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Kolbrener Ha Modia

Kolbrener Ha Modia

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Published by William Kolbrener

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Published by: William Kolbrener on Apr 06, 2011
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 March 30, 2011
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FEATURE IA World of Kiruv
The Story of 
Dr. WilliamKolbrener,
Professor of English Literatureat Bar-Ilan University
BY ESTHER PERKAL
“On the living room mantel above the fireplace, stood aframed, yellowing portrait of a religious man with a salt-and-pepper beard, tall black yarmulke and kind eyes.Eyes that radiated truth and serenity, eyes that exuded profound depth and inspiration. It was the portrait of mygreat-grandfather, Velvel Blumstein, Hy”d, a devout Gerrer chassid from Govorova, Poland. He was clearly apious man, a man who lived and breathed his religiousideals, yet despite our blood relationship, he was asforeign to me as the faith he loved and observed.” 
(Right) Dr. Kolbrener lecturing in theEnglish Department at Bar Ilan University, Israel.(Above, in frame) Dr. Kolbrenner's maternalgreat-grandfather, Velvel Blumstein.
Feature 033011 p26-31 Kiruv.qxd 3/23/2011 2:25 PM Page 26
 
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24Adar II 5771
27
D
R. WILLIAM KOLBRENER,
athird-generation American, wasborn in 1961 and raised inRoslyn, Long Island, in the lovingembrace of a warm, close-knit family thatplaced strong emphasis on education,values and ethics. The Kolbreners weremembers of their local Reform temple,where young William attended Hebrewschool regularly but was constantly irkedby the lack of meaning and connection inwhat he learned.He recalls attending a baseball gameas a youngster and being the object of anti-Semitic slurs, wondering why hisJewishness meant more to those hate-filled gentiles than it did to him. Heremembers learning about the holiday of Sukkos in September, noticing one of those wooden huts as he strolled throughthe neighborhood and feelingthat it belonged in a museum.No one he asked could explainthe purpose or meaning of the
sukkah
; in fact, they did notevince any connection to thecommandments at all.In his late adolescence,William stumbled upon a
Sefer Zichronot 
about various Jewish communities thatwere annihilated during the Holocaust. Itwas in this memorial book that helearned of his rich familial history inGovorova, Poland, and discovered anarticle about his great-grandfather andnamesake, Velvel Zev Blumstein.Suddenly, the face on the living-roommantel that so resembled his ownacquired character, was transformed intoa living, breathing soul with a vividhistory and qualities to emulate. It wasthis article that first sparked William’sconnection to his roots, a connection thatwould develop and grow strong in theyears to come.William graduated high school andleft his suburban Long Island hometownfor Manhattan’s Columbia University,where he delved into language arts andliterature and met Leslie, the woman whobecame his wife. As undergraduates, thecouple found themselves exploringpolitical, philosophical and literarytraditions that served as invaluable toolson an extended journey that would leadthem back to their heritage.In 1982, William joined Crossroads, amini-Peace Corps outfit that sent him ona summertime adventure to West Africato mark future archaeological digs inMali. He recalls his experience inTimbuktu as similar to that of the Jewswho had sojourned forty years in thedesert, affording him endless hours to
(Left) Dr. Kolbrenerin formal attire forhis Oxford Finals,1985.(Below) Dr.Kolbrener in Maliwith its DeputyMinister of Culture,
 
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 March 30, 2011
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reflect on who he was and what he couldbecome. Although this experience did notculminate in his acceptance of Torah, itwas another step in the right direction, agolden opportunity to look outside himself and focus on his past, present and future.After graduating from Columbia,Kolbrener enrolled in Oxford University inEngland to pursue a master’s degree. Hespent the next two years studying andworking on what would later turn into hisdoctoral dissertation on John Milton, thegreat English poet. To enhance his grasp of Milton, Kolbrener found himself studyingreligion and acquiring expertise in beliefsthat, ironically, were not his own. Helearned that the focus of Catholicism wastradition and ritual, whereasProtestantism was individualistic. Quiteoften he mused that if only there were afaith that combined the two approaches.
Coming Home
Returning to Columbia to work on hisdoctorate, Kolbrener befriended ShlomoFelberbaum, a classics student whostudied part time in Yeshivah ChaimBerlin and who introduced the Kolbrenersto Orthodox life. Another individual whoindirectly inspired him to learn moreabout his faith was an enigmaticuniversity professor whom he admired.One Shabbos morning Kolbrener followedthe professor off campus, where he lived,and watched wide-eyed as he entered asynagogue. Kolbrener was stunned that aman of such brilliance and stature wasalso an observant Jew.In the months that followed, theKolbreners read voraciously and began toembrace their Judaism. “Some connectthrough experience while others connectthrough intellect,” Dr. Kolbrener saysabout his gradual progression to full
mitzvah
observance. “My wife and I wereboth raised in loving, nurturing families. Itwasn’t the
mitzvah
tanks or Shabbos mealsthat drew us close but rather the intellect,the recognition of Judaism’s innatemeaning and connections.”As Kolbrener took overt steps toward
mitzvah
observance, he drew skepticallooks and cynical remarks from colleaguesand friends at the university. A significantmajority of Columbia’s EnglishDepartment — both professors andstudents — were Jewish, and theatmosphere was one of pluralism,multiculturalism and tolerance. Still,paradoxically, one who chose to embracean ancient heritage with Medievalpractices earned scorn. “You’re taking theeasy way out,” many of them said.Kolbrener replied earnestly, “I’m notturning to religion for answers, but to geta better sense of what the questions reallyare.” This insight sustained himthroughout that turbulent year and stillreinforces his approach to students’questions.In 1991, Kolbrener was awarded a two-year fellowship at Jerusalem’s HebrewUniversity, which allowed him to completehis dissertation and begin intensive Torahstudy. The young Kolbreners, by thenproud parents of baby Elisheva, moved toRechavia and eventually settled in BayitVegan. Dr. Kolbrener spent his morningswriting at the university and hisafternoons studying in Yeshivat Hamivtar in Efrat. In amusement, he recalls sitting
 
Above:A poster advertising Dr. Kolbrener’s lecture ‘From Athens toJerusalem,’ which he gives on Ivy League campuses.
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