By: David Aaronson  | 

Nowhere But Here and in Israel

In his investiture speech two months ago, YU President Ari Berman talked about the "Five Torot", the five guiding principles of the Jewish people, and specifically of Yeshiva University. Torat Tziyon, the fifth principle that he mentioned, is perhaps the most significant. Torat Tziyon teaches us to support Israel, and that by doing so, we not only experience history, but shape history; that we are masters of our own fate and that we control our own destiny. In doing so, President Berman has defined his main goal in his new role: To bring the best of YU to Israel and to bring the best of Israel to YU.

It is no secret that since its founding, Yeshiva University has been the most pro-Israel university in the diaspora. No other university can claim to have hosted nearly every Israeli Prime Minister on its campus, as we have done. No other university can claim to have as many student clubs and organizations related to Israel in one way or another, as we do. No other university can claim to run a summer camp each year for underprivileged Israeli children in the Negev, as we do. And no other university based in the diaspora can claim to also have a campus in Jerusalem, the eternal undivided capital of Israel and the Jewish people, as we do. Additionally, our campuses are one of the few campuses in the United States which is free of BDS and other anti-Israel student groups. People will say that this is only because all our students are Jewish. Quite the contrary: Many of our graduate students are not Jewish, and they have embraced our core values of mutual respect and tolerance, rather than the baseless hatred and lies of BDS. As Rabbi Berman remarked in a recent interview: "Maybe we’re the only university where an Israeli politician can actually come and not just be greeted without the throwing of rotten tomatoes, but actually be cheered."

Despite all these accomplishments, there is still much more that can be done to strengthen YU's partnership with Israel, and President Berman realized this from the moment he was elected to this job. President Berman is in a unique position: He lived in Israel for almost a decade, he has three children serving in the Israel Defense Forces, and he is the first Israeli citizen to hold the YU presidency. You might therefore say that the relationship between YU and Israel is hardwired in his DNA, and as both the leader of Yeshiva University and as a representative of the Jewish State, he sees and feels the responsibility to enhance this partnership and take it to the next level. One of the first things that President Berman did after he received this job was meet with the presidents of nearly every major university in Israel. He continued this mission on his next few visits back home to Israel, eventually creating a major breakthrough when he announced a joint degree program with Tel Aviv University.

On his next few visits back home, President Berman began creating partnerships with the political leaders on the ground in Israel. During a short trip to Jerusalem over the summer, he met briefly with Eli Groner, Director-General of the Israeli Prime Minister's Office, on the sidelines of an event hosted by Jewish philanthropist Robert Kraft. The next day, he met with the Chief Rabbis of Israel at their headquarters. And on a trip home over Sukkot break, he met with Israeli Education Minister Naftali Bennett, with Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky, and with Israeli President Reuven Rivlin. In the meeting with President Rivlin, Berman was joined by Chairman of the YU Board of Trustees Moshael Straus and also by the Rennert Family Visiting Professor of Foreign Policy Studies at YU, Ambassador Danny Ayalon, who arranged the meeting. President Rivlin discussed his connection to YU, as he is a seventh-generation Jerusalemite and a direct descendant of a group of students of the Vilna Gaon, who followed his teachings and went on to help re-establish the State of Israel. The other group of students of the Vilna Gaon and their descendants, he said, went on to America to help establish Yeshiva University. It's also worth noting that back in September, President Rivlin sent a congratulatory video to President Berman that was aired at YU ahead of his investiture.

Since returning from these visits to Israel, President Berman has sought other ways to strengthen this natural relationship, including by offering scholarships to students who served in the Israel Defense Forces or in Sherut Leumi, Israel's National Service. He then met with both Israel's Ambassador to the UN Danny Danon and the Consul General of Israel in New York, Dani Dayan. In the coming months, President Berman is also planning to join world leaders in speaking and participating in a number of prestigious pro-Israel conferences in the United States and in Israel.

President Berman's vision has been met in Israel with a very positive reception. One university president in Israel mentioned that when he was first approached by President Berman, his initial thought about YU was: "What took you so long? We've been waiting decades to partner with universities in the United States and now finally we have someone who is willing to work with us." He went on to mention that there are many Israelis attending university in Israel who would love to spend one or more of their semesters abroad, and that YU is the most friendly environment for them to do so. Additionally, student and faculty exchange programs have become another possibility in enhancing this cooperation. On the political front, the leaders President Berman met with have all expressed significant interest in visiting Yeshiva University and in working with us to help lay the groundwork in order to achieve these goals.

In these short two months since President Berman officially started his term, much progress has clearly been made in building up the university's relationship with Israel. Many speak of a divide between Israel and Diaspora Jewry. But here at YU, under the leadership of President Ari Berman, there doesn't seem to be any divide, but rather only a common future and a shared destiny. President Berman's vision should serve as an example for other Jewish institutions in the United States, especially by those who feel isolated by or estranged from Israel. As President Berman has demonstrated, there are endless opportunities for joint work between Israel and the Diaspora. If other Jewish leaders in the United States were to follow suit on this mission, it would be a win-win for both the Jews of Israel and the Jews of the Diaspora so that we may one day be able to unite and live as one.