The investiture of a university president—that is, the ceremony in which the authority and symbols of that office are first conferred—is a celebratory occasion, but it must also be an anxious one. The responsibility for leading a large educational institution has always been tremendous, but in recent years, the duties of fundraiser and legal expert have been added to those of scholar, teacher, adviser, and public figurehead. Since taking office last year, for instance, Harvard president Larry Summers has proposed overhauling the core curriculum, signed on to a Supreme Court brief on affirmative action, publicly feuded with a prominent professor over academic standards, suggested returning ROTC to campus, and announced a several-hundred-million-dollar building project in a neighboring town. But despite Harvard’s overwhelming size and influence, it may be that Richard Joel, the newly invested president of Yeshiva University, has a tougher road ahead of him than Summers.
Yeshiva, which was founded in 1886 as a small house of Jewish study on the Lower East Side, has since become a university with almost three thousand undergraduates and more than four thousand graduate students in its seven graduate schools all over New York City. The prominent Albert Einstein College of Medicine, the Cardozo School of Law, and the Wurzweiler School of Social Work, along with the highly selective Yeshiva College for Men and Stern College for Women, have combined to give the university a rank of fortieth in the U.S. News & World Report national survey, the same as Boston College’s. Certainly, many of Yeshiva’s students and faculty are wondering what Joel will do to continue his predecessor’s legacy in making the school more competitive: How will Yeshiva bring in the best professors? How will it attract the Orthodox men and women who can attend Ivy League schools with big Jewish student programs instead? What will induce students to stay on campus on the weekends? Where will all the money for these improvements come from?
As interesting as those questions may be, they are not the most difficult. Yeshiva is also the flagship Orthodox Jewish university and the only major Jewish university in the country. The Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary supplies a high percentage of the country’s rabbis, and graduates of the Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education fill American Hebrew schools and Jewish day schools. Given the amount of influence that Yeshiva University has over the future of Jewish life, it is hardly surprising that the selection of Joel, only the fourth president of the university in its 117-year history, was a contentious process.
Indeed, the search for the new president lasted almost three years and considered candidates such as Dov Zakheim, the current Undersecretary of Defense (who withdrew from the running when a furor erupted over his lack of qualifications for the position), and Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the chief Orthodox rabbi of England. Ultimately, the university’s trustees decided that Richard Joel’s experience as president of Hillel (an international foundation for Jewish campus life), Bronx assistant district attorney, associate dean of Yeshiva’s law school, and parent of three Yeshiva grads would make him the right man for the job. But if there was any doubt in Joel’s mind about all of the competing factions with which he would have to contend in setting out a new direction for the university, the investiture ceremony on September 21, 2003 should have settled them.
The sight of hundreds of professors in full academic regalia from Yeshiva and other institutions of higher education and learned rabbis in their dark suits and hats standing on the sidewalk waiting for the ceremony is a formidable one. As they process into the packed auditorium (overflow seating with a video feed is provided in the room next door) the small ensemble in the front of the room plays “Pomp and Circumstance” as well as the “Ode to Joy.”
The secular music selections are followed by a decidedly religious invocation from Rabbi Zevulun Charlop, dean of the seminary. While acknowledging the various ways in which Yeshiva has changed since its founding, Charlop proudly notes that it has “stay[ed] the course.” He notes that the refusal of the original institution to be subsumed by the American “melting pot” has created a stronger institution, one that still “resonates as surely as ever with the sounds and excitement of Volozhin [the home of the Lithuanian yeshivas], the model and progenitor of the idea of yeshiva for the last two centuries.” Charlop speaks of the need to “bring the divine and unchanging message of our faith . . . to every nook and cranny of Jewish life.”
The message may be unchanging but, as Stephen Trachtenberg, the president of George Washington University, who offers greetings at the investiture on behalf of “the university community,” cannot help but point out, the messenger is now different. Joel is the first president of Yeshiva who is not also a rabbi. Trach-tenberg, whose words for Joel are kind if religiously tone-deaf, finds Yeshiva’s choice similar to that of Georgetown’s recent installation of a lay president. (Loud whisperers from the row behind me hope he is wrong.) Trachtenberg notes that both institutions were looking for the “best person for the school as it is today.” Though Trachtenberg is himself Jewish, he is more concerned with Yeshiva’s academic reputation than its religious identity. So he “applaud[s] the departure” of Yeshiva from the tradition of having a president with a rabbinical degree.
The reaction of the secular studies faculty to having a non-rabbi in the head position seems similar to Trach-tenberg’s. Those who teach the humanities, social sciences, and hard sciences at Yeshiva College and the Sy Syms School of Business are quick to emphasize that Yeshiva is not a religious college at all. Some of the secular faculty may see the ascendance of Joel as a sign that they need not worry about the administration trying to bring religious ideas into secular disciplines—a move, they believe, that would impinge on their academic freedom.
The reaction of the religious faculty to this departure from tradition is less enthusiastic. Some of the more rightward-leaning rabbis, who see religious studies as the primary reason for attending Yeshiva and secular studies as a necessary evil, worry that a lay president might send the wrong signal to students about the relative importance of the two sides of the school. According to the Jewish Week, many of these rabbis and their student followers “recited Tehillim [Psalms], a prayerful response to times of crisis and danger,” in anticipation of Joel’s election, while 15 percent of respondents to the school paper’s survey believe “Joel’s presidency will be a disaster for Yeshiva.” To make matters more complicated, some of the centrists on the university and seminary faculty worry that Joel’s lack of a rabbinical degree will prevent him from garnering enough respect from the religious leaders of the school to keep the former group of rabbis in line.
In fact, there is reason to believe that unlike his counterpart at Georgetown, Joel will not be leading Yeshiva down the path toward secularization, or even maintaining the current separation between religious and secular education. Joel is not only strictly Orthodox himself, but he spent his fourteen years as president of Hillel trying to bring a greater level of observance and Jewish learning to a generation of Jews at secular colleges and universities. (During Joel’s tenure, the annual budget at Hillel increased from $14 million to $52 million and the organization opened twenty-six new facilities.) Nor is it likely, given the respect he seems to command in the Orthodox community, that the more extreme rabbis will be able to ignore his leadership.
Of course, Joel was not picked because he was the most religiously learned of the candidates. As the presence of New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg at the investiture suggests, Yeshiva is trying to take seriously the role of its graduates in public life. Most scholars agree that the Orthodox world has undergone a shift toward greater insularity in the last two decades, the result both of more young men and women studying in Israel at borderline fundamentalist yeshivas and of a secular American society that seems more and more hostile (in its popular entertainment and legal separation of church and state) to religious Jews.
Joel is a man who clearly feels a strong commitment to public life, both Jewish and secular. His legal expertise was not only put to use for the people of New York during his years as assistant district attorney in the Bronx, but two years ago, Joel presided over a commission investigating the sexual misconduct of Rabbi Baruch Lanner, the director of the National Conference of Synagogue Youth, the Orthodox Union’s educational arm. The report not only forced the Union to come clean about the misconduct but also about the three decades of cover-ups by high-ranking staff that surrounded it. Joel’s investigation, which rejected the idea that these matters should only be discussed within the Jewish community, eventually led to Lanner’s prosecution and conviction.
Discerning the Jewish community’s relationship to American public life is only one part of the equation, however, as Israeli Ambassador Daniel Ayalon reminded the investiture audience. He noted that so far two thousand Yeshiva alumni have “made their lives in Israel.” Plenty of Reform and Conservative Jewish leaders in America have recently suggested visiting Israel or buying its products as a way of supporting its economy during these difficult times—indeed, the secular Mayor Bloomberg receives a standing ovation when he mentions his recent trip to Israel in which he visited some victims of suicide bombing attacks—but the pitch to pick up and move there is unusual outside the Orthodox community.
Here, among Yeshiva families, though, there are young men and women who have no plans to stay in the U.S. a moment after graduation, who are here only to get their degrees and have little or no commitment to life in America. Joel’s own son recently made aliyah. But the question of how a Jewish university in America talks to its students about Israel—should they give up their safe lives here and put their families in danger in order to ensure Israel’s survival in this time of crisis?—is another one that Joel will have to face.
By the time Joel begins his own address, more than an hour into the ceremony, he seems anxious about the duties that await him and impatient to get started in fulfilling them. Taking off his academic cap and adjusting the yarmulke underneath, Joel, a large man with a deep, friendly smile, recalls the journey that has taken him to this point: a father now passed away, who left Vilnius for South Africa and then America, his own bar mitzvah forty years ago to the day, his education under the tutelage of various members of the audience, the rearing of his own six children.
Mostly, though, Joel talks about Yeshiva’s future. He announces particular steps toward a better university: a genetic research facility at the medical school, a more active campus life for undergraduates, a more student-friendly administrative attitude, higher standards for secular subjects, an extensive community service program, a stronger professional education component at the seminary, more faculty who are devoted to both religious and secular learning, an expanded student internship program in Israel, and more interdisciplinary contact across the school. He also adumbrates the vision behind these disparate initiatives.
[We] gather at a time when universities have been in retreat for a generation. While pursuing achievement and proficiency, the university has turned from . . . poetry, and has become too much a place of prose. . . . A new generation comes of age, longing for . . . a life that makes sense, feeling profound existential loneliness, while living in a shrinking world that, paradoxically, produces feelings of anonymity. Our children long to matter, yearning for an informing vision of values that makes life work. They confront a madness of license on the one hand and extremist, hateful fundamentalism on the other that seeks to extinguish the light of ideas and the lyric melody of values. . . .
A great university must rebuild a spirit of free inquiry, while embracing the immutability of life values that are nonnegotiable. It must teach the skills of navigating the terrain, while reaching for the cosmos. Its challenge is not to defend Western Civilization, but to advance Western Civilization.
Pondering the efforts of the men and women who have come before him, Joel notes that Yeshiva represents “a yearning for all that is sacred in our humanity and all that is human in our sanctity.” At the reception following the investiture, the university’s gym has the trappings of any academic celebration—the ice sculptures, the (kosher) sushi, the balloons, the music, the decadent chocolates—but Richard Joel seems to understand that Yeshiva is not just any academic institution. It has a large, perhaps inordinate, measure of responsibility for the future of Jewish leadership in America, and the world. And that responsibility is every bit as complicated as it is urgent.
Naomi Schaefer, an adjunct fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, is writing a book on religious colleges to be published by St. Martin’s Press next fall.