Thursday, September 22, 2016

The Right Choice

Rabbi Dr. Ari Berman superimposed on an image of YU (Forward)
“Two years ago, the school lost $83 million. Last year it lost another $84 million. And six months ago Moody’s reported that it expects the school’s financial condition to continue to deteriorate.” This excerpt from a Forward article by Josh Nathan-Kazis in the Forward underscores the question he asks in the title: “Can New President Ari Berman Save Yeshiva University?

Losing $167 million in two years ain’t beanbag. Institutions with major budgets like those of Yeshiva University cannot survive if things keep going in that direction. Which is what Moody expects to happen. Of course Josh is not the first one to publish these concerns. Forward columnist Bethany Mandel asked the same question in a previous Forward article – asserting that Rabbi Berman was the wrong man for the job. And that in order to avoid the school’s collapse, YU needs a money man rather than a scholar at its helm. I hear her point. But I cannot agree with her conclusions despite what seems to be the catastrophic financial crisis YU is in.

It’s true that the survival of YU supersedes the Centrist Hashkafa of Torah U’Mada it promotes. If there is no school, it can’t promote its Hashkafa. But the reverse is also true. If a President is hired based strictly on his fund raising ability – the Hashkafa of the school can easily be compromised. At the very least it will have no direction and no one at the helm to articulate its ideals. YU’s centerpiece – its essence - is Yeshiva (RIETS). From which all else flows. That could be reduced to just another program of the university. Which would in my view be a disaster.

It is true that  both the Yeshiva and the University are essential to the core value of Torah U’Mada. But the primary function of a Yeshiva University should be the Yeshiva. Torah study is the primary value in Torah U’Mada. Mada (secular knowledge) is secondary, albeit of high value and to be studied diligently. It cannot be the reverse.

Current YU president Richard Joel’s immediate predecessor, Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm,  knew that. He should be seen as the prototype for all future Presidents. That is the kind of President YU needs now. He articulated best YU’s mission and philosophy. He was the rabbi/scholar hired to replace another giant, Rabbi Dr. Samuel Belkin.

When Dr. Lamm took over, YU was in financial crisis as well. I don’t know if the crisis was of current magnitude, but YU was definitely in deficit mode. Yeshiva University’s directors could have gone the financial route then too. It may have been the prudent thing to do, considering that without funding, YU might have eventually closed its doors. And yet they chose a scholar. Not a fundraiser.

Dr.Lamm rose to the occasion. Under his tenure, YU’s financial fortunes were reversed. By the time of his retirement, they had a surplus instead of a deficit. At the same time YU’s philosophy was not only maintained but clarified and promoted by its president. He was not only a scholar but a Talmud Chacham. This is what the image of YU president should be.

What about the financial crisis? Ye of little faith! Being a scholar does not mean you cannot rise to meet the financial needs of the school. Dr. Lamm proved that. To the best of my knowledge he had little to no fundraising experience and yet was able to put YU on its financial feet – and then some! Torah  and Mada are not mutually exclusive. And neither is Torah knowledge, scholarship, and fundraising ability.

In my view someone like Rabbi Ari Berman is the right man for this job. Like Dr. Lamm, he was a pulpit rabbi before he became YU’s president. And like Dr. Lamm he is both a scholar and a Talmud Chacham. Ironically both men served as rabbi at the same synagogue before coming to YU. Although Rabbi Berman had a bit of a detour – living in Israel where he received his PhD from Hebrew University, that just adds to his resume in my view.

We are at a pivotal time in Jewish History. There are many forces pulling us in opposite directions. The left is trying to pull us away from tradition while the right pursues an ever increasing type of insularity. There has to be a strong institution with a strong leader at its helm that resides in the center – living and loving Torah while engaging with the rest of the world without compromising our values. That will be to our benefit and to theirs.

That is what I believe YU’s mandate should be. It has been and still is considered the flagship institution of Modern Orthodoxy. Perhaps the only ‘ship’ of Modern Orthodoxy. YU should lead the way and be a light unto ourselves, the Jewish people, and to the world. At the helm of such an institution you cannot place a fundraiser. You need someone with a background and credentials that can articulate the mission of the school. That was Rabbi Dr. Lamm.  And that is what I believe Rabbi Dr. Berman could be – given the chance.

What about the money? You have to have faith in quality people that they will to rise to the occasion. Based on what I have read about him, I believe Rabbi Berman is that man. I agree with his vision of Achdus. It is the right message for our time. I will end with an excerpt from the Forward that excerpted my own excerpt of a Cross Currents excerpt from Jewish Action magazine - to which I say Amen:   
(Rabbi Berman’s Hashkafos published in old edition of) Jewish Action magazine, resurfaced this week in the widely read Orthodox blog Emes Ve-Emunah. In the 2-decades-old article, written while he was at The Jewish Center, Berman advocates solidarity between the Modern Orthodox and the ultra-Orthodox. “The more we emphasize this for ourselves and develop intra-Orthodox programs that focus on our common bond of Torah and mitzvot, the more likely it will be that we can develop into one united community,”