There is a narrative that Yeshiva University has shifted to the right, religiously-speaking. I attended the recent leadership retreat sponsored by YU’s Center for the Jewish Future (CJF), an annual get-together in Orlando, FL at the ChampionsGate resort, where I encountered a whole other face of the Yeshiva and University that demonstrates how that perception is incorrect.
This conference, established six years ago by YU President Richard M. Joel, hosted by University Trustee Ira Mitzner and led by CJF Dean Rabbi Kenneth Brander, clearly reflects Yeshiva University’s commitment to Torah Umaddah, its signature principle of integrating Torah and modernity without any compromise to the former. For its part, the CJF represents the University’s vision for Jewish communities that are tolerant, relevant and meaningful, as well as passionate about a Torah Umaddah lifestyle.
Over 450 lay leaders, philanthropists, rabbis and Jewish educators from around the world attended this year’s conference. Representing North and South America, the UK and Israel, they explored and imagined new horizons at forums and panels on sustaining day schools, infusing Jewish life with greater spirituality, meeting the financial challenges of community-building, the challenges of dating, early marriage and increased divorce, navigating home-school and home-shul partnerships, and the impact on Jews in the Diaspora of the divide between secular, observant and haredi Jews in Israel. The most important elements were the opportunities to meet others from all over who also build and lead communities and communal organizations.
Yeshiva University is helping to build Jewish communities by offering its Torah scholars and academics. Through CJF it supports rabbis and empowers lay leaders around the world. CJF offers fellowships, retreats and educational programs for rabbis, and a website that features nearly 700 programs and lectures. Rebbetzins interact with one another in a safe place online called the “Rebbetzin Café” and can attend in-person gatherings throughout the year.
YU has sent out its students, teachers and Roshei Yeshiva to diverse domestic and international CJF programs as agents for change that enable them to see themselves through the prism of the real world. Recently, students have travelled to Joplin, MS to help residents recover from a devastating and deadly tornado, to New Orleans to help with the continued rebuilding from Hurricane Katrina, to Mexico and Guatemala on humanitarian and service-learning missions, on programs in cooperation with Federations across the country, on Counterpoint missions to Israel to establish summer camps in such poor development towns as Dimona and Arad, and in Yemin Orde, devastated by last year’s wildfires. There is an innovative program for students to incubate projects that address local community needs in the realm of education and social activism.
Leveraging its expertise, CJF now even offers an accredited Certificate program in experiential education— the first of its kind — open to Jewish educators and experienced youth leaders.
In following the ideals of the Rav, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik zt”l, that women should study Torah and engage at the highest level, CJF has created programs to allow students at Stern College for Women to explore leadership opportunities and, most significantly, has sent its advanced women scholars as teachers and interns to work with the congregations of major metro synagogues.
At the University, President Joel has added academic staff to reinforce excellence in Torah and secular education and, recently, through the endowment of Zahava and Moshael Straus, created a new Center for Torah and Western Thought that is being led by Rabbi Dr. Meir Soloveichik.
Here we have a university that is reaching out to its students, to communities and to leaders by creating a range of course offerings and programs that restore and underscore the primacy of Yeshiva’s mission statement.
What pendulum ever remains static? YU is a big tent. Some students return from study in Israel with a greater commitment to pure Torah study and less of a Maddah focus and YU is a safe haven for these students. For others, the University offers challenging programs in higher biblical study with a wide berth for discussion of these issues by students and Roshei Yeshiva. Among YU students there are growing numbers of Wexner and Tikvah Fellows, working with all the denominations of Judaism on common issues such as the search for effective ways to train formal and informal educators and sustain our schools. YU sends students to Limmud retreats. At the University, in community-driven programs and at ChampionsGate, different constituencies have learned to talk together and have learned how to disagree agreeably.
Finally, I have encountered a more open environment — a non-defensive one —to include different faces and different topics, where students are encouraged to participate in different arenas. Some of us may think we remember a YU that was more open and yet, I see a new face that is confronting modernity and balancing different factors, all while cherishing Torah values.
Nahum (Neal) Twersky is a marketing consultant from Teaneck, NJ who is active in a number of Jewish and Israel-related organizations.