By: Doron Levine  | 

Presidential Search: Mixed Reactions from YU Community as Rabbi Berman is Nominated to be the School’s Next President

As our country is seething with excitement about its upcoming presidential election, our university is similarly anticipating a change in leadership at its highest level. As reported previously by The Commentator, Chairman of the Board and selection committee member Moshael Straus announced via email on September 13 that the selection committee has voted to advance the candidacy of Rabbi Dr. Ari Berman and “it is anticipated his nomination will be forwarded to the full Board of Trustees” for a confirmation vote.

In his email to the student body, Chairman Straus wrote that Rabbi Berman is “a triple alumnus of YU”—but he is in fact a quadruple alumnus. Rabbi Berman graduated from MTA, YU’s high school for boys, in 1987. He then attended Yeshiva College, graduating magna cum laude in 1991, and was ordained by RIETS where he studied in the Caroline and Joseph Gruss Kollel Elyon. He also holds a masters degree in Jewish Philosophy from YU’s Bernard Revel Graduate School. After receiving his rabbinic ordination, Rabbi Berman taught Talmud in the Stone Beit Midrash Program, joining YU’s rabbinic staff at the same time that Rabbis Jeremy Wieder and Elchanan Adler were hired to teach in the Mazer Yeshiva Program.

Rabbi Berman also served as the assistant rabbi of The Jewish Center of Manhattan’s Upper West Side and then succeeded Rabbi Dr. J.J. Schacter as its lead rabbi in 2000. At the time of his appointment, Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm, then president of Yeshiva University and also a former rabbi of The Jewish Center, praised Rabbi Berman as “a rising star in the firmament of Talmudic scholars and rabbis. His talents are enhanced by an attractive personality and sterling character.”

Rabbi Berman moved to Israel in 2008. He just recently completed a PhD in Jewish thought from Hebrew University under the guidance of Dr. Moshe Halbertal on the topic of “Ger Toshav (gentile who accepts the Noahide Laws) in Jewish Law Codes of the Middle Ages.” He now resides in Neve Daniel, a settlement in the Gush Etzion region of the West Bank, with his wife and five children.

So what happens next? As with all previous stages of the presidential search, the protocol and procedure governing the next phase of the process has not been communicated to anyone beyond trustees and other university elites. In his email to the students, Chairman Moshael Straus wrote, “over the coming weeks, Dr. Berman will meet with trustees, faculty and other key university stakeholders and acquaint himself with the university.” It remains unclear to what extent these various parties will determine whether Rabbi Berman’s candidacy is forwarded to the Board of Trustees for a final vote, though Chairman Straus’s anticipation that he will be voted on by the trustees perhaps indicates that faculty and other university stakeholders will have little or no say at all.

This approach would be in keeping with the tone of the search process to date. The presidential selection committee, which reviewed many candidates for the position and eventually recommended Rabbi Berman, is composed of just ten trustees. Of course, nobody expected YU to choose its next president by popular vote, but other universities have assembled presidential search committees from diverse groups of other university stakeholders such as faculty, administrators, students, and even alumni. So many were dismayed last year when the trustees decided that they alone could serve as members of the presidential selection committee.

Angered over their exclusion from the search process, the YU faculty council appealed to the Board of Trustees, imploring them to include faculty on the selection committee. In response, the Board engineered a sort of compromise. The committee itself remained closed to everyone but trustees, but the Board allowed for the formation of a parallel faculty committee. Selected by the YU faculty council and headed by Stern College Professor of Psychology Josh Bacon, this parallel committee reflects a recognition on the part of the trustees that faculty members deserve at least a nominal role the process.

But the degree of influence of this committee is not clear. Its formal power is limited – members do not vote on who becomes president, with the trustees alone retaining this right. The faculty committee reviewed resumes of candidates whom the trustees were considering seriously, reading the dossiers and then reported back to the selection committee. But the degree to which the trustees considered and valued the faculty members’ recommendations is unknown.

In fact, many aspects of this process remain shrouded in a considerable degree of mystery. The names of the trustees who are on the selection committee have not been disclosed. And trustees can be difficult to contact, rarely if ever having face time with faculty or students. The Commentator reached out to various trustees but was repeatedly ignored. Faculty might have been more forthcoming, but the parallel faculty committee’s members were all made to sign non-disclosure agreements which forbade them from talking to the press or discussing any details of the search process.

Even the leader of the selection committee repeatedly refused to comment on the status of the search. Through the executive search firm Korn Ferry, YU hired Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, the former President of George Washington University, to head the presidential search. This decision was itself controversial – many faculty members and students questioned the Board’s decision to enlist an outside headhunter with little familiarity with YU and its unique culture. Indeed, the outcome of the search process is prompting many to question the decision to involve Trachtenberg in the first place. Rabbi Berman is deeply connected to YU, having studied in four of its affiliate schools and having served on its faculty; presumably no consulting firm was necessary or even useful in identifying him as a candidate. Regardless, Trachtenberg refused to disclose any details of the process, let alone what he brought to the table. Wishing to provide students and faculty with some familiarity with the person who is leading the search for their next leader, The Commentator reached out to Trachtenberg but was repeatedly rebuffed.

By choosing Rabbi Berman, the selection committee passed over some potential candidates from within YU’s current administration. But perhaps these insider candidates’ proximity worked to their detriment, as many understandably blame YU’s financial woes over the past few years on its current senior leadership. Rabbi Berman provides a fresh face – his outsider status might enable him to breath new life into the university and perhaps inspire a fresh wave of fundraising.

But certain top lay and professional leaders at YU are concerned over Rabbi Berman’s relative inexperience with management and fundraising. His nomination comes at an uncertain time for YU’s finances. President Joel originally intended to serve as YU’s president for ten years, but he felt that three years ago was “not the right time to step down” because of YU’s shaky finances. Now, though, President Joel has expressed his belief that the university is financially stable thanks to two large donations and the recent relinquishment of financial and operational control of Einstein Medical School to Montefiore Medical Center; by handing over Einstein, YU cut financial ties with the school that accounted for around two-thirds of its annual operating deficit.

But despite President Joel’s cheerful prognosis, the experts are less optimistic. Just this past February, Moody’s Investors Service affirmed YU’s B3 rating which reflects a negative financial outlook and, according to Moody’s, “incorporates ongoing expectations of deep operating deficits over the next few years, despite the transfer of financial responsibility for its medical school to Montefiore Health System.”

YU administrators recognize that the university’s next president will need to dedicate significant time and effort to fundraising and financial rebuilding. When asked what qualities are critical for YU’s next president, Provost Selma Botman emphasized the financial and managerial role that the next president must fill. She stated that the next president must be “someone who has managerial sophistication and who has a commitment to fundraising. Presidents spend lots of time fundraising, so this must be true of the YU president. This person must also understand that YU changes people and needs to represent YU in the larger Jewish community.” Along the same lines, on February 29th YU published a job listing on with a vague description of the qualities that its next president should possess. It stated that the new president should have “a dedication to the ideals, values and mission of this distinctive university…a strong administrative record at a major institution” and “an aptitude and zeal for fundraising.”

In terms of YU’s ideals and values, many are confident that Rabbi Berman would be an effective representative of YU to the larger community and would be dedicated to the university’s distinctive mission. Rabbi Blau, RIETS’s Senior Mashgiach Ruchani, said, “Ari is a wonderful choice. He represents everything the yeshiva stands for and will certainly play the role of the spokesman of modern orthodoxy that YU represents. The rebbeim are very happy.”

Does Rabbi Berman have sufficient experience with management and fundraising? He currently serves as the Rosh ha-Merkaz li-Moreshet Yehudit, the head of the Jewish Heritage Center, of Hechal Shlomo in Jerusalem, a relatively small organization located next to Jerusalem’s Great Synagogue which houses a museum and a 500-seat auditorium. Chairman Straus referred to Rabbi Berman as Hechal Shlomo’s CEO, but it is not clear to what degree his role at Hechal Shlomo involves administration, financial management, or fundraising. And does he have a strong administrative record at a major institution? According to Chairman Straus’s email, Rabbi Berman sits on the executive council of Herzog College. But given that Herzog is affiliated with Hechal Shlomo, it is not clear to what degree his roles at these two institutions overlap and what sort of administrative duties he performs on a day-to-day basis which would prepare him to preside over a research university with four campuses, fifteen affiliate schools, over four thousand staff members, and more than six thousand students.

If approved by the board, when can we expect Rabbi Berman to take over as president? President Joel has stated that, if it were feasible, he would be willing to step down at the end of this semester. But, with some of Rabbi Berman’s children in school in Israel, it seems unlikely that he would be willing to take up the position before the summer. For now, though, YU students and faculty eagerly anticipate Rabbi Berman’s expected appearance on their respective campuses, and look forward to maybe catching a fleeting glimpse of the man who, by some mysterious process, has been nominated to serve as their next leader.