By: Doron Levine  | 

Rabbi Dr. Ari Berman Elected President of YU

On November 15, the Yeshiva University Board of Trustees voted to elect Rabbi Dr. Ari Berman to succeed Richard Joel as Yeshiva University’s president. Rabbi Dr. Berman will become YU’s fifth president, joining the ranks of Rabbi Dr. Bernard Revel, Rabbi Dr. Samuel Belkin, Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm, and Mr. Richard Joel. The vote took place during the afternoon of the 15th in the Gottesman Board Room on the fifth floor of the YU Beren Campus building located at 215 Lexington Avenue. The result of the vote was revealed to The Commentator by Trustees as they exited the building and was announced the next day by Chairman of the Board Moshael Straus. Rabbi Berman will take over as president on July 1, 2017.

The Board of Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary convened for a meeting soon after the YU Board meeting was adjourned and voted similarly, electing Rabbi Berman to the twin position of President of RIETS. However, Rabbi Berman will not hold the position of “Rosh HaYeshiva” of RIETS. 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. Though he will not be Rosh HaYeshiva, as president of RIETS Rabbi Berman will be involved in the selection of future Roshei Yeshiva.

Rabbi Hy Arbesfeld, a benefactor of Yeshiva University and its programs and a member of the Board of RIETS, said he was “very pleased that our new president will be Rabbi Dr. Ari Berman, whom I know very well from his days of being rabbi at the Jewish Center.”

A quadruple alumnus of YU, Rabbi Dr. Berman graduated from MTA in 1987. He graduated magna cum laude from Yeshiva College in 1991 and then received his ordination from RIETS and his masters in Jewish philosophy from the Bernard Revel Graduate School. Rabbi Dr. Berman taught Talmud in YU’s Stone Beit Midrash Program and served as first the assistant rabbi and then the head rabbi of The Jewish Center of Manhattan. He left his post at The Jewish Center when he moved to Israel in 2008, and recently completed a PhD in Jewish thought from Hebrew University under the guidance of Dr. Moshe Halbertal. He resides in Neve Daniel with his wife and five children.

Was the outcome of the presidential vote a foregone conclusion? One YU administrator, though reticent to speak to the press, heavily implied that Rabbi Dr. Berman’s appointment was anticipated and expected by those close to the process. Trustees have been less forthcoming, repeatedly rebuffing The Commentator’s requests for comments throughout the entire search process. When approached by a Commentator journalist less than a week before the vote, YU Trustee and Treasurer of the Board Philip Friedman shared these cryptic words: “We will try to find common ground and I’m sure we will.”

For Rabbi Berman to be elected president of Yeshiva University, he needed at least eighty percent of its Board to vote in his favor. RIETS, a corporation that is legally separate from Yeshiva University, has its own set of governing rules – to become President of RIETS, Rabbi Berman needed the votes of just over fifty percent of the Board of RIETS. But though the two institutions are technically independent, at least twelve trustees sit on the Boards of both corporations. One such trustee is Julius Berman, the Chairman Emeritus of the Board of RIETS and uncle of President-Elect Berman.

Another such trustee is President Richard Joel, who sits on both the Board of Yeshiva University and the Board of RIETS and was therefore granted a vote in both elections. President Joel felt that it would not be appropriate for him to personally attend the two votes, but he called in to cast his votes in support of Rabbi Berman. “I know Rabbi Berman,” said President Joel. “In this vote, my responsibility is to support the board leadership. It was a heartfelt vote.” In fact, President Joel believes that he “might have been the first person to mention Rabbi Berman to the Chairman of the Board.” Since his position on the board is in virtue of his position as President, Richard Joel will no longer sit on the Board once he steps down this coming July. He will continue to live in his current house, which is owned by Yeshiva University, even after he is no longer president.

Many have noted that, judging by his history and background, Rabbi Berman looks to be a very different sort of presidential figure from President Joel. Rabbi Berman is an ordained rabbi with a doctorate in Jewish thought and little experience managing large institutions, while President Joel is a layman who, before he became president of YU, served as Associate Dean of Cardozo School of Law and President of Hillel. When asked what he makes of the fact that the Board’s choice for his successor is markedly different from him, President Joel said, “He certainly is far more learned than I am. But we have not-dissimilar hashkafas. I don’t think that went into the choice. When they were looking for me they were looking for someone to put more emphasis on student life and on building the faculty. That was my mission. My background is not in finance, but I know how to run a company.” President Joel had high praise for Rabbi Berman: “He is the ultimate ben yeshiva. He was and is a talmid of several of our Roshei Yeshiva. He has winning ways. He speaks beautifully. He’s a talmid chacham. And I’m very excited about his being next.”

Dr. Moshe Halbertal, a world-renowned Israeli philosopher and PhD mentor to Rabbi Dr. Berman lauded his student: “Rabbi Berman's work combines meticulous textual analysis with a fine conceptual grasp and a deep philosophical understanding of the larger ramifications of the subject on the relationship between particularism and universalism in the history of Halakhah. YU is blessed to have as its future president a wonderful scholar and a genuine ‘mench’.”

Dean of RIETS Rabbi Menachem Penner who, along with Vice President Josh Joseph, attended Yeshivat Har Etzion with Rabbi Berman, spoke highly of our president-elect. “It will be wonderful to have him join the Yeshiva,” said Rabbi Penner. “He’s a significant talmid chacham, a terrific speaker, and he will address the yeshiva on a regular basis. We will work very closely on details of what’s going to happen in the yeshiva.” When asked to gauge the reactions of the Roshei Yeshiva, Rabbi Penner said “On the whole they’re really looking forward to working with him.” This is a significant departure from last election cycle – when Richard Joel was being considered for the position, semicha students organized an “emergency tehillim rally” to protest Joel’s candidacy and were joined by Rabbi Schachter, Rabbi Twersky, and Rabbi Willig.

The Board’s vote followed quickly on the heels of a highly secretive selection process. The JTA published on September 12th that Rabbi Berman was the top candidate for the position and Chairman of the Board Moshael Straus confirmed the next day that Rabbi Berman’s candidacy had been advanced by the presidential search committee. For the past two months, Rabbi Berman has been meeting with various YU stakeholders in preparation for the Board’s vote. Notably, his only meeting with YU undergraduate students to date took on the night before the board’s final vote, when he sat down to dinner with YU’s undergraduate student council presidents.

Faculty had some input during the presidential search. Several members of YU’s Faculty Council interviewed Rabbi Dr. Berman when was being considered by the board beginning this past September and then presented their opinions to the board. Dr. Charles Swencionis, a professor in YU’s Ferkauf Graduate School of Psychology and Einstein College of Medicine who serves as the Speaker of the Faculty Council, was present at the Faculty Council’s interview of Rabbi Berman. He explained what he likes about Rabbi Berman: “I see him as a man who listens, an open man. He seems aware of the major difficulties of the university beyond the financial ones.” Professor Swencionis acknowledged that “the university has some deep problems” and said that our president-elect  “strikes me as a man who could inspire people to get behind the university again.”

When asked if he had any specific concerns about Rabbi Berman, Dr. Swencionis said, “It would be nice if he had a lot more experience running a major university.” But he explained that “the spiritual aspect” was an important consideration during the presidential search alongside experience with finances and management and the “we couldn’t find anyone with both. There isn’t anyone like that in the modern orthodox world.” Swencionis maintained that he is satisfied with the Board’s decision. “I didn’t feel like we were settling,” he said. “I think he’s gonna be a real plus.”

Administrators of several of YU’s graduate schools were less forthcoming with their thoughts on our president-elect and the search process in general. Interestingly, one administrator of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, a school that YU continues to claim strong ties to despite recently handing over its financial and operational control to Montefiore Medical Center, turned down a request for comment about the presidential search with these words: “Given the 2015 transition of Einstein, no [Einstein administrators] would consider talking about the YU search appropriate.” In September 2015, Dean of Einstein Dr. Allen Spiegel wrote in a letter addressed to the Einstein community that, though YU currently retains its role as Einstein’s degree-granting institution, “Under the comprehensive terms of the agreement, Einstein is seeking the authority to grant degrees (which is expected to be approved in approximately three years’ time).”

Rabbi Berman’s transition into the presidency is expected to mirror the transition of his predecessor. President Joel was elected president in the beginning of December 2002 and officially became president on June 16, 2003. During the interim months, he spent two or three days a week in Yeshiva University and the rest of his time in Washington D.C. since he remained President of Hillel during his transitional period. He sat in on cabinet meetings and met weekly with Rabbi Dr. Lamm, working from what he called a “tiny little cubicle behind Dr. Lamm’s office”.

Similarly, Rabbi Berman will take over on July 1 and President Joel will be in charge until then. In the interim, Rabbi Berman will be travelling back and forth between Israel and America, but as time goes on he will become increasingly more of a presence on campus. President Joel explained, “We will do everything to welcome him and help with an onboarding process as he desires. On the night of June 30, I will take my photographs and diplomas and I will leave the door and close it. Maybe I’ll leave him a note on my desk wishing him luck. And the next day he’s in here.”