Will Richard Joel — elected Dec. 5 as Yeshiva University’s (YU) new president — redirect the flagship institution of modern Orthodoxy from its rightward move of the past several decades back toward the center?
That’s a question being asked in the halls of YU and throughout the community at the culmination of a long and difficult search process for a successor to Dr. Norman Lamm, who has guided the institution since 1976.
During that time, the level of talmudic instruction, and learning, at YU has risen dramatically. At the same time, though, the school’s role as a bridge between the Orthodox world and the rest of the Jewish community has diminished as YU focused inward.
Now, in a religious environment that has become more polarized, much of the future of modern Orthodoxy depends on the path taken by the new president. It is a moment ripe with religious and sociological import.
While it is too early for answers, it appears that Joel, 52, who for the past 14 years has served as president and international director of Hillel, the Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, will seek to make YU a more open, tolerant and spirited school, albeit gradually, with a renewed vision of academic excellence.
Joel said his skills for the new posts include “taking institutions where people look askance at my capacities, and being able to empower them.
“Ultimately,” he added in an interview this week, “the success of the president of the institution will not be based on how I shine but on how others shine, and I am pretty good at lighting Chanukah lights.”
Joel’s background and views have emphasized inclusion, dialogue and creative tension in his Hillel work, dealing with all stripes of religious and secular Jews. That makes some on the right of the religious spectrum at YU nervous, if not fearful, while pleasing those who believe YU’s mission of synthesis between Torah and secular studies has been expropriated by the rabbinic faculty.
Joel had spent much of the time leading up to the election in New York, meeting individually and in groups with key faculty, students and lay leaders of YU, outlining his goals and seeking to assuage the fears of those who worry that he lacks rabbinic credentials, or is too liberal, or both.
His message has been less about religious politics and more about raising academic standards, paying more attention to the needs of students, and unifying the many strands of YU, consisting of undergraduate and graduate schools, including the Albert Einstein Medical School and the Benjamin Cardozo Law School. He has said that his hashkafah (religious outlook), was formed by Lamm, who has written extensively about the values of modern Orthodoxy.
Joel becomes the first YU president who is neither a rabbinic nor academic scholar. His lack of rabbinic authority was a major point of contention with some affiliated with the rabbinic school, the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary (RIETS).
Two of the rabbis, Michael Rosensweig and Mayer Twersky, were invited by RIETS chairman Julius Berman to address the RIETS board, made up of more than 40 people, before the vote last Thursday evening. (The meeting took place after the board of trustees of YU elected Joel by a vote of 30-2.) The rabbis offered impassioned speeches as to why YU should be led by a rabbinic scholar, and voiced concern that YU could become a more secular school, like Brandeis University or Bar-Ilan in Israel.
Yet Joel seems undaunted by the fact that some of the faculty and lay leaders at YU’s rabbinical school opposed his becoming chief executive officer of RIETS. “I am just filled with yir’ah [awe], and I am grateful to the ribbono shel olam [Master of the Universe] to be worthy of such a position,” Joel told the campus newspaper, Commentator, after the vote. “I’m thrilled to lead this wonderful team, to keep building something special.”
Some rabbis were strongly resisting the break in YU tradition of having a Talmudic scholar and academic intellectual at the helm of the institution. They also opposed separating the positions of president of the university, CEO of RIETS and rosh yeshiva (head of the yeshiva) of RIETS.
In past meetings with Joel, which were described as tense and difficult, some of the rabbinic faculty voiced deep concerns and predicted that splitting the leadership of RIETS and the university would spell doom for YU.
Others dismissed their complaints as overly worrisome and reflective of the wide gap between the rabbis and the rest of the university.
Some observers say that Joel, a reluctant candidate who has said he was perfectly happy with his tenure at Hillel, had become increasingly interested in the YU post because he feels he could breathe fresh life into the institution.
Joel is only the fourth president in YU’s long history; founded in 1897, it became a college in 1928. He will assume the position in spring.
The Joel candidacy did not come about easily. Over the last 20 months as candidates and potential candidates have been named, withdrawn, discouraged or discarded, it became increasingly clear that no one individual was suitable to fit the Lamm mold of Torah and academic scholar, with additional skills as an administrator and fundraiser comfortable with people.
In wooing Joel over the last several weeks, the lay leadership of the school either lowered the bar or came to grips with reality, depending on one’s point of view.
Leaders said they came to agree that their first goal was to find the best possible person to head — and drive — YU, rather than a spokesman or academic model for modern Orthodoxy.
In interviews with key lay and professional leaders of YU and Hillel, and other parts of the community, the portrait that emerges of Joel is one of a committed and passionate leader who excels at inspiring a sense of teamwork and pride in students and faculty.
“Richard is never content with mediocrity, and that’s a wonderful quality,” said Steven Bayme, national director of Contemporary Jewish Life for the American Jewish Committee, who has known Joel since they were both working at YU in the mid-1970s. Bayme taught history at the time and Joel was director of alumni affairs.
“His track record at Hillel is encouraging,” Bayme said, “in that he turned it around, infused it with spirit and was a superb manager of people. He also had a magnetic effect on leading philanthropists, a key ingredient for a successful university president.”
Joel’s challenges, insiders say, will include providing greater balance within the school, strengthening the secular faculty and restoring ideological vibrancy to modern Orthodoxy and its belief in the importance of living in two worlds.
This is certain to create tension among some of the rabbis and their students, as YU and its student body have been perceived as moving closer to the more authoritarian form of Orthodoxy in recent years on issues like the status of women, attitudes toward non-Orthodox Jews and encountering modernity.
Partly as a result of this shift, Rabbi Saul Berman and others founded the organization Edah in the past five years, with the slogan “the courage to be modern and Orthodox”; Joel has been associated with the organization. A new Orthodox rabbinical school, Chovevei Torah, was created in Manhattan by Rabbi Avi Weiss, seeking a similar mission of encouraging open intellectual inquiry and expression in a halachic framework.
These institutions probably would not have been formed had YU maintained the direction it took prior to the illness and death of Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik (known simply as The Rav), who was the intellectual leader of the modern Orthodox movement and who espoused the values of secular and religious studies.
In practical terms, Edah is seen as a threat to YU by the RIETS faculty, and there was much discussion on campus in recent days as to where Joel, whose temperament and ideology seem aligned with Edah, would stand on the organization and its goals. Joel reportedly told the RIETS that he would disassociate himself from any organization RIETS objects to.
In the interim, Lamm will stay on as rosh yeshiva. Widely respected for his religious and secular scholarship, Lamm has enjoyed a long tenure that will be remembered most for his saving YU from financial bankruptcy in his first days at the helm and increasing its endowment from $8 million to holdings worth about $1.4 billion.
During his presidency, enrollment at YU and Stern College doubled, and he became a voice of moderation in the religious wars that were waged, within YU and throughout the Jewish world, on issues ranging from homosexuality to the question of who is a Jew.
Even critics would admit that Lamm has overseen tremendous growth at YU, while even supporters would acknowledge that he has paid less attention to internal and administrative problems in recent years and tolerated the move to the right among the rabbis. According to Bayme, YU, like modern Orthodoxy itself, has become “institutionally vibrant and ideologically weak,” noting that while synagogues and schools are flourishing, the growth has come at the expense of allowing “the dominant voices” to come from “the more ultra-Orthodox” segments.
That is why the machinations at YU are being watched so closely recently in many segments of the Jewish community as the school’s forces of tradition and modernity — once said to be in synthesis — struggle for its future.