Special Presidential Section: Only Yesterday
I have a favorite memory of the early months of President Joel’s tenure. Yeshiva had organized a symposium in Jerusalem and YU faculty flew to Israel for a series of events. Towards the end of our week there, I traveled with President Joel and a handful of students to Ra’anana. The main event of the evening was a shiur I was privileged to deliver with many old and new friends of YU in attendance.
What I said that evening has faded entirely from memory, not only the audience’s but mine as well. What I do remember vividly is the afterparty, stopping outside Ra’anana at an all-night burger joint with President Joel and the students. I’m not without teaching skills but I watched a master educator that evening. “Young faces aglow with admiration and enthusiasm, inspired to serve Am Yisrael”- that’s what I wrote in my journal.
Over the next thirteen years, I saw it time and time again. This is the President Richard M. Joel I will miss: moreh, madrich, meinia, mamritz (part teacher, mentor, motivator, energizer). I hope we still have access to this Richard Joel for years and years to come.
When his administration began, many of us in the YU world had no idea how desperate the financial situation was. Remember that It would be another five years before Bernard Madoff was unmasked as a fraud. Almost every one of Yeshiva’s most serious problems predated President Joel’s arrival. I would never have imagined there would be allegations of sexual abuse at an affiliated institution. The best thing about Yeshiva then were its students, as they are now. I loved that the President sensed this as well, that he thrived in their company, and that he was visible in a way the presidents of other universities I had attended were not.
Those halcyon days have receded into memory. They seem more like a pleasant dream from which we were rudely awakened than a period of grace that eventually ended. What we then judged to be ambition and faith in the future later sometimes appeared to be naiveté.
When problems did emerge, some of which appeared to threaten the very existence of the University, President Joel never wavered in its defense. I wasn’t always certain that I understood the decisions that he made. I was not privy to the Board’s deliberations, the advice of Legal Counsel, or for that matter the inside story. Whenever I did question a policy, I always received a gracious answer. Usually I didn’t have enough facts to disagree but when I did express dissenting opinions, President Joel always understood that I was exercising my duty as a member of the rabbinic faculty and I was never made to feel that my input was unwelcome or inappropriate. President Joel has always been mindful of his responsibility to protect the future of the institution. If we disagreed, it was always about tactics; our fundamental values were always aligned.
I didn’t always know the pressure under which he worked but there were times that I was concerned for President Joel as a friend and colleague. He has the extraordinary ability of strong leaders to withstand public pressure in the extreme. When things seemed to this outsider to reach a crescendo, I would sometimes just drop him a line or two of quiet encouragement. He would express gratitude while always comforting me in return. He had the emotional intelligence to discern that my words of encouragement were a sign of the depth of my own concern.
In the darkest days, we needed his optimism, his purposefulness, his determination to see what should and could be done, and over time he set us back on course. When I have the privilege to travel across the Modern Orthodox world to teach Torah, I am often pulled to the side by alumni and parents and others whose lives have been enriched by our Yeshiva. They wrinkle their brows and lower their voices. “How are things at YU? Are you going to make it?” President Joel, you were right. You told us to teach Torah, to inspire students, and that things would right themselves. I know this didn’t happen on its own and I know there are lots of folks on the team. But we needed your vision and your grit. There is lots more to be done but things are, b”H, wonderful at YU. The Batei Midrash are filled. The Isaac Breuer College has been reborn as a model of YU Torah. We have new offerings in Data Science and Risk Management. Our talmidot chachamim in GPATS set ever higher standards for the empowerment of Modern Orthodox women in Torah. I sit in Nagel learning and a stream of happy young students stop by to kibbitz, to explore Torah issues of the day, to seek guidance on living the Torah-centered life in the trading room, the boardroom, the operating room, the classroom, the family room. I’d say things are pretty wonderful at my YU.
There is widespread respect and affection for President Joel among the Roshei Yeshiva. The regard with which he is held was clear during our monthly meetings in the boardroom outside his office. The President always felt a responsibility to report to the senior rabbinic faculty his plans and policies for the broader institution. We understood both through his deeds and words that he believes RIETS is the crown jewel of our institution, as we all do. As the chief executive of the entire university, though, he was charged with balancing the needs of secular affiliates with their own requirements both contractual and regulatory. This is one of the special challenges of managing a Yeshiva University. President Joel understood that the very name of the institution reflects the challenge accepted by its founders. To some in the Orthodox world, Yeshiva University is an oxymoron just as Torah u’Mada is. President Joel strived to minimize the contradictions just as his predecessors did. Although he might not word it this way, President Joel always understood that thesis and antithesis can often be resolved but must ultimately remain perennially in apposition. Taking shots from the left and the right is a necessary function of a centrist institution which is by definition a synthesis. I think he always understood that this is the essence of our mission and will never be without some tension.
No retrospective on President Joel can omit his love of tefilla. He is an accomplished baal tefilla and I cherished the times I have been in the kahal when he led us. Sharing spiritual experiences with students is as important as teaching them texts. President Joel is a model of a believing Jew committed to the eternity of Am Yisrael, Torat Yisrael, and our connection to Eretz Yisrael. Some of the more notable Israel-oriented projects on our campus owe their existence to President Joel and his family. He has laid the groundwork for the greater recognition that the center of the Jewish world is not in New York City but in Eretz Yisrael. His successor has a good foundation on which to build the institution’s involvement with the spiritual center of our Jewish world.
Every year, I have the bittersweet experience of sending talmidim to their new lives in the outside world. Although they and I promise to stay in touch, we all know that the intimacy of sitting together over text and singing together the song of Torah is ending. I have often heard the same story each May. Talmidim report that the outstanding experience of their Yeshiva years was spending Shabbat at the Joel home. Although I have never had that experience, I understand why that can inspire a young person. Our president is a Centrist Orthodox, Torah im-derech Eretz Jew, engaged with life and animated by our traditions. He is warm, loving, and sincere.
But being President of Yeshiva University is a public position. It can attract criticism by sincere people with their own sensibilities, albeit often with limited facts but important perspectives. During the years we have worked together and interacted, not as frequently as we would both have hoped, I have witnessed how the Presidency of YU can be a touchstone for a wide range of issues, some connected to the institution and some not. When a new crisis erupts in the broader Jewish community, we often wonder how the Anglo-Jewish press will find a way to lay it at the feet of our President. As our teacher President Lamm told me, “criticism goes with the territory. If you haven’t been severely criticized by people who don’t know you, you haven’t done anything important.”
I’m grateful that there are leaders like Rabbi Lamm and Richard M. Joel who are willing and able to navigate the rocky terrain of public life. It is something for which I am not suited and my admiration for them as nuanced, complex personalities with courage and resolve is undiminished by the challenges of life at this complex institution.
It has been my great honor to teach Torah to the wonderful students of Yeshiva University under the leadership of the President of RIETS and of Yeshiva University, President Richard M. Joel.