Special Presidential Section: Interview with Incoming President Rabbi Dr. Ari Berman
For this year’s final issue of The Commentator, we sat down (virtually) with incoming YU President Rabbi Dr. Ari Berman and asked him to share some of his personal background and vision for YU. Rabbi Berman will take over as president on June 5.
Doron Levine: Your connection to YU goes back at least as far as high school, when you attended MTA. How deep is your connection to YU, and when did it begin? How was your experience as an undergraduate student at YU?
Rabbi Ari Berman: My connection to Yeshiva University began long before I attended any of the YU schools, as I was born and reared into a YU family. My mother was President of the Student Body at Stern College, my father held the same position at Yeshiva College and they met as student leaders of their schools. But more than just serving as a meeting ground, YU helped shape their lives and worldview. The house they built together was infused by the values and philosophy that they learned at Yeshiva University, and when it came time to select a high school and college it was only natural that I would become a student at MTA and then Yeshiva College.
During my years at Yeshiva, I was fortunate to form deep, remarkable relationships with my rabbis and teachers. For many years I learned in rebbe u-mori Rabbi Michael Rosensweig’s shiur. Later during semikhah I studied in Rabbi Hershel Schachter’s kollel and after semikhah in the kollel elyon under Rabbi Aharon Kahn. I also had the zekhut of spending four years learning from and developing a deep personal relationship with rebbe u-mori Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein zt”l, both through the YU Israel program in Yeshivat Har Etzion and in the Gruss Kollel in Jerusalem.
In many cases my first serious encounter with disciplines that would become the objects of lifelong intellectual commitments occurred at Yeshiva. While I had the pleasure of studying with great professors in a number of disciplines, the focus of my studies was on philosophy. I was a student of the incomparable Dr. Arthur Hyman ob”m, first as a philosophy major in Yeshiva College and then in the Bernard Revel Graduate school where I earned my MA in Medieval Jewish Philosophy. I also served as the co-president of the Philosophy Club (a highly sought after position, to be sure) and as one of the founders and editors of the first YU student journal of philosophy, Shem ve-Yefet.
In addition to the spiritual and intellectual elements of my experience here, Yeshiva University was also the source for so many of my lifelong friendships. These relationships - strengthened and developed in my years as a student - were central to my college experience. While I tended to spend most of my evening time in the bet midrash, my close friends were very active in extracurricular activities. My dear friends and roommates, Lawrence Burian and Ami Aharon were, respectively, the President of SOY and the founder of Morg Mart. And so entirely on account of their civic-minded merit I managed to live in one of the prestige rooms on the second floor of Morg (with private bathrooms) and had access to an endless supply of snacks.
While spending time with friends in the dorm was wonderful, I happily traded that in for married life at the end of my senior year. This most important, transformative relationship in my life was also due to my YU connections. I met my wife, Anita Ash, when I was a senior in MTA on the MTA-Central blind date. We continued seeing each other throughout college and married soon after graduation. We spent our first year of marriage on campus in the apartment building next door (now known as Rav Meir Goldwicht’s building, although at the time it was known as Rav Dovid Lifshitz’ building). Following that year, we moved to the Gruss campus for two years. These were enriching years of study for both us during which we developed great friendships with the other young couples on campus, both in New York and Jerusalem.
I could speak endlessly about the manifold ways in which Yeshiva University has molded my life. I have felt the profound personal impact of so many people - too many to name - who to this day are counted among the leadership at YU. Ultimately, while the values that drove me here were those of my immediate, biological family, in coming I gained a spiritual and intellectual family as well.
DL: Did you have any connection to Rabbi Lamm when you were at YU? What are some memories that you have of the YU president from when you were a student and then a rebbe at YU?
RAB: As with my academic life, my professional life was launched by Yeshiva University. Following my years in the kollel elyon, I became an instructor at Yeshiva College in the Stone Bet Midrash Program and had been placed by YU as one of the rabbis at The Jewish Center in Manhattan. While at the Jewish Center I had the honor of serving for six years under a rabbi who would become a cherished mentor, rebbe u-mori Rabbi Jacob J. Schacter. As it happened, these years also placed me in close contact with Rabbi Lamm who was a regular congregant at the Center. I had already been a long-time student of Rabbi Lamm’s teachings through reading his books and articles. At the Center, however, I was fortunate to develop a personal connection with him. Although he naturally had an extremely busy schedule, he regularly made time to meet with me to share his wisdom and counsel. In fact, in my early years we would meet after every major sermon or presentation that I delivered and he would offer pinpoint comments and constructive criticism in the interests of improving the content and delivery of future talks.
DL: What were your long term career plans when you decided to move to Israel? How will your experience in Israel inform your presidency?
RAB: My first priority after making aliyah was to pursue my PhD and further my intellectual journey. I completed my doctorate in the Philosophy of Halakhah at Hebrew University under the guidance of Dr. Moshe Halbertal. Together with Dr. Halbertal, I analyzed the works of the Geonim and Rishonim, piecing together the different ways in which the Jew/non-Jew distinction is theorized within halakhic literature. Moreover, in the hope of expanding my knowledge base and taking full advantage of the opportunities offered at Hebrew University, I audited as many courses as possible in addition to my core studies, whether in sociology, philosophy, anthropology, history, law, and more. During this period, I also spent a great deal of time, outside my studies, meeting the intellectual, political and religious leadership of the country. I aimed to better understand the opportunities and challenges facing contemporary Israel so that I could best use my skillset to contribute effectively to building the Jewish state.
Such an opportunity presented itself to me upon completion of my doctorate when I was offered to lead a joint venture between Hechal Shlomo and Herzog College. Hechal Shlomo, under new leadership, was beginning a process to become a next-generation center for Jewish life and learning, combining academic, religious, and leadership programming. I was appointed the head of Hechal Shlomo to lead that effort and a member of the Executive Council of Herzog College to assist in the running of the college. This position gave me the opportunity to think deeply about the future of education, as well as to teach courses in the college in my fields of expertise.
My family’s years in Israel have been meaningful and joyful. Being in Israel and moving to Neve Daniel has given my family the opportunity to experience life in an entirely different Jewish context. The world looks and feels very different living in Israel than it does living in New York, and this experience has provided me with a broader perspective on the enormous opportunities presented by this moment in Jewish history. I have an abiding feeling that had I become president of YU without first making aliyah, I would not have the capacity to be nearly as effective. By first living in Israel and being exposed to its literature, personalities and diverse worldviews, I have the benefit of bringing a culturally fresh set of perspectives to the task of leading YU. Moreover, as Jewish demographics shift in unprecedented ways, a deep knowledge of the two major centers of Jewish life - Israel and America - will fundamentally enhance our planning for the YU of tomorrow.
DL: What have you been doing over the past few months during the transition? What are your first impressions upon returning to YU? What has changed since your time here? What has stayed the same?
RAB: I have worked over these past couple of months to understand YU from a multitude of vantage points. Since the beginning of March I have been living on campus. I must admit I never thought I would move back into the Morg Dorm after my senior year, but returning here and living among our students has been an eye opening and enjoyable experience. Once again I have the opportunity of learning in the bet midrash, hanging out in the library and going on midnight runs for late night dinner.
But more than just becoming reacquainted with the ebb and flow of student life, I have scheduled my time these past months to visit and meet with each of the constituencies that collectively form our YU family. While this work will continue long into my tenure, I have already visited each of our campuses, colleges and graduate schools, met with the senior staff, deans, directors, administrators, professional teams, rabbis, professors and students as well as lay leaders, friends and supporters. My interactions over the past number of weeks have provided me invaluable insight into the YU of today.
There have been a number of takeaways from these conversations.This is not the space for me to go into each of them in great depth, but I can mention in broad strokes a few of the lessons learned.
First, YU is already suffused with an incredible energy, activity and productivity. Perhaps the most striking difference between the undergraduate school experience in YU today and the days in which I was a student is the vibrancy of student life. While student life was always enjoyable, there is today a wider range of opportunities for students to participate in extracurricular activities, clubs and programs. Together with the fact that the Jewish learning component of the day has been reinforced and the academic quality of the afternoon program has been strengthened, the undergraduate student at YU is exposed to wonderful opportunities for social and educational growth. This is all a direct result of President Richard Joel’s leadership and vision for Yeshiva University.
A second key lesson is the common denominators that link each of our schools and divisions. One small example is the way our students are developing their character and skillsets by contributing to the broader community. From Dr. Betsy Ginsberg’s Civil Rights Clinic at Cardozo Law School, which provides quality legal representation to those whose rights have been abused and who might not otherwise have access to such resources, to the Parnes Clinic in Ferkauf Graduate School which provides excellent state-of-the-art mental health care for little to no expense to families from across the economic spectrum, to the undergraduate students at YU who volunteer to teach weekly in the local public school system in the START Science! program, our students are learning by doing. They are both contributing to society and growing from their interactions with society. This very Jewish notion - the interplay between talmud (study) and ma`aseh (action) - is one of the common characteristics that I have found throughout our university, and it is this holistic approach to education that we will work to develop further in the future.
Indeed, I believe that crucial to our future success will be our ability to successfully link the different parts of YU. We must leverage the myriad and prodigious talents among our wide-ranging community, expand the educational opportunities and experiences of our collective student body, and better contribute to the extended Jewish community and the broader society. For us to achieve this goal, the various elements that make up YU must see themselves as servicing a common mission. My task as YU’s next leader will be to articulate and promote that mission, generating a strong sense of purpose across YU, within and between the different campuses, schools, alumni and friends. In fact, just as important as our immediate educational outputs is the way in which we interact with each other; whether we work in silos or in unison; whether or not everyone who sets foot on a YU campus - from students to faculty, from staff to visitors - feels energized and empowered by YU’s mission.
This leads to my final takeaway. There is no doubt that our core strength is the quality of our student body and the leadership skills that they learn at YU. Living on campus, I have had the opportunity of meeting our students in both small and large groups, dining with them, spending Shabbat with them and just sitting down with them for impromptu conversations. I have walked away from these encounters energized and inspired about the possibilities for the YU of tomorrow. But while we naturally focus inwards when thinking about YU, I have also found that there is a great deal of interest in our future on the part of the broader public. Over these past months, I have met with all different sorts of people for insights into YU’s future, both inside and outside the orthodox Jewish community. From well-known public officials to highly acclaimed thought leaders, to Nobel laureates, I have found an across-the-board interest in the future direction of YU. What is clear to all who are familiar with YU, both inside and outside our community, is that YU’s future success is crucial. For we are not just a school of higher education that trains thousands of future leaders, but perhaps more importantly we stand at the epicenter of a movement that aspires to deep, profound influence on the Jewish community at large and broader society. This adds great weight and responsibility to our task ahead. Being back at YU has encouraged me that we are not only up to the task but, in fact, primed to build on our past success and take the next step forward. I look forward to continuing our conversation and working together to build the YU of tomorrow.