April 28, 2005

The dean of Orthodoxy


Richard Joel has a vision.

If Joel could have his way, the campus Hillel centers he was instrumental in cultivating for 15 years as international director of Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life would be emptied of nearly all their Orthodox students.

There would be a mass exodus of Orthodox Jews from places like Columbia, the University of Pennsylvania, Brandeis and Princeton, and they would follow Joel to a new promised land: Yeshiva University, where Joel is now president.

"I built the competition for 15 years," Joel said, "but I always told parents: If you're a modern Orthodox Jew, the first question is, 'Is YU a fit for my child?'"

It has only been a year and a half since Joel, 54, left Hillel to take over the presidency of YU, but Joel already is trying to reposition the flagship educational institution of centrist Orthodoxy in relation to Jewish life.

He has started a host of new community-based programs to raise YU's national profile among American Jews, is establishing several new academic centers and is hiring new deans and university professors known for their strong commitment to centrist Orthodoxy.

"A lot of it now is about a new vision," Joel said. As "the educational fountainhead of American Orthodoxy," he explained, "we have a primary responsibility for the advancement of Jewish peoplehood."

Joel took over 18 months ago from Rabbi Norman Lamm, who presided over the university for more than a quarter century and remains the rosh yeshiva of YU's rabbinical school, the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary (RIETS). YU has more than 6,000 students and 17 schools and campuses, including schools of law, medicine, business and social work.

In a wide-ranging interview recently with the Jerusalem Post at his office in Manhattan, Joel trotted out a host of catchphrases to expound on his vision for Yeshiva, using trinkets around his office as explanatory props.

The "think outside the box" statuette on his desk symbolized the formula Joel needs to succeed: to be figuratively suspended on a limb outside the box of conventional ideas, yet balanced by a counterweight (translation: foundation of tradition) hanging inside the box.

Citing YU as "America's Jewish university in service to humanity," Joel pointed by way of explanation to the newly designed YU logo he had commissioned. He noted that the Y on the pin is situated at the center of the U, and traced the two flames rising from the letters as symbols of YU's twin values, Torah U'Madda-literally, Torah and science. "What makes us special is we are a university with a yeshiva at its heart," Joel recited.

But mantras notwithstanding, Joel has been developing some concrete plans to try to put his university at the center of modern Orthodox communal life at a time when it has been under siege from both liberal and conservative Orthodox elements.

"Clearly, this is a time in the world of polarization," Joel said. "We'll always struggle with what it means to be a big tent."

On the right, as more and more children of centrist Orthodox homes turn to haredi-led institutions for Jewish education and direction, YU has been criticized as insufficiently responsive to the dangers of a morally bankrupt society and too close to the modern world. The hiring two years ago of Joel-who, unlike Lamm, was neither a rabbi nor a traditional academic scholar, and who came from a definitively pluralistic institution-was opposed by many right-wing elements at YU. Some rabbis at the school interrupted their classes when the hire was announced to recite emergency Psalms.

On the left, critics say YU needs to take a bolder stance against the pull of right-wing Orthodoxy. They also charge that YU is insufficiently open to changes taking place within Orthodoxy, such as the emergence of egalitarian Orthodox-style minyans in which women read from the Torah and lead some portions of services.

The alternatives to YU on the right are in the haredi institutions of Queens, Brooklyn, Jerusalem and Lakewood, New Jersey. The alternatives on the left are at institutions like the liberal Orthodox Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School, started five years ago in Manhattan by the social activist and Riverdale rabbi Avi Weiss, and at the campuses of places like Brandeis and Columbia.

Joel rejects the notion that the YU model is in any way ill-suited for modern-day Orthodoxy, saying there is a tremendous need to have a constituency committed to "deep and profound Jewish learning and living" yet engaged with the modern world.

"We believe proactively and proudly in Torah U'Madda," Joel said. "We don't define ourselves to what is above or below or left or right."

But Joel also acknowledges that YU has "been too absent" in making its case. Joel aims to change that in part by establishing a host of new cross-disciplinary academic centers at Yeshiva both to foster cross-fertilization of ideas within the academy and to expand YU's influence beyond the ivory tower-or, in Joel's case, the 17-story brick building that houses the president's office, with its sweeping views of the South Bronx and the Washington Heights section of Manhattan.

"This is both a great university and a movement," Joel said. "How do we make sure that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts here?"

The new centers, like the planned but still inchoate Center for the Jewish Future, are meant to make YU "an incubator for klei kodesh and lay kodesh"-that is, rabbis and Jewish lay leaders. Other possible new centers may include a center on ethics and civilization, a center for leadership, and a center for science and math.

Joel hopes that the Center for the Jewish People will help enhance the work of Jewish communal organizations, train future Jewish educators and even help arrange for YU professors and community members to lecture to Jewish audiences around the country. Its dean will be Rabbi Kenneth Brander, a rabbi from Boca Raton, Florida, and its senior scholar will be J.J. Schacter, outgoing dean of the Rabbi Joseph. B. Soloveitchik Institute, in Brookline, Mass., and a former rabbi at Manhattan's Jewish Center synagogue. Schacter also will serve as a university professor.

Both Schacter and Brander are considered staunch Orthodox centrists, in the ideological tradition of the late Soloveitchik, the father of modern Orthodoxy. Not everybody at YU is happy that the pair have been chosen to oversee what essentially will be YU's ideological ambassadorships in the Orthodox community, but Joel says that's par for the course.

"There's been a lot of culture change here," Joel said of his tenure at YU.

Several new programs aimed at raising the institution's profile and strengthening its ideological position in the Orthodox community already are under way.

YU has begun a free Sunday morning study program for Orthodox professionals who want to spend time over the weekend learning Torah. The men's program, started several months ago, draws about 175 people to its beit mirash study program and class, and the just-started women's program got 200 its inaugural week.

YU also has launched a high school-based kollel study program that sends REITS rabbinical students to places like Long Island's Hebrew Academy of the Five Towns and Rockaway.

In addition, Joel envisions YU community councils to strengthen ties between YU and potential constituent communities, new alumni services, and programs to raise YU's profile in Israel, where many of its alumni reside.

Now, Joel said, the focus is, "What are the educational services we need to provide to the community at large in advancement of the Jewish story? What are the array of services that are available to the community that will enhance the impact of ideas we believe in and raise the profile of YU for prospective students?"

It's all part of Joel's argument for the significance of a place that is both a yeshiva and a university-Orthodox, yet committed to engagement with modern life.

"We exist to live life modeling certain values," Joel said of YU. "The Orthodox, if they're going to be a light unto the nations, can't retreat."