The recent news stories about Yeshiva University bring back memories from my own experiences in the 1980s, when I attended both high school and college at YU. For me, those were positive and powerfully transformative years, with YU playing the central role. I am profoundly sad that not all of my peers had the same experience, and of course pray that deep wounds suffered by victims of abuse will be healed.
But focusing our current attention only on the YU of 30 years ago obscures extraordinary changes that have reshaped the institution’s impact on Jewish life in the 21st century. We ignore these changes at our own peril, as the cost of the failuring to appreciate and support YU could be a retreat from some of its recent achievements.
The YU I attended was principally a source of future talent (rabbis, educators, lay leaders as well as doctors, lawyers and engineers) who would, after graduation, contribute to both society in general and to the Jewish community in particular. In the last decade, YU has become a stronger academic institution. This is reflected by a greater number of tenure-track and tenured faculty (20 new grants of tenure were just announced), honors students and national science grants, and by a new multi-disciplinary Yeshiva College curriculum and a higher level of faculty-student engagement. Student enrollment growth has led to capital expansion, including a beautiful new Beit Medrash.
One key feature of YU in the 21st century is an additional focus that extends YU’s impact from producing leaders for the future to strengthening the vitality of Jewish life today. In 2003, fresh from transforming international Hillel’s contribution to the lives of Jewish college students, Richard Joel took over the YU presidency. He came to the university with a commitment to outstanding academics as well as a broad outward-looking vision. He inspired and attracted other impressive Jewish leaders to join him. The resulting change has benefited schools, synagogues and communities across the country, even as YU suffered alongside other nonprofits from the troubled economy.
In the area of day school education, which I know best, YU has established and developed a division for university and day school partnership (YUSP) and has added faculty to the Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education. YUSP now works with dozens of day schools on programs addressing financial benchmarking and re-engineering, assessment, bullying prevention and blended/online learning. The Azrieli faculty educates a larger number of master’s and Ph.D. students than in the past (58 master’s and five Ph.D.s were graduated in June 2013) while also focusing research on projects that benefit schools and students. YU is today recognized as a powerful force in day school education with an accomplished staff and a growing track record.
YU’s Center for the Jewish Future (CJF) is another highlight. CJF serves the dual role of being the center of Jewish experiential education for YU’s students and bringing YU’s resources to rabbis, lay leaders and communities. For students, CJF enables the YU experience to include service learning (in Latin America and Israel, as well as in New Orleans and Long Island after natural disasters) and bringing the celebration of Jewish life to smaller Jewish communities. These programs recognize that students are both consumers of education and also producers of social good. In this way, CJF complements the yeshiva and academic program, seeking to ensure that students live the values and skills they are learning.
The CJF programs that bring YU resources to communities also continue to grow. I will mention only those that I know first-hand: robust online and in-person professional development for rabbis and their families that covers Jewish legal issues, pastoral skills and the personal needs of these community leaders; training for lay leaders; adult education for day school parents (in conjunction with the Kohelet Foundation); and weekly discussion guides for Shabbat tables. Because of ongoing dialogue with community leaders, YU better understands and responds to their needs.
Although I write as a private individual, my perch as North American director of The Avi Chai Foundation enables me to see that the YUSP and CJF programs are making a difference for teens, singles, families, rabbis, families and lay leaders. I also see YU’s potential to serve as a bridge between two Jewish poles: the growing haredi community, on the one hand, and the increasing number of Jews who receive little or no Jewish education.
More than each individual component — high-level Torah study, enlightening academics/experiential education and strengthening Jewish communities — YU provides magical moments and lifetime memories that remind students and others of the power of Judaism to change the world. Yeshiva University is simply an engine of Jewish life in America.
I do not mean to suggest that YU is without flaws or challenges. The most recent challenge is the Moody’s downgrade of YU’s debt rating. YU cannot continue to help its students and communities across the country reach their potential without continued enrollment growth and an increase in annual fundraising and endowment giving. Funding will increase as donors come to appreciate the full story of YU’s achievements and promise. This story is, I fear, being lost in the current articles about terrible mistakes made 30 years ago. No doubt, YU and all of us must ensure that protecting children becomes and remains the first priority. But YU’s increasingly vital role in Jewish life depends on it doing more than addressing the past. If others feel the same way, we should express that support and enable the university to continue to bring to life the powerful possibilities of Judaism in the 21st century.
Yossi Prager is executive director of the Avi Chai Foundation in North America.