Much of the drama went out of the race for Yeshiva University president this week when Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, spiritual leader of Efrat, Israel, and best known of the potential candidates, withdrew his name from consideration.
That left David Shatz, a professor of philosophy at Yeshiva and Columbia universities, as the likely contender to succeed Norman Lamm, according to sources close to the selection process.
David Schnall, dean of Yeshiva’s Azrieli Graduate School of Education and Administration, also is expected to be a candidate for the post.
Shatz and Schnall are well-respected graduates of Yeshiva College who received rabbinic ordination from Yeshiva and doctorates from other universities. They are in their early 50s and have long been associated with the university, where Rabbi Lamm has served as president for more than 25 years.
Rabbi Lamm was due to step down last spring but after the search committee’s only candidate, Dov Zakheim, chief financial officer of the Pentagon, withdrew amid controversy last March, the process slowed.
“We feel we have excellent candidates and we are very comfortable working with them,” said Michael Jesselson, chairman of the nine-member search committee at Yeshiva, who acknowledged Rabbi Riskin’s withdrawal.
image2goeshere After being heavily criticized for seeking to rush through the Zakheim candidacy, the committee has arranged a number of opportunities for deans, faculty and board members to meet with the candidates.
Insiders say Shatz is the clear favorite but Schnall has been included in the process “to make this a two-horse race.”
The two names will be mentioned to the board of trustees on Sept. 18, when Ronald Stanton officially succeeds Robert Beren as board president. Beren had been a chief proponent of Rabbi Riskin’s candidacy.
Rabbi Riskin, a youthful and energetic 63, had the strongest supporters and detractors within Yeshiva, and even the reasons for his withdrawal were the subject of intrigue and debate in recent days.
Some say it was because he could not leave Efrat, the West Bank community that he helped found two decades ago, especially during the current crisis in Israel.
Prior to his aliyah, he served as founding rabbi of Lincoln Square Synagogue in Manhattan, giving it national prominence with his charismatic outreach to young and newly observant Jews.
image3goeshere Over the last year, Rabbi Riskin had discussed various schedules of commuting between Israel and New York should he become president, and incorporating Ohr Torah, the network of yeshivas he heads in Israel, into Yeshiva University. In recent weeks he indicated his willingness to spend most of his time here if appointed president.
Some observers say Rabbi Riskin withdrew after he failed to gain the support of Rabbi Lamm, who will stay on as chancellor and considers it improper to back any one candidate. The two men have had their differences over the years, with Rabbi Riskin seen as having built his own empire separate and apart from Yeshiva.
Another reason cited for the withdrawal is that once he saw he was not the clear frontrunner, Rabbi Riskin did not want to be embarrassed by the prospect of losing.
“No doubt there are elements of truth to each of these theories,” said someone close to the rabbi.
Rabbi Riskin’s supporters say Yeshiva will be missing an opportunity for much-needed dramatic change from a dynamic leader and proven fund-raiser. Critics, though, accuse the rabbi of “trying to square the circle” on sensitive issues and operating “outside the system,” according to one board member.
Some of the rabbinic faculty at Yeshiva consider Rabbi Riskin too liberal in his religious views. He has not been invited to speak at the school for years.
It appears likely that Rabbi Lamm will continue in his post as rosh yeshiva, head of the rabbinic seminary, at least for the near future, regardless of who succeeds him as president. The three men who have led Yeshiva in the last century — Bernard Revel, Samuel Belkin and Lamm — were both president and rosh yeshiva, reflecting their standing as academic and rabbinic leaders and exemplifying Yeshiva’s motto and goal of Torah U’Maddah, or Torah and secular studies.
There is an internal debate within the school about breaking the model by dividing the posts, but in practical terms it seems the transition will operate most smoothly if Rabbi Lamm remains rosh yeshiva.
Shatz and Schnall, who declined to comment for this story, have built their academic careers primarily within the Yeshiva community. Shatz is a popular professor at Stern College, the women’s branch, and has written on both Jewish and general philosophy. He has published seven books, including one on the thought of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, the late leader of Modern Orthodoxy.
A lengthy essay on the religious meaning of the Sept. 11 tragedy that Shatz authored, with an introduction by Rabbi Lamm praising him, was published in pamphlet form this week, but sources say the timing was coincidental as the material was written months ago.
Supporters say Shatz is a serious intellectual who could devote himself to academic affairs at Yeshiva. They note that he is mindful of his inexperience in fund raising and management, and is a team player with a consensus style.
Schnall has written scholarly works on Jewish and secular topics. His eighth book, “By The Sweat Of Your Brow,” on work and the workplace in classic Jewish thought, was published earlier this year. He received a Fulbright Scholarship in 1999 and served as a visiting professor at Hebrew University that year.
Members of the search committee are hopeful the new president will be chosen by the end of October.