Dov Zakheim, the sole choice of the search committee seeking a president for Yeshiva University, withdrew his candidacy on Tuesday, throwing the process into turmoil and underscoring the ideological and political difficulties of finding a successor to Dr. Norman Lamm.
“Never underestimate the clout of the rabbis here,” one faculty member said in the aftermath of Zackheim’s short-lived candidacy.
Rabbinic faculty members largely were excluded from the search but were protective of their turf and unhappy with the choice, in part because Zakheim is not considered a rabbinic scholar, according to those close to the situation.
Zakheim, undersecretary of defense in the Bush administration, was wooed by the nine-person search committee, which was impressed with his qualities as a learned and intellectual Modern Orthodox Jew, according to insiders.
He has ordination and a doctorate and was seen as able to lead and administer a complex university like Yeshiva, which has grown enormously since Lamm’s tenure began 25 years ago.
But almost immediately after his candidacy was reported last week in The Jewish Week, Zakheim came under fire, as did the search committee. A major issue became the selection process itself, criticized within the university as closed and too secretive — and specifically the decision to separate the positions of president of the university and rosh yeshiva, or dean, of the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological School, known as RIETS.
Public criticism focused on the search committee’s decision to break the model of rabbinic leader and scholar to head Yeshiva University. The 115-year-old institution, the largest Orthodox university in the world, has had only three presidents — Bernard Revel, Samuel Belkin and Lamm — each of whom was a rabbinic and academic scholar who also served as rosh yeshiva of RIETS, the rabbinical school.
The search committee plan was to have Zakheim serve as president of the university and RIETS, and for Lamm to continue to serve as rosh yeshiva of RIETS. But that decision seemed to create more confusion rather than resolve the situation.
Zakheim could not be reached for comment.
A statement released Wednesday by the university confirmed that Zakheim had taken himself out of the running for the post.
Speaking Sunday at Yeshiva’s Chag HaSemicha ceremony, an ordination event held every four years, Lamm stressed the importance of keeping the yeshiva and university under one umbrella. Calling the university the body and the yeshiva the neshama, or soul, he asserted that separating the two would destroy them.
Lamm’s remarks were taken by many to signal his concern that the choice of Zakheim indicated a move focused on strengthening the university perhaps at the expense of RIETS.
Others say Lamm was addressing the turf battle between Robert Beren, the chairman of the board of YU, and Julius Berman, the chairman of RIETS.
In any event, rabbinic faculty from RIETS and undergraduate students took up Lamm’s call, urging that the yeshiva and university remain one body, though technically that was not under dispute. More than 400 students, about one-third of the men’s undergraduate division, signed a petition calling for a rabbinic scholar to be president and opposing any possible separation of the yeshiva from the university.
In choosing Zakheim, the search committee focused primarily on what they considered the next president’s most important role — to run the university effectively from the top and restore a balance of Torah U’Madah (Torah and secular learning). The phrase is Yeshiva’s motto, but many feel the institution has moved to the right religiously in recent years.
Zakheim is considered by friends and colleagues in his Silver Spring, Md., community to be a strong advocate of Modern Orthodoxy.
Some critics objected to Zakheim as never having been active in Jewish communal life. He was also a controversial figure in a bitter dispute between Washington and Jerusalem in the late 1980s over the development of Israel’s Lavi military plane.
Zakheim played a critical role in the Defense Department’s decision not to go forward in financially supporting the Lavi project, for which he was blamed by Israeli military leaders. Even supporters, who commented on his brilliance, integrity and perseverance, described him as strong willed and less than diplomatic.
The key question now is whether the search committee, which does not have a clear second choice, will go back to square one or revisit others considered along the way.
Richard Joel, the professional head of Hillel, the Jewish campus group, had strong appeal among committee members but was not interested in the position.
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin was the favored candidate of board chairman Beren but was unwilling to leave Israel and is considered too liberal by many of the RIETS faculty. Jonathan Sacks, the chief rabbi of Great Britain, was said to be Lamm’s first choice but not a serious candidate of the search committee.
How much will change in light of the collapse of the Zakheim candidacy? Will the search process be opened up, with more representation and feedback from rabbinic and other faculty who were excluded from the process? Lamm himself did not know Zakheim was the candidate until early last week, according to sources.
Search committee members are still licking their wounds, stunned by the sudden reversal. It is clear that despite the enormous growth of Yeshiva University, with its graduate schools and sprawling campuses, a critical population remains the faculty, alumni and students affiliated with the rabbinical school. Their voices no doubt will be sought, and heard, more carefully this time around.
But whether the right rabbinic scholar for the job exists, or a strong administrative head can be found with whom the rabbis can be comfortable, is an open question as the search at YU staggering toward Round 2