Richard Joel is well aware that on the eve of his being chosen president of Yeshiva University last December, a number of students and rabbis were so opposed to his election that they recited Tehillim (Psalms), a prayerful response to times of crisis and danger. For some, the fact that Joel was not a rabbinic scholar and, moreover, had for years headed Hillel, the Jewish campus organization that celebrates pluralism, signaled an impending revolution for Yeshiva, away from its Torah roots.
But they will be proven only half-right. Yeshiva under Joel indeed promises much change — in style, substance and outlook. That change, though, will stem not from the direction of secularism but from Joel’s commitment to the Jewish people’s historic role as a light unto the nations.
Yeshiva, he believes, stays truest to its mission by expanding rather than narrowing its goals, encountering the world rather than retreat-
ing from it.
Six weeks into the new post and preparing for his formal investiture next month as only the fourth president of Modern Orthodoxy’s flagship institution in a century, Joel seems confident that his experience, belief, vision and force of personality will win over skeptics and advance Yeshiva’s motto of Torah U’Madah, the blending of both Torah and secular learning.
He doesn’t say so in as many words, though. And in recent talks he has made reference to his avoidance of the Torah U’Madah phrase, noting that it is fraught with ideology while he is, instead, committed to action. That action most likely will not be frontal, taking on those who oppose his outlook, but rather used to focus energy on his goals, and on those who share them.
During a two-hour conversation — his first full interview as the head of Yeshiva — in his newly renovated office on the Washington Heights campus, the 52-year-old Joel seemed to be trying out his new persona of both university president and representative of an ideology rooted in tradition but obliged to embrace, as well as at times confront, modernity.
“I’m learning a lot,” he says of the several months he has spent talking to students, rabbis, faculty and lay leaders about the needs and goals of Yeshiva, a complex institution comprised of men’s and women’s undergraduate colleges, a rabbinic school, a medical school, law school, and other graduate institutions with sometimes competing needs and interests.
“I want to move forward, but I have to be careful. You want to build this … to last.”
Indeed, he is well aware that many eyes in the Orthodox community and beyond are on him these days because Yeshiva, and by extension the centrist Orthodox community, is in the midst of an intense, ongoing tug of war between those calling for a greater or lesser amount of involvement with the rest of the community, as well as questions about women’s roles and the value of secular education.
Joel’s is a delicate perch, yet instinctively he is eager to engage. He is an advocate and model of Modern Orthodoxy and has expressed frustration over the community’s trend toward separation from the rest of society. There is a part of him, though, that is holding back as well, and he acknowledges the tension.
“I am trying to find my language in this setting,” he says, “but I am not taking on a different world view than I had at Hillel. People who knew me there knew I wasn’t walking away from my commitment to Orthodoxy, but I was embracing others. And from the very beginning we found a way to have a big tent without saying that everyone in that tent was by definition ‘legitimate.’
“We Jews should find the grounds where we can be one people with one heart,” he continues. “But to me pluralism means I honor your right to be wrong. It’s not relativism. I believe that my truth is the truth, and I don’t have to say your truth is the truth. I can honor and esteem who you are, hope there is much we share, and make it safe to argue or fight when it’s appropriate. But I don’t have to say there are many paths up Mt. Sinai.”
Joel seems committed to doing what he did for Hillel when he took over the then-moribund organization 13 years ago, first healing from within, uniting the various elements of the institution, giving students and staff a greater voice, calling for standards of excellence, and sharing his dream with the larger community.
“I don’t want to pretend to be what I’m not,” Joel says. “I am not a rabbi and I am not going to pretend to be a teacher of Orthodox tradition. I am a working Jew, a learning Jew.” And his job, he says, is to build an institution that nurtures learning and inspires “more young people to learn Torah and to live a life of Torah.” He says he is not a spokesman for Modern Orthodoxy but rather the president of an institution “training the next generation of leaders of Modern Orthodoxy.”
But don’t look for Joel to take a backseat role. Officials at Yeshiva say they already sense a change in style at the top, with Joel taking on a more hands-on role than his predecessor, Dr. Norman Lamm, who now serves as chancellor after more than 25 years at the helm. For example, Joel recently chose to get involved in working out a relatively minor faculty dispute, according to a school official, and managed to come up with an agreeable compromise.
He has met with the rabbinic faculty and is says to favor several of the younger rabbis. He wants undergrads to feel more cared for, and has hired Hillel Davis, an experienced business executive, for the new post of vice president of university life. He has also hired Ed Fox, a seasoned administrator, as deputy to the president, and Joel says he is still building an administrative team that will give him strong executive responsibility.
“He is a doer,” one rabbinic member of the faculty says of Joel, “and he is too smart to get caught up in ideological confrontations with the rabbis. He will make his mark through programmatic and communal change,” working around the rabbis if they won’t work with him.
The results may be the same, though, as Joel speaks of placing a greater emphasis on training rabbis to better serve and lead their communities, providing day schools with skilled modern educators, expanding Yeshiva’s involvement in and connection with Israel, and promoting Jewish communal work as a dignified profession. He speaks of kedusha, which he defines as “nobility” rather than sanctity, and calls for “ennobling and enabling” young people to serve the community.
Joel says Orthodox Jews walk a delicate line of being both a part of, and apart from, the world, and that “we have to know our values and be comfortable with them so we can then risk being out in that world.” He admits that it is “a difficult task” to “inform the world and learn from it while remembering who we are,” but notes that “when we retreat to black and white, we sometimes drive the color out.”
He says he also wants to use his “bully pulpit” to tell society at large to “come back from the abyss and latch on to immutable values” like those Judaism has to offer.
Joel feels he is being given a year “to use training wheels” in his new post, but he is well aware of the opportunity he has to set his mark during this honeymoon period. “What’s frightening,” he says, “is that the stakes are so high, but what’s exciting is the prospect of advancing the mission of the Jewish people through our young people.”
Samuel Heilman, a Queens college professor and expert on Orthodox life, gives Joel high marks as “a great public figure and warm human being,” but worries that as “neither a rabbi nor academic, will he have enough of an understanding of what a university is to be able to help it reach its potential?”
His advice is for Joel to hire a “first-rate provost” who understands university life and Orthodoxy.
But Joel is confident he has the staffing he needs and is ready to translate his vision into action, noting: “I was given permission to dream and listen to the dreams of those around me,” he says. “But the only way to make it happen is to wake up.”