Faculty Unease, Women on Wilf and LGBTQ Events: An Interview with President Ari Berman
The following is an abridged transcription of a 45-minute interview with President Ari Berman. All editing of the original 6,500-word transcription was done in a way to preserve the essence of the conversation. After much insistence on the part of the YU Office of Public Affairs and Communications, we included some editing of syntax and grammar; condensed sections are indicated by ellipses.
The questions asked in the interview reflect the interests and curiosities of those who responded to the survey that was distributed among the student body.
Benjamin Koslowe: President Berman, on an average day, what do you do in the capacity of your role?
President Berman: I’m very glad to talk about this, because I have the feeling that many people don’t have an accurate sense of the President of Yeshiva University’s role. For example, recently I was davening in Teaneck and a fellow came over to me, and started talking to me about Yeshiva University’s ads in The Jewish Link. I thought to myself, I’m not the Vice President of Communications. Our actual Vice President of Communications is great, and you should speak to him.
My role as President consists of three primary elements. First, I formulate, articulate and represent the vision of the future for Yeshiva University. In that capacity, I address a number of different constituencies. We have our undergraduate student bodies, our graduate student bodies, faculties from across all of our schools, our professional staff, our administrators, our friends, our alumni, our donor base in different geographic regions here and around the world, thought leaders, faith-based leaders, rabbinic leaders, academic leaders and more. Representing YU’s values and vision to these various groups is a primary element of my position. That’s number one.
Second, I form and develop partnerships with major current and potential partners, also on a number of different levels. For example, lay leaders, potential donors, organizations, universities, academic alliances. That’s the second aspect.
The third is being CEO of this enterprise. I have great vice presidents who are directly on the ground, operating across the layers of the university, from communications, to legal, to finance, institutional advancement, et cetera. Serving over these great vice presidents is the third aspect.
“There’s no other time in which Jewish women have the opportunities and the access that they have today. And we want to strengthen, encourage, support and grow that as much as possible.”
In each of these aspects, we’ve moved the ball forward considerably. The first part, forming and articulating the vision, is maybe the most crucial. The vision for the future of Yeshiva University, emerging from the first year and a quarter of listening and meeting with all the different constituencies and groups, is now clear. We can talk about that if you’d like. We’ve also had great success in the second part, developing new partnerships, as reflected in the new gift commitments that we received before the Hanukkah Dinner. And in the third part, we’ve done a lot of work, especially in strengthening our business model by adding new annual revenue streams.
So my days encompass all of these things, at every level of the university: the ten graduate schools, four undergraduate schools, high schools, museum and library. In order to move the ball forward on all fronts, I am meeting with donors, academics and lay-leaders and walking around campus and speaking to faculty.
All these pieces make up my day, which is like a marathon. At the end of the day, when I come home, my daughter and I talk about our day. We try to pick out five good things that happened to us each day. And I often find that when she asks me, “so what did you do today?” I have a hard time even remembering what happened at the beginning of the day. It takes a real effort.
Shoshy Ciment: Yeah, I should do that.
PB: It’s really helped.
SC: What would you say the most stressful part of your job is?
PB: I don’t know if I think of it in terms of stress. I think in terms of opportunities. In the beginning, I had an advantage because I come from this institution. I’m not just an alumnus, but somebody who really grew up in this community. So I sort of had a little step ahead. I also thought that having a wider range of experiences — moving to Israel and seeing the Jewish world from a whole other Jewish perspective — was important coming back to YU, and thinking about YU into the future, I thought that was very important.
But coming back to your question, I had to learn a lot of things. So my listening tour, meeting with all of the constituents across the YU community and beyond, was eye-opening on many levels. And we needed to do that to form the vision for the future, which is crucial.
SC: Cool. So the next question is something that has come up a lot, and you’ve probably heard about it, and I think it flows nicely from what you just said about there being a lot of differences. I think at the same time a lot of things haven’t really changed in many respects. So, many students have expressed concern about the disparities between men and women’s learning programs in the morning. Basically, that women don’t really have a learning program to the caliber of the men’s undergraduate [program] at Yeshiva University. So why has there never been a significant effort to institute similar programs on the women’s campus?
PB: Well, I can’t really speak to the possible efforts of the past, but I can speak towards the issue of women’s learning, which on many levels is very dear and important to me and to the future of YU. Let me put this question into a broader context. Yeshiva University educates the leaders of the future. We deliver quality education, great jobs and great values. That’s what we’re about, those three things. We accomplish this in two primary ways: through a focus on values and leadership on the one hand, and educating for the market skills of the future on the other.
The first thing we do is values and leadership. We’re number one in values and leadership. There’s no other university setting that teaches the ideas, values and texts of our 3,000-year-old tradition of wisdom, complemented with the best of the Western tradition like we do. And our goal is to inspire our students to leave here ready to go out and be people of impact and purpose.
The second thing is educating for the market skills of the future. Our students need to be fully capable in all the skill sets and behavioral competencies that will be necessary for them to succeed in the marketplace of tomorrow, so that they experience enormous personal and professional success. This is crucial to us.
So with all of this as a larger context let me talk specifically about Stern College and the Beren Campus. When it comes to women, barukh Hashem, we are living in the greatest time in Jewish history, perhaps ever. There’s no other time in which Jewish women had the opportunities and the access that they have today. And we want to strengthen, encourage, support and grow that as much as possible. And I mean that in all fields, starting with issues like women in tech, women in entrepreneurship, women in business. We already have great strengths in science and technology, and we want to strengthen ourselves more in finance. In these areas, we feel like we have a leverage point. The single-gender education system might even give us a leg up on some of these pieces.
“There’s no question that we want our students, both men and women, to not just learn Torah but spread Torah as much as possible.”
I was just walking around the Beren Campus, and one professor said to me that our students ask the best questions. He’s been teaching in university settings for 30 years, and the students at Stern College ask the best questions. So I asked, “what do you attribute that to?” And he said, the fact that it’s single-gender and that there aren’t men in the classroom. I turned to the students and I asked them that question, and they told me the same thing. They also thought that part of this is that we come from a Talmudic tradition of asking questions. But studies have suggested that single-gender educational settings can have advantages for women.
But whatever the case may be, we feel that it’s very important for us to grow in these areas. Computer science for women, for example, is absolutely crucial. The new Digital Lab coming to Stern College is an example of how we want to elevate all of the education at YU, and to make sure that our students have a great pathway for success.
There’s no question that the basis of our values and education is Jewish learning — learning our Jewish texts and learning our tradition. And we want our students to have as much access as possible. Whatever we can do to grow their opportunities, we would love to do so, and we’re working on that now. We are asking questions like, what is the right format? What works best with the students’ calendar and the structure of the day? How do we get more high-level teachers to the Beren Campus so that women who are interested can tap into it?
I love what [TAC President] Adina Cohen did. When Adina did the bekiyus program I was delighted to speak at the opening in support of the program. That she was able to work with the right administrators and figure out a way of growing that program is great. And certainly, whether it’s student-driven initiatives or coming from the faculty or the administration, we are very interested and excited about the prospects of growing learning at the Beren Campus.
BK: When thinking about growth in specific, do you and the current administration view as an ideal a future where the Beren Campus would have some equivalent to the Yeshiva Program, or is the belief more that the ideal might be to continue a certain growth, but that there still might be differences even at an ideal point?
PB: Whatever is best for the students, I’d want to do. We’re thinking about GPATS too, it’s not just during the undergraduate experience, but growing GPATS and its classes, so that women can stay longer and study more intensively. We’re open to as intensive a growth experience of talmud Torah as possible. I think it’s amazing.
SC: So while we’re talking about women, there’s been a lot of talk recently about the role of women on the Wilf Campus, specifically in the aftermath of Lilly Gelman’s article about speaking at Klein@9, and then being silenced and then the aftermath of that. So the question is, do you think that women should be allowed to get divrei Torah on Shabbat on the Wilf Campus, and what do you think the role of women on Wilf Campus is?
PB: So let me back up and continue the last answer. There’s no question that we want our students, both men and women, to not just learn Torah but spread Torah as much as possible. We encourage everyone to take their Torah and to teach it. We want our women students to be marbitzot Torah, and that runs across this institution and exists in many forums and places. I think on the Wilf Campus, it seems to me there are vehicles that it could exist in already.
A lot of this has to come from the students, meaning the students need to speak to each other, work with the right administrators and identify the right forums. But it seems to me that there are vehicles that exist, and if they don’t already exist, could exist. Certainly in concert with what we think that we want for our women as leaders for the future.
BK: I wonder if you could speak more practically. Let’s say, rather than looking towards the future, meaning what was your immediate reaction to the discussion that became a pretty communal discussion about Klein@9 specifically? What was your assessment of that situation?
PB: I’d say my immediate reaction when I heard the general issue was that Yeshiva University of course stands for our women not just learning Torah but teaching Torah. It’s been true throughout Yeshiva University communities throughout the world. It’s been true for Yeshiva University specifically. I’ve been at Beren for Shabbos, I have seen women giving divrei Torah all the time. I was the rabbi of The Jewish Center where women give divrei Torah all the time. So I was perplexed that this became, I would say, misunderstood. Yeshiva University is certainly for women giving divrei Torah.
The particular issue of where is the best place and the right forum on a campus that is also a single-gender male yeshiva is a good question, and I think students should talk to each other about that. The students should speak to each other with the right administrators and come up with the right vehicles. There are sensitivities in all directions, and I have confidence in our student body that if they work together, they can find the right directions and vehicles for these kinds of issues. It’s important for them to do so.
BK: Do you think that it was a healthy discussion that wound up happening?
PB: I don’t know if I followed all of the articles, to comment on the exact discussion. But this is an example of how we’re part of a community. Students should be talking to each other.
SC: Productive conversation would be nice. At this point, I don’t think it’s totally resolved. I go to Klein@9 and women still aren’t speaking, so, I don’t know. Maybe with this article people will talk more. I don’t know.
So, this is kind of a departure from what we’re talking about, but in light of recent events on campus that are giving voice to Jewish LGBTQ activists like Ben Katz and Hannah Fons, who’s postponed until later, students on both sides of the aisle have voiced concerns regarding events like this. So what is your opinion on events like this? Do you think that YU should continue to hold these types of events in the future?
PB: Yeshiva University stands for a number of core values. I articulated them last year, but it was just a re-articulation of the values of Rav Soloveitchik, our roshei yeshiva, rabbis and — the truth is — our tradition from Har Sinai.
We believe in Torat Emet, that our Torah is true. We believe in Torat Chesed, that our true Torah is one of compassion and kindness. We believe in Torat Adam, that each individual carries his or her specific unique potential and it’s holy work for each individual to develop themselves in the way that best allows them to reach their own destiny. We believe in Torah Chayyim, that our Torah is not limited to learning in the four walls of the beit midrash or davening in shul, but that we must bring our Torah out into the world. … And we believe in Torat Tziyyon, that our broader ambition is to work towards redemption.
So what we do is, we bring our values, our 3,000-year-old tradition, in conversation with the best of the Western tradition. And we educate our students to be informed by and infused with those values, which will enable productive conversations about all kinds of issues. Whatever the contemporary issue is now, my thinking is, what’s going to happen in ten, twenty, thirty years? Meaning, I want our students to have the values and the learning experiences to be able to speak how our values and wisdom, our texts and ideas, will apply to whatever new issues are going to come up as well. That’s all very important to the education Yeshiva University is trying to provide.
At a base level, the most important thing for Yeshiva University is of course the mental and physical health of each one of our students. That is a threshold issue, crucial across the board. Now, very specifically, what kinds of events should be run, certainly in the extracurricular sphere — this is another example of where students should be speaking to each other. We have one community, so the students who make up that community should work through these kinds of things together. They should speak with each other, speak to the right administrators and figure out the best way for the community to think about current issues. I think it’s great.
BK: Where do you see the role of roshei yeshiva playing into this? Particularly when it comes to issues like LGBTQ speakers, on the one hand you mentioned that students traditionally do schedule events and deal with student council and that avenue of bringing speakers in, but especially for speakers like these, roshei yeshiva and maybe other administrators often have certain concerns that could run in conflict with speakers that students might want to bring. So I wonder what your thoughts are.
PB: I think our undergraduate students represent a spectrum, and they themselves reflect opinions of their teachers and roshei yeshiva. That’s how the conversation takes place. Of course, it’s also working with administrators. I don’t know if our roshei yeshiva have specific positions on any of the details, but of course they’re a part of the mix. But I think the students are pretty representative of their teachers. I’m sure students will go to their roshei yeshiva and ask them questions. This is part of the process.
“Our faculty is crucial to the future of Yeshiva University.”
When you’re a growing adult and you have questions, you learn from your roshei yeshiva, your rabbi, your teachers. You learn from those experiences. I have rebbeim myself, and I speak to them all the time about issues that are important to me. Throughout my whole life, rebbe u-mori Rav Lichtenstein, rebbi u-mori Rav Rosensweig, rebbi u-mori Rabbi Jacob J. Schacter and all the roshei yeshiva that I studied with here, have affected a lot of my decisions and my thinking. So I think it would be very natural for students to speak to their teachers, and I’m pretty confident in our students’ ability to think things through together with each other.
SC: Yeah, I think it’s definitely true that there are students on both sides of every single issue that goes on in YU, and there is a lot of discourse. We especially see it in the pages of The Commentator and letters to the editor and so many different opinions. But, I think at the end of the day, students talking is important and that happens a lot, but it always ends up being thrown to a higher power. Like, for example, the Klein@9 thing, there was so much on both sides for both students, and people who said all the way on one side and all the way on the other side and they were talking, and it was really nice actually to watch. But at the end of the day, it gets thrown up to an administrator, someone higher up who can make a decision.
PB: I don’t want to speak for the administrators who are responsible for overseeing these areas, because it’s really not my role, and I don’t want to overstep. But I’m pretty sure that if there is an interest from students in trying to find an appropriate vehicle that would help bring together our community in which women can also give divrei Torah, I am pretty sure that they can figure something out and the administrators would work with them to figure out the right way to do that. It would be really surprising to me if that couldn’t happen, by the way. But let’s leave that (laughter). I don’t know what the exact vehicles are, but if everyone is talking to each other, it seems to me that these kinds of issues can be worked out.
SC: I think there was talk about another minyan at some point, right?
BK: Yeah, that was part of the conversation, and it didn’t pan out in the end. Anyway, shall we move to the next question? This actually ties in well to another question, in that it has to do with students. So the question is: Without town hall meetings, do you feel that you have an accurate depiction of the pulse on campus?
PB: We have a number of campuses and a number of constituents on each campus. We have undergraduate students, and then it’s broken up by schools and Jewish studies programs, et cetera. We have our graduate students across ten different graduate schools. We have different kinds of faculty, and the different layers of the administration. So it’s important for our senior team to have our finger on the pulse of all of those constituencies.
“I think that those polls represent the difficult past that Yeshiva University is only now emerging from.”
We try to do this both qualitatively and quantitatively. We plan touchpoints with all of the different constituents that I mentioned. But, beyond that, we also do a great deal of data gathering, so that our thinking is more scientific. We try to make data-driven decisions, and our senior team is certainly thinking a lot about the current context and how to lead us to a future of growth and expansion.
BK: Would you be able to elaborate on what the data research into student sentiment looks like?
PB: We do several different collections of data. These are internal things. We do studies on the current student body and potential student body. We certainly do a lot of those things.
BK: And is your sense that student sentiment is positive?
PB: I don’t know if “positive” versus “negative” is the right framework. We’re interested in areas of satisfaction and which areas we need to grow in.
SC: We would be remiss if we didn’t mention this, just because it’s been a big story that we recently had and a lot of people are interested in this. So there was a recent survey that spread through YU faculty that polled the [faculty], and there were a lot of interesting facts from the survey. So I just wanted to specifically ask you about a few of them. So it said that 40 percent have confidence in President Ari Berman in his role as President, so I wanted to hear your reaction to that and why you think that is or how you think that you should approach that?
PB: Our faculty is crucial to the future of Yeshiva University. Meaning, we pride ourselves in quality education, great jobs, great values — all of this comes from the faculty. Their sense of their position in Yeshiva University and the future is very important to us. And their morale and their compensation are certainly at the forefront of my mind. Certainly at the forefront of my mind. Everything I’m doing to grow this institution — and that we’re all doing; not just me, but everybody in the administration — is obviously for the benefit of our students. But we can only do that through ensuring the future of our faculty.
“I’m not just saying that you’re only a person of impact if you make aliyah.”
And I think that those polls represent the difficult past that Yeshiva University is only now emerging from. We spent a lot of time to try to create a financial framework for greater growth in the years ahead. We are creating a stronger business model. The people that will see their compensation increase because of this is of course the faculty. But it’s a marathon; it’s not a sprint. This is a process. And I’m deeply grateful for our faculty’s loyalty and devotion. They’ve come through some very difficult years at Yeshiva University. I’m very appreciative of their excellence. If we’re providing quality education, it’s only because of our excellent faculty. And I have their concerns deeply in my heart and my mind as we grow this institution.
SC: To what extent are you going to focus on the suggestions that they offered in the survey? For example, they wanted to increase the pension plan 45.5 percent. A lot of people said they wanted to create a plan for raises and compensation. So to what extent are you considering moves like that?
PB: As we see new growth, which we’ve already started to see, these are the kinds of things we can be doing. And we’ve already begun to do it. I don’t want to overstate what we’ve done so far. I don’t think we deserve any pat on our back for the fact that we’ve been able to increase pensions, but it’s a start. And that’s certainly at the core of what we’re doing, there’s no question about that.
BK: Those were our main questions. I know that 100 questions came up, and we obviously couldn’t address all of them. One question that is kind of a synthesis of several questions, but a theme that seems to be of interest to students is that, obviously Israel is such an important motif and object of interest for your presidency — you being the President who came from Israel, and who very quickly created pathway programs with Israel, who talks about Israel very often. So there are many types of questions that came up. One that seemed the most interesting to us that we thought might tell a lot is the following, and that is, do you want every YU student to eventually make aliyah, to move to Israel?
PB: Well, I definitely encourage aliyah. I think aliyah is wonderful. I think Israel is the great berakhah that Hashem has given us after close to 2,000 years of waiting. But I love this question, because it cuts to what Yeshiva University is really about when I talk about Torat Tziyyon.
Let me put it this way. We live in the greatest era of opportunity for Jews in close to 2,000 years. And I think that we are on a great historic trajectory moving forward. There are two areas, two centers, where you see this taking place. One is Israel, where we’re growing a Jewish society and we’re building the Jewish state. It’s an exciting, riveting, new turn for the Jewish people, and we’ve always encouraged people to make their future in that state – to think about raising their children there and how they’re going to be a part of that enormous incredible endeavor. I think that’s wonderful and great.
But there’s also a great project that’s taking place in the Diaspora.
Now, the first one — the project in Israel — I think people know about. It’s the second one they actually don’t focus on enough. And this is what I’ve been speaking about when I talk about Torat Tziyyon. But because the word “Israel” is there so often, I’m not sure if people fully grasp my meaning.
When I talk about Zionism or Torat Tziyyon, what I’m talking about is the process of redemption as a whole. And I think that specifically in the Diaspora, Yeshiva University students have a role to play in that process that is enormous. This includes all the things that Paul Singer spoke about in his speech at the Hanukkah Dinner. He summarized it so well; how Yeshiva University can be a bridge between Israel and the Diaspora because we are pro-Israel and also living here. We can build bridges to Jews who are less identified with their roots and our tradition. We can build bridges to the non-Jewish world, bringing our values out into the world, showing what Torah and Judaism are about, and what Hashem is about. We can be mekadeish sheim shamayim barabbim in this generation in ways that were never possible before.
So when I tell our students that we want them to graduate here and be people of impact, I’m not just saying that you’re only a person of impact if you make aliyah. I think that’s one way of being a person of impact.
“We need to show that YU education is not a cost, it’s an investment.”
But being here in the Diaspora also provides enormous opportunities for impact that we uniquely can leverage. Where somebody decides to live, there’s such a range of individually-specific factors, I wouldn’t venture to say what a particular person should or should not do. These are all questions that are very case-dependent. I know I wouldn’t suggest my personal journey to anyone! But whatever you decide, the fact that we’re part of a bigger picture in Jewish history, and the fact that we’re living in an extraordinary era of opportunity, is the key point. Our students should feel that. They should be empowered by that, and then move forward with that consciousness. Whatever place or whatever profession they’re in, they should have that consciousness of redemption. That’s our goal.
SC: So this is another question that we got. Do you think that YU tuition is too high, and, if so, how is the university working to make YU a more accessible place for people who want to come here?
PB: There are two pieces to that. First of all, in all of [Vice President of Communications and Marketing] Doron [Stern]’s ads, Doron points out that 80 percent of our student body receives some form of tuition assistance. So that’s very important, meaning that it is of great concern for us that our community — and I’d say our broader community because there are new markets that we’re looking to reach, that we’ve already reached and that we’re growing and continuing to reach — sees Yeshiva University as affordable and accessible for everyone, and that’s part of why I’m working so hard on raising money for scholarships, to make sure that our students from across regions are able to attend Yeshiva University.
But we also need to raise our value proposition. We need to show that YU education is not a cost, it’s an investment. So that people see that coming to Yeshiva University gives the kind of education and sense of purpose and meaning that will infuse one’s life with great personal and professional success. … And this also includes our great students, the student life and the great Jewish community here.
You can’t find this anywhere on any other university campus. It’s unbelievable, all the great things that happen at Yeshiva University. And so to raise that value proposition, of course with greater awareness promoted by our communications and marketing, is very important, so that people both see that it’s affordable and that it’s worthwhile, because it’s an enormous, important investment that will reap incredible rewards for people in their future.
BK: Thank you very much, President Berman, for taking the time. One thing that I think we would be remiss without is that, in the process of preparing for our conversation today, we looked into [the] history of old newspaper interviews with presidents, and one common theme was always ending with a certain creative philosophical dilemma to pick the President’s brains.
PB: Now we’re talking!
BK: The student body today is no exception, as several of these very creative questions came up. So the one that we thought was the most interesting was: Who does President Berman think would win in a fight — 1,000 chickens or one grizzly bear?
PB: Wow, that’s a tough one. What could 1,000 chickens do, really? Can they do anything? I like the idea where the smaller animal wins but, I’m just thinking, chickens specifically, what can they do to a grizzly bear? He would step all over them! Is there another side to this? I would go, I think, with the grizzly bear.
SC: That’s our headline.
PB: I think the headline should be how much I enjoyed the play.
SC: We can write a separate article.
PB: Well thank you both for your incredible work. I know that you put in a lot of time for this, and The Commentator is so important. I really appreciate the enormous amount of time you guys are spending on growing Yeshiva University. Thank you.
Photo Caption: President Ari Berman
Photo Credit: YU News