President Berman, What Happened to Being the “World’s Premier Jewish Educational Institution”?
“By offering in one institution a comprehensive, integrated educational program that produces the Jewish leaders of the next generations ... Yeshiva University is the world’s premier Jewish educational institution.”
These words were spoken by President Ari Berman in his 2017 investiture speech, along with his other high praises of YU as “an institution for the Jewish community and the broader society.” He lauded YU for what it had done and would do for the Jewish community and the world at large. Now, however, in contrast to this optimistic vision, we fear the future is dark for YU. It is failing its students and the community as a Jewish institution.
This decline and fall of Jewish studies at YU goes back to at least 2015, when the Sy Syms School of Business (SSSB) changed its policies to scrap the traditional Jewish studies course load, including Jewish History and Bible. Four years later, in 2019, Yeshiva College (YC) scrapped the requirement for students to take an “Intro to Bible” course, causing a plummet in enrollments of a course necessary for a well-rounded Jewish education. Professor Moshe Bernstein, a longtime Bible professor at YC, said at the time that the new requirements are “but one more manifestation of a watering-down of the Yeshiva College liberal arts education.”
Now, YU has expressed several other manifestations of this neglect.
In Spring 2021, the YU administration dissolved YC’s Jewish Studies Department — the largest department at YC — and moved Jewish History and Jewish Philosophy professors into the History and Philosophy departments, respectively. Lingering faculty were pushed into the newly formed Bible, Hebrew, and Near Eastern Studies Department. The Commentator recently learned that Jewish Studies adjunct professors at Stern College for Women (SCW) — without any warning — were told via email that they would not be rehired for Fall 2021.
Then, we discovered that YU was planning to eliminate its in-person Hebrew programs for Wilf and Beren students and move them onto an online, asynchronous model beginning in Fall 2022. Even before this happened, Biblical Hebrew was eliminated from the Wilf Campus program in its Spring 2020 updates. The university’s own outdated website celebrates that “The Hebrew language has long nurtured the national identity of the Jewish people,” but clearly that is not a convincing enough reason to sustain the Hebrew program with normal, in-person classes.
For a university that prides itself on being the flagship of Modern Orthodoxy, these changes speak volumes as to where YU’s priorities lie, and Jewish studies are not among them.
Of course, this is not the only discipline taking the backseat at YU. Indeed, liberal arts departments are also feeling the brunt of faculty cuts and feelings of second-class status from the university. However, can Yeshiva University honestly say its Jewish curricula were meant to be treated as if they are just another academic specialty?
Jewish studies are struggling to survive with an ever-declining pool of faculty and academic class offerings, and YU is continuing to suffocate them. We are calling on YU to stop toppling its Jewish studies academics and start focusing its efforts on revolutionizing them, a feat that can be made possible by following two steps:
First, the university ought to stop treating Jewish studies as disposable and start viewing their existence as a fundamental component of YU’s identity. Could we imagine YU liquidating the undergraduate Torah programming and batei midrash under any circumstances?
Second, instead of scrapping courses and disbanding departments, the university should invest its time and resources in figuring out what isn’t working and seeking to remedy it — not with a cheapened, “easier” program, but with something that enriches our academic experience in a meaningful way while still addressing university concerns.
Provost Botman reasoned that an online Hebrew program would “improve students’ academic experiences,” giving them “greater flexibility in completing the coursework and managing their busy academic schedules.” The irony is that this argument wasn’t convincing enough to stop the university from moving the course drop date without a “W” five weeks earlier than usual, a change students were vocally against.
The administration may think it fair to presume that the average student wants a lighter mandatory college workload with “greater flexibility.” Perhaps that is the case, unfortunately, but why would the university endorse that? We need a Jewish studies curriculum that challenges us and hope YU has not given up on its mission to be “the world’s premier Jewish institution,” a statement that does not imply mediocrity.
At this point, these suggestions can only remain general, as the university has shied away from concrete explanations for its actions. If specifics are needed, however, then here are a few: Keep the Hebrew program in-person, re-hire adjuncts of SCW’s Jewish Studies Department and bring back a revamped Intro to Bible requirement to YC.
In December 1991, The Commentator learned that the university was planning to shut down the Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies. In response, over 1,000 students signed a petition and hundreds showed up to protest, marching to President Lamm’s office and demanding the university reverse its decision. “Jewish School, Jewish Studies!” they chanted. Facing heavy pressure, the university eventually reversed its decision.
If YU does not stop its onslaught on Jewish studies — decimating the university’s Hebrew program, cutting its faculty and limiting course offerings — we fear that it will meet the point when Jewish studies will be completely forgotten. Now is not the time for YU to backtrack on its mission to be the foremost university for Jewish students across the globe.
President Berman himself participated in the protests to save graduate Jewish studies at Revel. This time we ask that he make an effort to save undergraduate Jewish studies. As he concluded in his investiture, “Join us in our journey. Be a part of history, as we maximize our potential, write a new chapter in the Jewish story and work to make a lasting impact on the history of all of humanity.”
Editor’s Note: For an article to be designated under the byline of “The Commentator Editorial Board,” a minimum of 75% of editorial board members, including the editor-in-chief, are required to give their assent. This editorial received unanimous support from the editorial board.