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New (Old) Rebbeim and the Missing Rosh Yeshiva

Rabbi Ezra Schwartz, Rabbi Daniel Feldman, and Rabbi Marc Penner are three names that should sound familiar. Combined, the three rebbeim have over thirty years of experience at Yeshiva University. This year, however, they’ve assumed new positions. As YU expands and the student body changes, it only gets more difficult to meet our faculty. This positional switch by three longstanding YU rebbeim serves as an opportunity for us to reacquaint ourselves with them. In the process, we will see their teaching styles, views of our institution, and will investigate the curious application (or non-application) of the title “Rosh Yeshiva.”

Rabbi Schwartz, the YU Bochein (coordinator of shiur-placement exams), an assistant to President Joel, and a rabbi in the Stone Beit Midrash Program (SBMP) for six years, teaches a new shiur in RIETS on hilkhot niddah (laws governing nuptial relations). Rabbi Schwartz attended YU as an undergraduate, majoring in history with a minor in psychology. Upon graduating, he debated between law school and semikhah (rabbinic ordination). He chose semikha, spent six years in the program, and then earned degrees at both the Azrieli Graduate School of Education and Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies.

A student of Rabbi Herschel Schachter, Rabbi Schwartz endeavors to teach more than just a laundry list of rules. Instead, he and his shiur strive to penetrate into the sources of the halakhah, delving into the Talmud and peirushim (commentaries). The goal of this method, as described by Rabbi Schwartz, is to develop talmidim (students) who learn “le-halakha, not just halakhah.” In other words, the objective is to produce talmidim who both grasp the workings of the halakhik system and feel comfortable responding to new, unforeseen difficulties. Through this program, students hope to take major steps toward becoming effective rabbis.

When Rabbi Schwartz looks at YU, he sees an institution engaged in a great balancing act—of Torah and madda. Though sometimes the pendulum swings more to one side than the other, YU manages to combine the two realms to great effect. The key, according to Rabbi Schwartz, is the honest and passionate debate over what kinds of policies promote YU values. The constant cheshbon hanefesh (self-scrutiny) enables us to stay true to our principles.

Rabbi Daniel Feldman, in his first year with the Mazer Yeshiva Program (MYP), has opted to teach Masechet Shabbat (Tractate Sabbath). Rabbi Feldman brings extensive experience to the MYP lineup, with nine years in SBMP and three in Isaac Breuer College (IBC). Like Rabbi Schwartz, Rabbi Feldman cites Rabbi Shachter as a formative influence in his life. Additionally, he benefited from relationships with Rabbis Sobolofsky, Willig, Rosensweig, Simon, and Goldwicht. In his shiur, Rabbi Feldman attempts to explore the intellectual and historical underpinnings of the Talmud and accompanying mefarshim (commentators). He believes in engaging students in conversation, exploring the reasons for every statement, question, and answer they come across in the texts. The subject matter in this shiur has important real-life applications. In recognition of this, Rabbi Feldman devotes a day every week to analyzing the practical uses of their previous shiurim. The shiur aims not only improve students’ learning skills, but to influence their halakhik conduct outside of the beis, as well.

Rabbi Feldman’s position in MYP, however, has been a cause for confusion. Unlike the many other rebbeim in the program, and despite his many years of experience in Yeshiva, YU has not conferred upon him the title of Rosh Yeshiva.

YU is already well known for its high number of roshei yeshiva, a situation that some in the YU circle fear dilutes the title’s esteem. Has YU decided to bar additions to the ranks?

Rabbi Reiss, The Max and Marion Grill Dean of RIETS and undergraduate Jewish studies, spoke to The Commentator to explain the meaning of “Rosh Yeshiva.” Ironically, he explained, despite the great significance currently attached to the Roshei Yeshiva, the title itself originated as something routine. Its application, rather than reflecting a specific level of expertise or institutional power, was largely a matter of tradition. Any rabbi in the MYP program was referred to as a Rosh Yeshiva. Over the years, however, the honor and respect associated with the title grew and, as a result, YU developed a more official method of conferral. In the current system, around three years into a rabbi’s MYP career, University President Richard M. Joel and Rosh Hayeshiva and Chancellor Rabbi Norman Lamm decide whether to grant him the title. Though they consult no established criteria in order to make the decision, the rabbi is evaluated based on his scholarship and work with students. Rabbi Feldman, as a brand-new addition to the MYP program, has not yet been considered for the title. Nevertheless, in the near future, he may be YU’s newest Rosh Yeshiva.

In the wake of all these shakeups in MYP, students in SBMP should not feel left out. Rabbi Marc Penner, who, this year, assumed the position of Assistant Dean of Undergraduate Jewish Studies in addition to his post as Director of Professional Rabbinics for RIETS, acknowledges that many feel neglected in the shadow of the seemingly more vibrant MYP. He plans to focus especially on their needs this year, and has already begun to institute changes, such as the hiring of Rabbi Simcha Willig to run va’adim (literally, committees) for the students to relax and discuss issues that bother them. Rabbi Penner, a graduate of YC and RIETS, also aims to expand the roles of the sganei mashgiach, despite the challenge in surmounting the time restrictions students face from the dual curriculum. Alongside these mini-projects, he also now assists Rabbi Reiss in guiding all undergraduate and rabbinic programs. The portfolio they have to manage, he asserts, is enormous.

Though the rabbis featured in this article are all veterans of our institution, they each seem determined to add to Yeshiva in new ways. Simultaneously, they recognize that the perennial challenges our yeshiva faces—from balancing our philosophy to ensuring the smooth operation of our different programs—must be addressed as well. Though the projects they have laid out is a sign of change in the right direction, only time can tell if they will achieve their goals.