By: Doron Levine, Avi Strauss, and Yitzchak Fried  | 

President-Elect Rabbi Berman Discusses Vision and Goals for YU

The Yeshiva University Board of Trustees voted last night to elect Rabbi Dr. Ari Berman as YU’s fifth President. Chairman of the Board Moshael Straus sent out the official confirmation today, announcing that Rabbi Dr. Berman “will begin to spend time with the University in the spring and will officially begin his tenure in July 2017.” As the initial excitement of the Board’s vote is still in the air, Rabbi Berman can now officially begin his transition into the presidency.

Today Rabbi Berman clarified his appointment, explaining that he will not serve as Rosh HaYeshiva of the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary. President Joel’s predecessors all held this position in conjunction with the presidency, but, due to President Joel’s lack of rabbinic credentials, Rabbi Lamm retained the position of Rosh HaYeshiva even after President Joel took over. The bifurcation of the position which began with President Joel will continue under President-Elect Berman.

Continuing with an explication of YU’s mission statement and guiding principles, Rabbi Berman explained that “Torah Umadda is our banner; it gives us distinction; it’s our guiding principle. YU is about integrating the world around us into our Torah lives.” He recognized his place in the unique history of YU: “We’re trying to create the YU of tomorrow, but it has to be built on the past. This is an august institution with an important history, and we’re building on that.”

But he also emphasized that our university’s mission is not fossilized. “Yeshiva is in a position where it needs to constantly reenvision itself because the world around us is constantly changing,” he said. “Torah Umadda is the guiding light, but what exactly it means in every generation needs to be defined.” Even as he paid homage to his predecessors, he emphasized the need to move forward and keep YU relevant to the modern age. “The messages of all our past presidents continue to nourish us, but we need to think about what YU means today.” Not afraid to project a grand vision, he said, “we’re in a moment in history where we can embark, and we will embark, on one of the great Jewish endeavors of our generation: to transform Yeshiva University.” He added that this is “one of the exciting parts of this position.”

When asked to describe the relationship between the secular and religious aspects of YU, Rabbi Berman said that his goal is to unify all elements of the institution. “Our ideal situation,” he said, “is to move YU in a direction where all of its parts are moving in the same direction.” Unwilling to pay superficial lip service to modern values, Rabbi Berman argued that we need to examine “the underlying assumptions of modernity” and to ask, “do they complement or clash with tradition?” When pushed for more details on his specific vision, Rabbi Berman cautioned against being too hasty. “Listen,” he said, “this is the first day, so I’m not giving you a defined plan. I’m not getting into office for many months.”

Under Rabbi Berman, YU will once again be led by a rabbi-scholar who will hopefully help YU to clarify and project its fundamental values. Rabbi Berman said that he believes that our community needs to engage in a conversation about values, and that he envisions an inclusive conversation which expands beyond students who attend YU to the wider Jewish community and to society in general. “We need to broaden our base,” he said. “We need to start the conversation and invite people in -- anyone who’s rooted in their Judaism and who aspires for a great Jewish future; anyone who’s thinking about the way society is in flux and what traditional values have to say about that; anyone who wants to hear from people who understand the fundamental assumptions of our contemporary period and speak from the authentic voice of tradition -- we want to hear their voices.”

Of course, YU’s precarious financial situation will be a critical piece of Rabbi Berman’s agenda as president. But when pressed for details of his financial plan, Rabbi Berman encouraged patience, noting again, “I’ve been president-elect for fewer than twenty-four hours.” But he reassured that YU’s finances are “certainly important to me,” and said that he has “spent a significant amount of time” familiarizing himself with YU’s financial situation. “Before I accepted the position,” he said, “I needed to have an understanding of YU’s finances.”

Offering few specifics, Rabbi Berman maintained that “YU is moving in the right direction” in terms of “streamlining operations, having a handle on the budget, and creating liquidity to ensure security for the future. We’ve made great strides; there’s still a ways to go, but I’m very optimistic. The finances are a crucial piece -- we need to strategically handle, analyze, and act responsibly with our finances. We need to increase our revenue sources, whether it’s by increasing enrollment or broadening our donor base.”

But even as he discussed YU’s finances, Rabbi Berman warned against divorcing the discussion of YU’s finances from questions of values and vision: “If we don’t have clarity, if we don’t explain how our Torah is translated into the world around us, we’re not going to get the means either. We need to explain the value of YU today if we want increase enrollment and if we want to broaden our donor base.” To support this argument, he quoted the famous adage from Pirkei Avot 3:21, “without Torah there is no flour” – financial success is inextricably linked to pursuing our spiritual and academic missions.

He emphasized that this perspective will be critical in the coming years: “This is the direction for YU -- to not just balance our budget, but to grow and thrive.”