Will Richard Joel — expected to be elected this week as Yeshiva University’s new president — redirect the flagship institution of Modern Orthodoxy from its rightward move of the past several decades back toward the center?
That’s a question being asked in the halls of Yeshiva and throughout the community at the apparent culmination of a long and difficult search process for a successor to Dr. Norman Lamm, who has guided the institution since 1976.
During that time, the level of Talmudic instruction, and learning, at Yeshiva has risen dramatically. At the same time, though, the school’s role as a bridge between the Orthodox world and the rest of the Jewish community has diminished as YU focused inward.
Now, in a religious environment that has become more polarized, and with Yeshiva poised for change, much of the future of Modern Orthodoxy depends on the path taken by its new president. It is a moment ripe with religious and sociological import.
While it is too early for answers, it appears that Joel, 52, who for the past 14 years has served as president and international director of Hillel, the Jewish campus organization, will seek to make Yeshiva a more open, tolerant and spirited school, albeit gradually, with a renewed vision of academic excellence.
Joel’s background and views have emphasized inclusion, dialogue and creative tension in his Hillel work, dealing with all stripes of religious and secular Jews. That makes some on the right of the religious spectrum at Yeshiva nervous, if not fearful, while pleasing those who believe Yeshiva’s mission of synthesis between Torah and secular studies has been expropriated by the rabbinic faculty.
Both sides were reluctant to speak on the record, worried that their comments could have a negative outcome on the vote, scheduled for Dec. 5.
Joel has spent much of the last week in New York, meeting individually and in groups with key faculty, students and lay leaders of Yeshiva, outlining his goals and seeking to assuage the fears of those who worry that he lacks rabbinic credentials, or is too liberal, or both.
His message has been less about religious politics and more about raising academic standards, paying more attention to the needs of students, and unifying the many strands of Yeshiva, consisting of undergraduate and graduate schools, including the Albert Einstein Medical School and the Benjamin Cardozo Law School. He has said that his hashkafah, or religious outlook, was formed by Rabbi Lamm, who has written extensively about the values of Modern Orthodoxy.
Joel’s candidacy was due to be voted on Thursday afternoon by three separate bodies — the executive board of the university, the board of trustees and the board of the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary — with only the vote of the RIETS board in some doubt.
Some rabbis were strongly resisting the break in YU tradition of having a Talmudic scholar and academic intellectual at the helm of the institution. They also opposed separating the positions of president of the university, president of RIETS and rosh yeshiva of RIETS.
Joel is up for election as president of the university and of RIETS, while Rabbi Lamm would maintain his position as rosh yeshiva, at least for the short term, as a link between the old and new administrations.
If the RIETS board, comprised of more than 40 lay leaders, does not approve Joel, it is expected that he will walk away from the YU post and go back to running Hillel, where he is extremely popular.
It would be a crushing blow for Ronald Stanton, the new chairman of the YU board, and those who had hoped to end the agonizing search process. The school’s annual Chanukah convocation and major dinner will take place Sunday at the Waldorf-Astoria and the leadership was hoping to present Joel as the newly elected president.
Julius Berman, an attorney who is chairman of the RIETS board, is said to oppose Joel, in part because he supports the ideological stance of some of the rabbinic faculty calling for a rosh yeshiva to head YU, and in part because he and Joel clashed when Joel chaired the OU special commission looking into the Baruch Lanner affair and Berman was a key leader of the OU.
While YU officials say Berman will abstain at the executive board meeting, he told The Jewish Week he has not shared his views on Joel or on how he will vote.
In meetings this week with Joel, which were described as tense and difficult, some of the rabbinic faculty voiced deep concerns and predicted that splitting the leadership of RIETS and the university would spell doom for Yeshiva.
Others dismissed their complaints as overly worrisome and reflective of the wide gap between the rabbis and the rest of the university.
Some observers say that Joel, a reluctant candidate who has said he was perfectly happy with his tenure at Hillel, has become increasingly interested in the YU post because he feels he could breathe fresh life into the institution.
Joel would be only the fourth president in Yeshiva’s long history (founded in 1897, it became a college in 1928), and the first to be neither a rabbi nor an academic scholar.
The Joel candidacy did not come about easily. Over the last 20 months as candidates and potential candidates have been named, withdrawn, discouraged or discarded, it became increasingly clear that no one individual was suitable to fit the Lamm mold of Torah and academic scholar, with additional skills as an administrator and fund-raiser comfortable with people.
In wooing Joel the last several weeks, the lay leadership of the school either lowered the bar or came to grips with reality, depending on one’s point of view.
In any event, leaders said they came to agree that their first goal was to find the best possible person to head, and drive, Yeshiva, rather than a spokesman or academic model for Modern Orthodoxy.
In interviews with key lay and professional leaders of YU and Hillel, and other parts of the community, the portrait that emerges of Joel is one of a committed and passionate leader who excels at inspiring a sense of teamwork and pride in students and faculty.
“Richard is never content with mediocrity, and that’s a wonderful quality,” said Steven Bayme, national director of Contemporary Jewish Life for the American Jewish Committee, who has known Joel since they were both working at Yeshiva in the mid-1970s. Bayme taught history at the time and Joel was director of alumni affairs.
“His track record at Hillel is encouraging,” Bayme said, “in that he turned it around, infused it with spirit and was a superb manager of people. He also had a magnetic effect on leading philanthropists, a key ingredient for a successful university president.”
Joel’s challenges, insiders say, will include providing greater balance within the school, strengthening the secular faculty, and restoring ideological vibrancy to Modern Orthodoxy and its belief in the importance of living in two worlds.
This is certain to create tension among some of the rabbis and their students, as Yeshiva and its student body have been perceived as moving closer to the more authoritarian form of Orthodoxy in recent years on issues like the status of women, attitudes toward non-Orthodox Jews and encountering modernity.
Partly as a result of this shift, Rabbi Saul Berman and others founded the organization Edah in the past five years, with the slogan “the courage to be modern and Orthodox.” A new Orthodox rabbinical school, Chovevei Torah, was created in Manhattan by Rabbi Avi Weiss, seeking a similar mission of encouraging open intellectual inquiry and expression in a halachic framework.
These institutions probably would not have been formed had Yeshiva maintained the direction it took prior to the illness and death of Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik (known simply as The Rav), who was the intellectual leader of the Modern Orthodox movement and who espoused the values of secular and religious studies.
In practical terms, Edah is seen as a threat to Yeshiva by the RIETS faculty, and there was much discussion on campus in recent days as to where Joel, whose temperament and ideology seem aligned with Edah, would stand on the organization and its goals.
Rabbi Berman reportedly invited Joel several weeks ago to give a keynote address at the next Edah conference, in February, but it seemed likely that Joel, if elected to head YU, would decline.
Rabbi Lamm is said to be supportive of Joel but has not spoken out publicly on his candidacy.
Widely respected for his religious and secular scholarship, Rabbi Lamm has enjoyed a long tenure that will be remembered most for his saving Yeshiva from financial bankruptcy in his first days at the helm and increasing its endowment from $8 million to holdings worth about $1.4 billion.
During his presidency, enrollment at Yeshiva and Stern College doubled, and he became a voice of moderation in the religious wars that were waged, within Yeshiva and throughout the Jewish world, on issues ranging from homosexuality to the question of who is a Jew.
Even critics would admit that he has overseen tremendous growth at YU, while even supporters would acknowledge that he has paid less attention to internal and administrative problems in recent years and tolerated the move to the right among the rabbis.
According to Bayme, Yeshiva, like Modern Orthodoxy itself, has become “institutionally vibrant and ideologically weak,” noting that while synagogues and schools are flourishing, the growth has come at the expense of allowing “the dominant voices” to come from “the more ultra-Orthodox” segments.
That is why the machinations at Yeshiva are being watched so closely this week in many segments of the Jewish community as the school’s forces of tradition and modernity — once said to be in synthesis — struggle for its future.