December 27, 2002

The Longest Search


When Richard M. Joel accepted Yeshiva University's offer earlier this month to become the next president of the flagship educational institution of American modern Orthodoxy, perhaps no one was more surprised than Joel himself.

As the long-time international director of Hillel, the worldwide Jewish university campus organization, Joel had a solid track record as a community leader, but hardly one that predestined him for Yeshiva's presidency. Though almost universally lauded as an exceptional administrator with a reputation for dynamism and vision, Joel's career trajectory did not at all resemble those of most of the candidates Yeshiva had considered publicly. For one thing, Joel was neither a rabbi nor an academic. For another, he hadn't expressed any interest in the job. And until this fall, when all of Yeshiva's other candidate possibilities failed to pan out, Y.U. hadn't expressed any interest in Joel, either. All that changed two months ago.

"It was the unlikeliest kind of romance I could have imagined," said Joel, 52, who demurred when YU officials first approached him about the post in October. "It was God exercising His Divine sense of humor. This was nowhere in our plans."

Gradually, over the course of six weeks' worth of meetings with Yeshiva officials, conversations with colleagues and friends, and some soul-searching with his wife Esther, Joel came around. Now, he says, he is very excited about his new position, which he will assume in June when Yeshiva's current president, Norman Lamm, officially steps down. Lamm will stay on as the university's chancellor and as rosh yeshiva of the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary (RIETS), Y.U.'s rabbinical school and one of the institution's crown jewels.

"It's a privilege," Joel said. "My family has always been a part of the world of Y.U. When people are talking to you about helping to guide it to its next step, you have a sense of noble opportunity."

It was that same sense of noble opportunity that brought Joel to Hillel almost 15 years ago. Back then, too, Joel hadn't thought of himself for the job until others suggested him for it. At the time, Joel was an assistant district attorney in the Bronx with virtually no experience in the Jewish professional world.

"Looking back, I say everything I ever did in life was preparation for the Hillel job," he said. "I never would have thought that before it all started. I didn't think of myself as a Jewish professional. I was going to join a law firm."

A native of the Bronx and a graduate of Yeshiva University's high school, Joel went to NYU for college and law school before taking a job at the Bronx D.A.'s office. But Joel was restive as a lawyer, and though he felt somewhat connected to public Jewish life as an associate dean at Y.U.'s Cardozo School of Law, it wasn't enough. When Hillel came knocking on his door in 1988, Joel jumped at the opportunity.

By all accounts, Joel has been wildly successful at Hillel. Since being hired as the organization's national director, Joel has transformed what was a project of B'nai B'rith into a vibrant independent campus organization with a reach that is both global and local. Hillel's budget has grown from $14 million annually to more than $51 million per year, thanks largely to Joel's fundraising prowess. A record number of Hillel centers are under construction on university campuses, and the organization is putting the finishing touches on its new international headquarters, in Washington, D.C. Observers say Hillel's revival is largely the result of Joel's dedication and drive.

"Richard came into the job and blew us away," said Rabbi Jeffrey Summit, executive director of Tufts University Hillel and a 24-year veteran of the Hillel organization. "I think he's an inspired leader. He has tremendous vision for the Jewish people, and he articulates his vision with a passion."

While nobody seems to dispute Joel's passion, some are worried by his lack of rabbinic credentials. Many of those connected with Y.U. view the rabbinical school as Yeshiva's most prized division, and they are worried that the appointment of Joel-who will be the school's first president who is not also a rabbi-poses a danger to the distinction and reputation of the rabbinical school. When the announcement of the presidential appointment was made, some of Yeshiva's rabbis interrupted classes to recite psalms, a practice typically reserved for tragic occurrences like terrorist attacks.

Joel's most vocal detractors at Yeshiva, including some of the institution's leading rabbinic scholars, declined to be interviewed for this story.

"Frankly, it's not that important whether they like me or not. It's about the university," Joel, who is the father of three Y.U. graduates, said. "I really do believe that a university is to be a place for healthy ferment, as long as it's for the sake of heaven. I will protect Yeshiva as a place where differences can thrive, and I will extend to everyone my best efforts at good will."

But even some of Joel's admirers are worried about the implications of having a non-rabbi lead the 116-year-old New York institution. Before Joel was picked for the job, Y.U. had hoped to find someone who could succeed Lamm both as Yeshiva's president and as RIETS's rosh yeshiva. Lamm's occupation of both positions was widely seen as an embodiment of the institution's dual mission of Torah U'madda-Torah and secular learning. But Joel's selection-after an exhaustive search that extended well beyond its original mandate-precluded that possibility, and Lamm was asked to stay on as RIETS's rosh yeshiva, with Joel serving in the position of RIETS president. It was the first time that the university's president was not also the RIETS rosh yeshiva.

"It's very important that Richard be president of both RIETS and Yeshiva, so as not to break up the symbolism of Torah U'madda," Lamm said. "At his request, I will remain rosh yeshiva. He has no pretenses for that position. That's not his area of expertise."

Bernard Lander, an alumnus of Yeshiva and the president of Touro College, a Jewish-sponsored university that some observers see as a potential future competitor to Yeshiva College, said he was disappointed that Y.U. was unable to find a rabbi to serve as president.

"If I were on the search committee, I would have surveyed the area of young, promising rabbinic scholars who may not have yet attainted a national reputation," Lander said. "I think there are men who could have embodied the leadership qualities and background necessary for leadership. I don't believe the search committee looked hard enough."

While he called Joel "an extremely capable man of exceptional talent, integrity and responsibility," Lander warned of the risk Joel's selection holds for the yeshiva element of Y.U. "The danger is that the yeshiva may in time become just another institution in a large and prestigious university. For us who were raised at Yeshiva College, everything else was an appendage to the yeshiva. The yeshiva was central. Now that centrality may be imperiled."

Even Rabbi Avi Weiss, a long-time political activist and the dean of a new modern Orthodox rabbinical school in Manhattan called Hovevei Torah, included a caveat in his praise of Joel. "Once Yeshiva decided to move from the model of the rabbi/scholar, the choice of Richard Joel was a wonderful choice," Weiss said. "He's a person of great vision, great talent and great care."

For his part, Joel says his experience as a Jewish educator has prepared him for the job. He intends to uphold RIETS's reputation for excellence while bolstering the university's other schools, which include undergraduate colleges as well as schools of law, business, social work and medicine, among others. "We have to be very careful not to marginalize the other components of the university that also share a sacred mission but that have to be explicated differently," Joel said.

When he starts his new job, Joel will become not only Y.U.'s president, but also one of the chief spokesmen for, and representatives of, modern Orthodoxy in America.

"I believe that the Orthodox community needs to look to the rest of the Jewish world and even the world beyond to meet its destiny as learners and livers of Torah," Joel said. "I think there's a sacred partnership in the peoplehood of Israel, and it's not going to work if the Orthodox community is not in the partnership. I certainly think that modern Orthodoxy is about engaging in the world, proudly and unapologetically and lovingly."

Joel's unabashedly pluralistic vision has some of the more right-wing elements at Y.U. upset. They are worried that Joel will shift the institution's focus away from the yeshivish and toward the academic. Though he has said little about his plans for the institution since his appointment (Joel is quick to point out that he hasn't had much time for planning yet), the incoming president already is talking about some of the things he wants to change.

"On an undergraduate level, we need to take the next steps in investing in the classical liberal-arts education. I want to use the array of our schools to train for Jewish leadership-lay and professional. We need to do even more to have undergraduates have a Jewish service component to their education. And we need to continue the very serious Torah scholarship that takes place," Joel said. "It's building excellence upon excellence."

Lamm says his successor is up to the challenge. "Leadership is like salesmanship: It's adaptable to the product," Lamm said. "Richard has a commitment to the Jewish people; he has an even stronger commitment to Torah."

YU and its place in Orthodoxy

Founded more than a century ago as a fusion of two Manhattan yeshivas, Yeshiva University has become the standard-bearer of modern Orthodoxy in America.

Y.U. was started by Bernard Revel, a PhD-educated yeshiva scholar who sought to combine in a single institution the rigor of university inquiry with the religious fervor of yeshiva study. The institution's motto of Torah U'madda-literally, Torah learning and scientific, or secular, learning-encapsulates in a single phrase the philosophy of modern Orthodoxy.

With over 6,000 students, 17 different schools and campuses all over the island of Manhattan, Y.U. is today the largest and oldest Jewish-oriented college of liberal arts and sciences in America. Its schools include men's and women's undergraduate colleges, graduate programs in psychology, social work and education, and schools of law, business and medicine.

Y.U.'s current president, Norman Lamm, took the helm of the university in the mid 1970s, when the institution was stuck in financial and administrative morass. Widely credited for averting disaster through a combination of aggressive fundraising and cautionary leadership, Lamm delivered Yeshiva from the verge of bankruptcy and helped propel it into the top ranks of American universities. At the same time, the institution's flagship rabbinical school, the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, became the largest and most reputable producer of centrist Orthodox rabbis in the United States. The school's liberal arts program grew in step with the expansion of its kollels and beit midrash study programs for rabbinic scholars.

A little less than two years ago, Lamm, Yeshiva's third president, announced that he would be resigning his post in the summer of 2002. His announcement set off a maelstrom of speculation about who from the ranks of an increasingly fragmented Orthodox world could take the helm of an institution that synthesized modernity and religious tradition. The search for a successor to Lamm, who as a rabbi and a philosopher embodied Y.U.'s dual mission, grew increasingly desperate as university administrators failed to find someone who both wanted the job and was suitable for it.

Among others, Efrat chief rabbi Shlomo Riskin, former U.S. under-secretary of defense Dov Zakheim and England's chief rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, turned down the job or failed to make the grade. The search for a president dragged into its second year, and Lamm was asked to delay his retirement until his successor could be found. Richard Joel, the international director of Hillel, only became a candidate this October, after all attempts to secure others had failed.

The debate that Joel's appointment has provoked among some in the Yeshiva's rabbinic camp demonstrates the tensions inherent in an institution that seeks to synthesize engagement with the modern, secular world with dedication to Torah. Until Joel's appointment, many believed Y.U.'s ideology and student body was undergoing a rightward shift toward a more fervent brand of Orthodoxy-a signal, some said, of modern Orthodoxy's ideological failure. The impact that Joel's appointment will have on those impressions, and on the institution of Yeshiva University itself, remains to be seen.