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President Joel, CJF Dean Rabbi Brander discuss Re-imagination

“What is an educated person?” asks University President Richard M. Joel, introducing his explanation of what he has famously dubbed “Re-imagination.” Re-imagination, the plan that has become so familiar to everyone by name that it’s now a proper noun, has prompted many a cheery-eyed gaze toward the YU future. At the same time, most students are rather unclear about what the plan practically means to them. In an exclusive interview with The Commentator, President Joel explained the intentions behind Re-imagination, and which long-time university realities he hopes to re-imagine first.

Both Yeshiva College (YC) and Syms School of Business (SSB) students, President Joel believes, can greatly enhance their educational experience through cross-curricular experimentation. “SSB will not be separatist,” says President Joel. “We all thought that some of the walls have to come down.”

President Joel asserts that Yeshiva’s undergraduate professors no longer identify as YC, SSB, or Stern College for Women (SCW) faculty, but as Yeshiva professors. As President Joel says, “recognizing differences among students, the goal should be unity.” Such unity should manifest itself across the student body, the faculty, and administration: it is the underlying goal of Re-imagination. The process “is not financially driven,” contrary to widespread speculation, “but certainly has financial implications.”

Through Re-imagination, the administration hopes to identify “which realities are realities simply because they’ve always been realities,” and create new structural foundations across Yeshiva campuses to increase facility of inter-departmental communication. It is often difficult for Yeshiva’s undergraduate schools to reach their synergistic potential, given the geographic distance between some of the campuses. But the bureaucratic distance has made this gap even more difficult to bridge. A streamlined, unified faculty represents a major step toward surmounting the challenge.

Impacts of increased inter-departmental cooperation will trickle down and help re-shape students’ curricula. But these effects will not take place immediately, as President Joel says, “I don’t think there will be any curricular changes until next year.”

Asked about Re-imagination’s practical manifestations, President Joel said, “The only fiat I can point to is that we have proclaimed that there are no longer YC, SCW, and SSB faculties.” At this point, the primary novelty introduced by Re-imagination lies in the self-identities of Yeshiva professors who, on an inter-campus plane, are now supposed to view one another as part of the same faculty. “A multi-campus system can have synergies,” emphasizes President Joel.

This hope for synergy constitutes the unifying theme of Re-imagination and other university developments, especially the redefined responsibilities of the Center for the Jewish Future (CJF) and the new Office of Student Life (OSL). OSL Head Mr. Marc Spear reports to Rabbi Brander, though the OSL is not a CJF enterprise. As OSL Head, Mr. Spear is now in charge of many programs previously guided by the CJF. For-students-by-students organizations, for instance, QUEST and the Medical Ethics Society, will be supported and aided by the OSL, while the CJF will focus more on its service learning programs. According to Rabbi Brander, these “are more top-down. They’re student-driven, not student-led.”

Rabbi Brander reminds students that the CJF is funded almost entirely by external grants. For example, the CJF recently earned a grant from the Federation of New York to lead student-government training all around the state. Such grants, rather than tuition dollars, fuel these programs, and make it comprehensible that programming is largely led by the administration.

In both these and student-led organizations, the opportunity for “a porous membrane, or sacred synergies,” in Rabbi Brander’s words, is quite strong. Rabbi Brander points to the Office of Admissions as a prime example of a sector that benefits greatly from the CJF’s synergistic focus. “Admissions can use much of the energies developed by the CJF to move Admissions along. In Toronto, for example, there are 23 new jobs created by the kollel, and enrollment there has gone up by 10%. That’s not why we’re doing it, but it’s an important perspective.” Rabbi Brander hopes to equip CJF programming with a recruitment-oriented edge whenever possible. “15 minutes of a speaker from Admissions at yarchei kallah helps Admissions tremendously, says Rabbi Brander, who repeats, “but it’s still not the point.”

Such inter-office synergy is active in student-led programming, too, for Rabbi Brander believes confidently that “the best recruiters YU has are YU students.” Under Rabbi Brander’s guidance, the OSL led its first-ever Student Leader Retreat over the pre-Orientation weekend. The CJF and OSL hope to make such training a regular part of student life. The Student Leader Retreat is “not a policy list. It gives you the opportunity to realize that there are strategies for leaders that you might want to know about. We aim to make you stronger as an individual and professional. You should not work and not have formal leadership training.”

An important component of the CJF’s promotion of synergy is co-educational programming. Rabbi Brander explains that “I try to make sure that most leadership programs are co-educational. We also have same-sex programs, because we want to be shaveh l’chol nefesh [fit for all].”

Perhaps the most striking synergy shines through Rabbi Brander’s organization of the first-ever retreat in which “professors, deans, Roshei Yeshiva and Admissions” personnel gathered together for a weekend to assess major university questions. These delicate topics of discussion had never previously benefitted from such widely synergistic dialogue, at least not formally. Rabbi Brander follows up with all participants in the program to ensure that any conclusions reached via these conversations are implemented practically. He considers this first retreat a major success, but adds, “I guarantee you that this first one won’t be as good as the next one.”

Asked if his position’s new responsibilities represent a permanent, final development, or simply the next stage in a trajectory of increasing influence, Rabbi Brander expressed his feeling that “some CJF creativity could benefit other parts of the University. President Joel and I decided on a two-year stint to help spread this creativity. Hopefully, I’ll be helpful.” Chuckling as he implicitly referenced lighthearted Purim Issues of The Commentator from three years ago, Rabbi Brander added, “I don’t want it to be that CJF is the monster that ate the other departments. This would be bad for the CJF and bad for students.

“Rather, there need to be multiple portals through which people can communicate their goals. We need to be the incubator of creative experiences. We need to be a conduit through which people can be inspired.”