December 13, 2018

Family legacy continues at Yeshiva, times five: A story of Modern Orthodoxy in America

Two columns of Yeshiva University graduates — one of young women, in blow-outs and stilettos; and one of young men, the knots of their skinny ties peeking out above their robes — filed into Prudential Center, home arena of the New Jersey Devils, on May 17. They whooped and hooted, smiled in mock surprise, waved to their parents in the stands, pumped fists, blew kisses. A cameraman panned across their faces, live-streaming the entry march onto a Jumbotron hanging from the rafters.

The graduates, a few hundred of them, stood through a cantor-style rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” — hands on hearts, eyes on a pair of intertwined American and Israeli flags at stage left — then took their seats, already restless.

Selma Botman, the school’s provost, stepped to the podium. “The invocation will be given by Rabbi Joseph Schreiber, principal of Judaic Studies at YULA Boys High School, Los Angeles, California,” she announced.

Botman suppressed a grin as she continued: “With eight Yeshiva University degrees in their extended family already, Rabbi Schreiber and his wife, Robin, have celebrated many Yeshiva University graduations. But this year, they take the cake. All three of the couple’s triplets and two of the triplets’ spouses are receiving their undergraduate degrees today.”

The small audience in the bleachers — dwarfed by the Devils’ arena, but noisier than its number — broke into applause. “That’s a lot of kids!” one dad whispered to his wife.

Many knew this was coming: There had been ample buzz about the Schreibers’ quintuple graduation in the days leading up to the ceremony. Besides, as the Journal would be told many times on graduation day: Everyone knows everyone at Yeshiva U.

A few days later, at a kosher pizza parlor on the YU men’s campus, various employees and patrons who spoke to the Journal said they were friends with the Schreiber triplets — and even those who didn’t know them personally at least knew of them. “Yeah, the big, blond guys, right?” one freshman put it.

Two of the 22-year-old, Sherman Oaks-raised triplets, Nathaniel and Daniel, are nearly identical: tall, burly, with a thicket of reddish-blond hair. “Daniel’s the more outgoing one,” said a friend at the pizza parlor. The boys got their degrees from Yeshiva University’s Sy Syms School of Business, along with their sister and third triplet, Elisheva Schreiber-Nunberg, and her husband, Naftali Nunberg. Elisheva has her brothers’ goofy smile and big charisma, but stands a head shorter and wears a chocolate-brown wig — much like her best friend and sister-in-law Sara Schechter-Schreiber, a psychology major married to Nathaniel.

“Sara doesn’t remember, but I met her before [Nathaniel did],” Elisheva told the Journal in the wet New Jersey heat outside Prudential Center after graduation, between rounds of congratulations from extended family and classmates. Elisheva became closer with Sara after she starting dating Nathaniel — and now, she said, “I have a sister.” Elisheva’s husband, Naftali, is similarly close with her brothers, whom Naftali met in the dorms. They introduced him to his future wife at a school barbecue. 

In fact, Nathaniel and Elisheva met their spouses at YU barbecues — locked eyes, felt the spark, as they tell it, and got engaged within a year. Their big brother, Akiva Schreiber, a YU alumni who graduated a couple of years earlier, met his wife on campus, too.

The only Schreiber sibling left single after making it through YU is Daniel. “The couple shuttle didn’t come for me,” he joked, turning a little red.

The Yeshiva University shuttle that runs between the all-men’s campus at the top of Manhattan and its all-women’s campus in Midtown is widely referred to as the “shidduch shuttle” — the Hebrew word for Jewish matchmaking. 

“There should be socialization and opportunities for young men and women to get together, and we make sure that’s possible,” Rabbi Kenneth Brander, YU’s vice president for university and community life, said in an interview. “It’s something we’re proud of. We don’t set them up — we’re not setting them up to get married — but if you have the same common goals, you’re going to meet people. By nature there’s a common narrative there of what they’re interested in.”

Even though he didn’t find a wife at YU, Daniel Schreiber is glad to be surrounded by a network of friends and alumni that will insulate him well into the working world. “We all became very close,” he said. “We’re all Modern Orthodox — we’re all basically in the same boat.”

If five members of the same family sharing a commencement make the Schreiber clan special, it is the deep, abiding sense of community that sets apart YU. Nearly every speaker at YU’s 2015 graduation ceremony noted its tight-knit network of roughly 7,000 students, and family members, administrators and alumni.

One of the day’s most high-profile cameos was by Ruth Wisse, a longtime literature professor at Harvard and frequent defender of Israel in the media. In her commencement speech to the YU grads, she warned students not to take their university’s support system for granted. “I’d like to take this opportunity to tell you how very fortunate I think you are to be part of this academic community, and why I hope for your sake that you appreciate its advantages.”

Wisse told a story about an outstanding non-Jewish student of hers at Harvard who, after completing her course on Zionist literature, expressed his envy of the Jewish people’s historical togetherness — “This kind of belonging,” she said, “that had played a major role in the literature we were reading by Moses Hess, George Elliot, Herzl, Bialik, Brenner. The literature of the struggle of Jews to reclaim their own land.”

Wisse said of her student: “What many of the Jews in this course, the writers, had experienced as very burdensome, he seemed to think was an amazing gift. Jewish moral ideals were embedded in a firm, familial and national identity. The Jewish people had so much of what he thought he lacked.”

YU valedictorian Mark Weingarten, too, in a rousing speech that felt half-politician, half-rabbi, said he had declined his acceptance letter to Harvard in favor of attending Yeshiva University. “I chose to give up what for the average student is America’s greatest honor, for reasons that to many seem ludicrous — to study in the halls of Yeshiva,” he said, to thick applause. “An institution where mentors and peers quietly pursue a timeless treasure — pearls hidden under weather-worn shelves that can be missed when viewed from society’s lofty pedestals.”

Holocaust survivor and world-famous tailor Martin Greenfield, a go-to for celebrities and U.S. presidents seeking custom suits, said as he accepted an honorary degree from Yeshiva University: “This is the largest honor of my life.”

Fall and rise

Last year, U.S. News & World Report, which runs the most widely accepted ranking system for American universities, put Yeshiva University in 48th place among the nation’s colleges — a few spots ahead of Pepperdine and Tulane. Not in the company of Harvard and the rest of the Ivy League, but still well inside the prestigious private-school bubble.

This, despite the fact that YU’s reputation and financial situation have taken some big blows in recent years — thanks in large part to two very public scandals.

First was the 2008 downfall of America’s No. 1 Ponzi-schemer, the notorious Bernie Madoff. At the time he was busted, Madoff was YU’s treasurer and chairman of its business school. In all, his crimes cost the university about $100 million — mainly in fictitious gains that YU earned by investing in a hedge fund that fed into Madoff’s scheme.

When the FBI took down Madoff, Yeshiva University officials said they’d known nothing of his crimes. They swiftly set up a strict new oversight system for school investments and instated conflict-of-interest rules banning the university from doing business with board members. But when America’s big financial crisis hit, YU’s larger investment strategy — Madoff aside — revealed itself to be unusually risky. A joint investigation by TakePart and The Jewish Channel found that YU had chosen to sell off $500 million in safe U.S. Treasury bonds, in favor of “plowing the proceeds mostly into hedge funds and corporate stocks” — money it lost when the market crashed. YU investors, worried their bonds were no longer safe, pulled out en masse.

David H. Zysman Hall, the cornerstone of Yeshiva University’s Washington Heights men’s campus, houses the school’s main beit midrash. Photo by Wikipedia

The school was still in financial recovery mode in 2013 when dozens of graduates from YU’s high school branch asserted in an explosive, $380 million lawsuit that they had been sexually abused by authority figures at the boys’ high school, beginning in the 1970s.

Investors continued to pull out post-sex scandal. A representative from one former investor, Evercore Wealth Management in New York, told Bloomberg that “people don’t like to back institutions that have problems — they like to back winners. Yeshiva has a lot of problems.”

The school’s total direct debt has since snowballed to more than $500 million, according to Moody’s Investors Service in New York.

Although a judge has since thrown out the sex-abuse case — and YU’s bond credit rating has climbed back up to B3 from a “junk” rating of B1 in early 2014 — various YU students told the Journal that school pride has taken a permanent hit.

Triplet Daniel Schreiber told the Journal by email: “As a student, I do still feel bothered by the fact that these issues and scandals continue to happen in a school that prides itself as firstly being a Torah-based institution. In the business school, the main push recently has been about business ethics and practices, but the school itself acted unethically. The hypocrisy of it all is bothersome and something the school has to work on.”

Brander said YU President Richard M. Joel’s strategy has been to “keep an open door” and maintain transparency wherever possible. “We have conversations with the students. … We learn from experiences and, when appropriate, we share that knowledge with the community. We ask, ‘When our leaders fail us, how do we deal with it?’ Instead of us sitting on an ivory tower in Washington Heights, we’re reaching out to the community and dealing with it.”

Further, to regain its financial footing, Yeshiva University has been making drastic cuts to its operating budget. The school is currently in talks to hand over operations of its esteemed Albert Einstein College of Medicine to a partner (although it will still hand out YU diplomas), making up for about two-thirds of its $150 million operating deficit. Last year, YU sold off 10 apartment buildings it owned in Washington Heights and had been renting to students and graduates.

YU faculty also has seen sweeping layoffs. Next year, the undergraduate men’s and women’s campuses — although remaining physically separate — will share the same set of teachers, who will commute between the two.

But it is a testament to the loyalty of the wider Yeshiva University community and donor network that the school kept its doors open throughout. 

Much like the high school yeshiva system it’s named for, YU is the only university in the U.S. whose undergraduate program requires students to take religious Jewish courses alongside secular ones. All students must sign up for a minimum of two hours of Judaic studies per day. “But for most, it’s much more than that,” said YU’s Brander.

The university’s set of similarly well-ranked grad schools in fields such as law and medicine, spread throughout Manhattan and Brooklyn, don’t mandate religious coursework. However, they, too, “follow Jewish law — no class on Shabbat, rabbi on campus, kosher food,” Brander said.

Zionism is a staple of the YU experience. The university runs a sister campus in Jerusalem, and its New York students are highly encouraged to spend the first of their four undergrad years studying Torah in Israel. Each year, about 600 of them accept the offer — including all three Schreiber triplets.

Nathaniel Schreiber said by email that for him and his wife, Sara, one year in Israel and three years at YU have “instilled in us the same passion and drive to move [to Israel] one day, hopefully in the near future.”

Rabbi Schreiber, family patriarch and famous face within L.A.’s Modern Orthodox community, noted early on in his invocation that May 17 marked not only a rite of passage for his triplets and their spouses, but a milestone for world Jewry. This year, Yeshiva University’s graduation fell on Jerusalem Day — the 48th anniversary of the battle in which Israel won back the Old City from the Jordanians. 

“This is the day, which the Lord has made; we will rejoice and be glad in it,” the rabbi recited in his invocation.

Wisse, the Harvard professor who gave YU’s commencement speech, called Israel “a light in what sometimes feels like a darkening world.” And Weingarten, the valedictorian, passionately repeated the refrain: “We remember you, Jerusalem!”

Community incubator

The Yeshiva University men’s campus is something of an isolated settlement within a working-class, Dominican-heavy neighborhood of far-north Manhattan called Washington Heights — situated just across the Harlem River from the Bronx. It swallows four big city blocks and is buffered by majority-Jewish apartment buildings for students, recent graduates and other Jews attracted to the community.

YU’s uniform brick buildings and stone walkways are at times Israel-like, cutting an odd profile into the neighborhood. Dominican flea markets and furniture stores push up against YU’s kosher restaurants and houses of prayer.

Other times, the two cultures intertwine: In one local supermarket, Latino goods are interrupted by an exclusively kosher aisle and frozen section. A Dominican barber in Washington Heights reportedly took some heat last year for writing “only Jewish” on an ad for his $12 Passover special. A young Modern Orthodox couple strolling with their toddler near campus told the Journal they enjoy watching parades and celebrations sweep Washington Heights on Dominican holidays.

“The area reminds me of Israel in some ways — the shouting, the loudness, the quick movement,” said Akiva Schreiber, the triplets’ older brother. “I’ve never seen sunglasses and shoes so cheap in my life.” After graduating, Akiva and his wife, Avigail Goldson-Schreiber, moved into an apartment near the Washington Heights men’s campus; he found a job in accounting and she’s working toward a doctorate in audiology at Montclair State University.

“It’s more relaxed in L.A.,” said Goldson-Schreiber, who grew up in Sherman Oaks. “People have space.” According to Goldson-Schreiber, the crowded YU-adjacent Jewish community has few secrets: “It’s a little overwhelming sometimes,” she said.

Rabbi Joseph and Robin Schreiber said they’re overjoyed that Nathaniel, Daniel and Elisheva all chose to carry on family tradition by attending YU.

“We thought it was a perfect choice for the triplets,” Rabbi Schreiber said. “The environment they were in the whole time, the atmosphere — they were able to stay connected very much Jewishly.”

Sara’s mom was equally relieved with her daughter’s decision. “With the college campus environment now [in America], it’s not really a place you want your nice Jewish daughters to go,” she said.

The triplets’ grandmother, Sara Teicher, a native New Yorker, said her apartment near YU’s Washington Heights campus became home base for hot meals. “I’m the grandmother they all come to on weekends, their home away from home,” she told the Journal.

The school’s strength, in Rabbi Brander’s eyes, is that “during very critical, transformative years in a student’s life, they have the opportunity for rich academic experience but also to grow as a Jew. On most campuses, you have to worry about BDS [boycott, divestment and sanctions]. Our campus is one of the only campuses outside Israel that flies the Israeli flag.”

YU wasn’t Daniel’s first-choice school. Elisheva originally chose a different university, but later transferred to YU. On graduation day, however, the triplets’ consensus was that they couldn’t have found such a sense of community anywhere else.

“We found an extraordinary group of friends here,” Nathaniel said. Daniel added that the five Schreiber kids in the Class of 2015 are known as “the clan” on campus. “People always ask, ‘How do we get to be part of your clan?” he said.

The Schreiber clan is a family within a family — a microcosm of the loyal and insular Modern Orthodox community that seems to bridge the U.S. with its own social highway from L.A. to New York. After a year in the Holy Land and four years at Yeshiva University, the triplets say they would feel just as comfortable living within any of Modern Orthodoxy’s three main outposts in L.A., New York and Israel.

Just under half of Yeshiva University’s students hail from New York. But Brander said the number of out-of-staters — from the West Coast, especially — has been rising each year. He said this year’s incoming class includes at least 120 students from California.

YU’s rabbinical school ordains more Modern Orthodox rabbis than any other. 

“We’re producing rabbi communities,” Brander said. “Look at most of the [Orthodox] synagogues in L.A. and you’ll see the rabbis are from YU. We’ll place 35 rabbis this year. When you’re able to achieve that, you’re actually not just a place that’s a leadership incubator for students, but you’re an incubator for the community.”

With a wide array of extended family listening in to their interviews, the Schreiber kids were careful not to specify exactly where they hoped to end up. “We don’t want to make anybody angry,” said one sibling.

But their father, the rabbi, said that no matter what city they choose, they’ll be at home in their new network. “The camaraderie they found here will stay with them,” he said by phone as he boarded a plane back to L.A. after YU graduation.