Richard Joel seems undaunted by the fact that some of the faculty and lay leadership at Yeshiva University’s rabbinical school opposed his becoming chief executive officer of the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, the position he was elected to last week along with president of Yeshiva University.
Joel, 52, said his skills for the new posts include “taking institutions where people look askance at my capacities and being able to empower them.
“Ultimately,” he added in an interview this week, “the success of the president of the institution will not be based on how I shine but on how others shine, and I am pretty good at lighting Chanukah lights.”
Joel’s election to become the fourth president in YU history was widely seen as a victory for the centrist element of Modern Orthodoxy.
In the spring he will succeed Dr. Norman Lamm, who has led the flagship institution of the movement since 1976.
For the past 14 years Joel was president and international director of Hillel, and he is widely viewed as one of the most dynamic leaders in American Jewry for resuscitating the Jewish campus organization and making it a major presence at colleges.
Joel becomes the first YU president who is neither a rabbinic nor academic scholar. His lack of rabbinic authority was a major point of contention with some affiliated with the rabbinic school.
Two of the rabbis, Michael Rosensweig and Mayer Twersky, were invited by RIETS chairman Julius Berman to address the RIETS board, comprised of more than 40 members, before the vote last Thursday evening. (The meeting took place after the board of trustees of YU elected Joel by a vote of 30-2.)
The rabbis offered impassioned speeches as to why Yeshiva should be led by a rabbinic scholar, and voiced concern that YU could become a more secular school, like Brandeis University or Bar-Ilan in Israel.
But after three hours of ensuing discussion and debate, Joel was elected in a secret ballot as chief executive officer of RIETS.
Rabbi Lamm will maintain his current position as rosh yeshiva, or dean, of RIETS for the near future.
In the interview, Joel said he is not an ideologue and prefers to focus on “taking an institution with great successes, and a real internal dialectic, and moving it forward in an ongoing confrontation with Torah U’Maddah [religious and secular knowledge],” which he described as “viewing the challenges of civilization through the prism of eternal values.” He said he hopes to carry out his duties “with a deep underpinning of kavod ha-briyot [respect for all mankind] and a commitment to excellence.”
Joel added that he and his wife, Esther, a longtime Jewish educator, place “Torah at the center of our lives.”
As to whether he will be weakened at RIETS because he is not a rabbinic authority, Joel pointed out that he did not pick the selection process, adding: “Whoever I am, I am.” He said he hopes his children will become Torah scholars — his son, Avery, is in YU’s rabbinic program.
Joel was introduced at YU’s annual major dinner and Chanukah convocation on Sunday evening at the Waldorf-Astoria.