose is to rectify ourselves. Even if someone has Torah and good deeds, a person can miss the boat. I had been frum for many years.
“A person can be frum and not really accomplish what they are here for if they are not in touch with their individuality.
“Getting in touch with one’s life mission is not something emphasised in the yeshiva world. A lot of people think that sitting and learning is going to bring them to their final mission.
“In yeshiva, they teach that the study of Torah is worth everything, that it is an end in itself, the greatest thing we can do.
“But Netivat Shalom said that the greatest thing is to fulfil our mission. I went to a great rabbi and asked how it was possible to reconcile the two things. He said that it was no contradiction. The Torah is the greatest influence in fulfilling our mission.”
Rabbi Brill gave seminars on the topic and produced CDs of spiritual songs, based on his message. He was accompanied on the CDs by four of his musical sons.
He said: “We have to work on finding out what our life’s mission is. We don’t have prophets any more. But that does not exclude us from the obligation to fulfil our mission.
“Hashem gave us each a specifically unique godly soul, tailor-made to accomplish something constructive in the world. We need to get in touch with that, to try to understand what Hashem wants and do it and bring it to fruition.
“My mission is to try to spread the word to encourage and assist people in finding their mission.”
But Rabbi Brill’s own mission was put on hold for some years because of marital problems. His ex-wife was from South Africa and wanted to return to her native land.
On rabbinic advice, Rabbi Brill returned with her and did some outreach work in South Africa. But the marriage could not be saved and they were divorced three years ago.
Five months ago, Rabbi Brill married London-born Feigy Stroh, now living in Salford, where the couple settled.
Rabbi Brill told me: “Feigy was very supportive of what I was doing. I wanted to be involved in outreach on some level to boys who had gone off.”
The couple began holding pizza, beer and music nights in their home. Then he was offered nearby premises to open a yeshiva with a difference.
Rabbi Brill said: “I wanted it to be laid back with no pressure, a yeshiva for people who want to come in and out as they wish, for people with very little inspiration and very little exposure to feel Yiddishkeit.
“All different types of people of all ages come and learn. It attracts anyone interested in enjoying a learning experience. I try to accommodate individual needs.
Torah learning is a catalyst to bring out a person’s potential. I try to inspire people who are not in the framework of learning Torah. I try to understand where they are coming from and their individual needs.”
His project is called Tikun Olam, which means repairing the world. He hopes that his yeshiva with a difference will become a model for other charedi institutions to allow more individuality into the lifestyle.