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Acting Dean: An Interview with Rabbi Penner

Arieh Levi: Tell me a bit about yourself. Where are you from?

Rabbi Penner: I’m originally from Fair Lawn, NJ. A Rabbi Yudin congregant, admirer, and student. I did my semikha here. I’ve been a Rabbi in Queens for 18 years now. I’ve been back in YU for 12.

AL: What was your role at YU before Acting Dean?

RP: I worked with the CJF, with Semikha students. I also was Assistant Dean to R’ Reiss for a few years.

AL: Your current title is Acting Dean – what exactly does that mean?

RP: It means that - in theory - this is a temporary position, and we’ll see how I do.

AL: What are your goals as Acting Dean? Give me one.

RP: I’d like to be able to provide for the varied needs of many different Talmidim. The biggest challenge is to create a program that works for a lot of different Talmidim that need a lot of different things. But its also the biggest opportunity.

For instance, how do we provide for the guy who might go to NYU, but comes to YU because he wants to learn for a couple of hours a day? Similarly, how do we provide for the guy who really wanted to go to Yeshiva, but at the same time wants a degree?

AL: In practice, what does it mean to provide for different students? Is R’ Moshe Weinberger an example of YU’s diversification?

RP: Yes, he’s one example. It means different speakers for different students. It means demanding excellence in all undergraduate Jewish studies programs. The first thing we need to do is know the Talmidim, so that requires a lot of listening. And then the question is how to meet their diverse needs.

We have some 20 feeder schools from Israel, all of which are very different from each other. After spending time in such a homogenous environment, how do you provide an experience that works for all of them? We can’t fail our Talmidim. This will shape – to a large extent – who they will be as Jews going forward.

AL: Going forward, what does YU have in store to address this issue?

RP: Look, different people are inspired in different ways. Without changing the model of the yeshiva itself, we’d like to provide other opportunities. The reality is, on some level it exists but it has to be done better.

The BMP program for example. We have to stop seeing BMP as secondary. BMP is an unbelievable program for a lot of boys. So this year we moved all BMP programs into the batei medrash and invested in some young, dynamic rebbeim. It’s no longer just a younger sibling.

IBC Honors, as well, is a program for a guy who doesn’t just want to study Gemara. But we’ll continue to bring in rebbeim and personalities who are different. Not because there’s a problem with what we’re doing, but because there are talmidim who need different sorts of things.

AL: You mentioned Shabbat at YU. Tell me more.

RP: Yes. The work done in the past has really started to pay off. Shabbat this year has thus far been unbelievable. Having a rebbe or Rosh Yeshiva here each Shabbos ensures that there’s a yeshiva experience. I’m trying to think out of the box – that every week doesn’t have to be the exact same schedule. Sometimes it’ll be cholent in the pedestrian mall, just so guys get to know each other a little better. This past shabbos was the BMP shabbos, and I heard it was absolutely off the charts.

On a similar note, Shabbat is indicative of a need to provide for talmidim around the clock. We all had wonderful experiences in Israel, but it wasn’t simply limited to shiur. There’s an understanding now that the whole religious experience is much more than just shiur.

AL: How can you incentivize students from NY Metro Area to stay in for Shabbat?

RP: If you want to grow here, there are opportunities, but you have to go beyond your comfort limits at times.

AL: You mentioned IBC Honors and the program’s focusing on other topics besides for Gemara. Do you think YP should incorporate some other topics as well?

RP: The challenge is always one of time. Of course we value topics such as Machshava, Tanakh, etc. There’s a lot of discussion going around now about how to provide students who are looking for those topics. But ultimately, it has to do with the shiur you choose to be in. The Rebbe chooses how to structure his shiur.

AL: What changes have you seen at YU already?

RP: I see it being happier and more leibedik than before. I think smiling’s a big part of it. Attitudes are changing – it’s a great place. Everyone loves to be a critic here, but that’s changing.

AL: What’s your favorite kind of ice cream?

RP: I’m actually lactose intolerant – so I’m going to have to go with the Soy Cherry Ice Cream from Trader Joe’s. But the less about me the better. Right now, I’m just trying to help out, and we’ll see where it goes.