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By: Pnina Souid

The story of Rabbi Yosef Braha and the Memphis Kollel

What motivated a young man who grew up in the Brooklyn-based Syrian community to leave his familiar surroundings and head south – and not just south to Lakewood or Baltimore, but to Memphis, Tennessee?

Rabbi Yosef Braha’s most unusual journey actually began in Monsey, where he spent his early years until, when he was in sixth grade, his family moved to Flatbush and he enrolled in Yeshivat Ateret Torah. Upon graduating from Ateret, Yosef joined the Chofetz Chaim high school in Brooklyn with just one other Syrian boy. He would later become a mentor to other community boys in Chofetz Chaim. Rabbi Braha spent one year after high school in the Beit Medrash of the Chofetz Chaim Yeshiva in Milwaukee (WITS), and then returned to New York to learn in the Chofetz Chaim Yeshiva in Queens. He continued learning as a kollel student after marrying, and eventually received semicha (rabbinic ordination) from Chofetz Chaim.

During his yeshiva years, Rabbi Braha became inspired to use his knowledge and passion for Torah to help build the future of the Jewish People. This work began shortly after he received semicha, when Rabbi Braha taught at Tiferet Torah, a Bukharian high school for boys in Queens, and delivered classes throughout Queens and Great Neck.

For many young, idealistic rabbis, this would be very gratifying. But for Rabbi Braha, it wasn’t enough. He longed to do something special and different; something that wouldn’t be happening if he weren’t doing it.

This desire led Rabbi Braha to accept an invitation he received, along with several others, to a meeting on June 21, 2016 at Yeshivat Chofetz Chaim in New York with members of the Memphis community to discuss that community’s efforts to form a kollel. He recalls that he and his now co-Rosh Kollel, Rabbi Shmuel Fromowitz, “could not even begin to imagine relocating our families from Queens to Memphis on such short notice. Out of a sense of intrigue, we attended the meeting nonetheless.”

That meeting proved to be, quite literally, life-altering.

“After hearing the group’s presentation, we were energized by the mission. We left that meeting no longer asking ourselves, ‘How can we possibly relocate to Memphis?’ and instead asking ourselves, ‘How can we possibly not?’”

Sure enough, Rabbi Braha, his wife, and his infant son, along with three other rabbis and their families, moved to Memphis on November 1st, 2016 to found the Memphis Kollel.

Believing in the Power of Torah

Rabbis Braha and Fromowitz have succeeded in creating an environment in which young, promising scholars can learn and grow to maximize their personal potential, but also where the broader Memphis community turns to for Torah study and inspiration. The Memphis Kollel, which currently consists of five families, provides learning opportunities that engage men, women, and children from all parts of the community, people of all different ages, at all different stages in life, and of all different levels of knowledge and observance.

Speaking with Community Magazine, Rabbi Braha describes with great enthusiasm the instrumental role his Brooklyn roots have played in his choosing the path of Torah leadership:

“I’ll be honest, a tremendous inspiration for the vision of creating a community in which Torah learning and spiritual growth are prioritized was growing up surrounded by the Syrian community. Seeing the explosion of Torah learning in the batei knesiyot [synagogues] and seeing how that has translated into elevated Torah living for so many has been a major motivating force in my life. Seeing people, regular people, who put in long hard days in the office, people who have family and community obligations each and every day, carving out time to learn and to come to shul to pray is what energizes me to motivate people to come to the beit medrash, to come to a class, to come to a shiur. The depths to which I believe in the power of Torah to uplift a community are because I have seen it work in the Syrian community.” 

Rabbi Braha also shared his warm feelings of gratitude to the community for the considerable assistance it lent towards this project.

“The help that we have received from the Syrian community has been extraordinary. When we decided to launch the kollel, despite there being a group of committed leaders of the Memphis community who donated generously to help get us started, there was still fundraising we had to do from outside of Memphis. A number of members of the Syrian community really opened up their hearts to help us get started, and still to this day we fund our operations and growth with generous gifts from the Syrian community. I can tell you it is not just motivating for me personally to know that the community that I grew up in values the work I am doing, but it energizes our kollel’s lay leadership, as well. Knowing that people whom they have never met and who have never stepped foot in Memphis believe in the power of Torah enough to support its growth in the Memphis community that they love, inspires them to not only support us financially, but to find time in their own lives for more Torah study.”

Rabbi Braha related that over the summer, a member of the Memphis community, inspired by the difference he felt the kollel was making in Memphis, anonymously pledged $100,000 to the kollel if they could match it with new funds from outside their current committed group of founders. The kollel knew that reaching that figure would be extremely difficult, and so Rabbi Braha reached out to someone from the Syrian community who immediately committed $10,000 to get the ball rolling. That initial donation spurred many local supporters to push beyond their comfort zones to help the kollel reach their target sum (which was eventually exceeded by $25,000).

From the Basketball Court to the Bet Midrash

Memphis already boasts three Orthodox synagogues – Young Israel, Baron Hirsh, and Anshei Sfard – and an Orthodox day school, but the addition of a kollel has given the town a shot of spiritual energy that is being felt by all.

“The Memphis community is in many ways similar to the Syrian community,” Rabbi Braha describes. “It is very tightly knit. No matter what a person’s level of observance, the feeling of connection is always there. The feeling that we are part of one community transcends any difference in personal practice. This connection makes every little step towards a more committed Jewish life by any single individual elevate not just that person’s own immediate family, but the entire community as a whole.” 

As an example, Rabbi Braha relates that the kollel just began a weekly learning program that packs the beautiful, new bet midrash in the local school. On the first night of the program, a high school boy wandered into bet midrash straight from the basketball court where he had been practicing. The boy looked around in amazement and exclaimed, “Wow! What’s going on? What are all these people doing here!?! They are just here to learn?” After regaining his composure, he thought and said, “This is the way it should be!” Without even realizing it, everyone in the room had provided this boy with an amazing lesson about the importance of Torah.

Each year, Memphis hosts the Cooper Tournament, a Jewish high school basketball competition that brings the basketball teams of 16 schools from all over the country to Memphis for a weekend. Magen David and Flatbush Yeshiva are frequent attendees (both winners in this year’s Tier 1 and Tier 2 championships, respectively), and each year, Rabbi Braha and his wife host the Magen David team for a spirited Friday night meal – an exciting annual event which the rabbi says has become one of the highlights of his year. The boys enjoy a piece of home “out of town” and join together for divreh Torah and lively singing of pizmonim(hymns).

“It is a real shock to these boys to see someone who grew up in the Syrian community out in Memphis to help spread Torah,” Rabbi Braha muses. “Many of them have no framework to understand what living out of Brooklyn is like. Last year one boy asked, ‘About how many Sepharadim are there in Memphis?’ I told him there are about ten or 15. The boy said, ‘Oh, nice! Ten to 15 minyanim? That’s not bad!’ I still laugh when I remember the look on his face when I told him, ‘No! Ten to 15 people!’”

Rabbi Braha also stressed the immense gratitude he feels towards his amazing wife, Sarah Tovah, for joining him on this journey.

 “Being away from family can be difficult. The responsibilities that my wife shoulders are enormous. Yet, it is her support and encouragement that makes this a possibility. All of our wives are partners in the kollel’s mission. Any hatzlachah [success] we see is because of their dedication.”

Generally, he says, the Sepharadim in Memphis pray in the various shuls. Each year during Elul, however, Congregation Anshei Sfard (which prays following the Ashkenazic “Nusah Sefard” tradition, not the Sephardic tradition) hosts a special minyan for the Sephardic Selihot that Rabbi Braha leads.

Far from their familiar territory, the sweet sounds of Syrian song have a home in Memphis, Tennessee, and are playing a vital role in the revitalization of Torah life in a burgeoning Orthodox community down South.