Overseeing Generations of Growth: Rabbi Yosef Blau’s Historic Career at YU
YU has stood at the heart of American Orthodoxy for over a century. What started as a small yeshiva has grown into a renowned institution with numerous undergraduate and graduate programs and thousands of students. While many educators have come and gone throughout YU’s years, Rabbi Yosef Blau has been, and continues to be, a beloved member of YU for over 70 years. Not only has Rabbi Blau witnessed YU’s development in the last decades, he has also actively and generously nourished its growth.
In 1951, Rabbi Blau entered YU as a freshman in the boy’s high school, and, with a 12-year exception when he served in “out-of-town schools,” has been in YU ever since. Following high school, he earned a bachelor’s degree from Yeshiva College, a master’s from the Belfer Graduate School of Science and received semicha (rabbinic ordination) from the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary (RIETS) in 1961.
The YU that Rabbi Blau entered as a student is immensely different from the YU we know today. It’s hard to imagine yeshiva completely conducted in Yiddish with just one rosh yeshiva, but this is the YU that Rabbi Blau started out in. Influenced by its European rebbeim, the yeshiva portion of YU resembled that of a traditional European yeshiva. With the destruction of European Judaism by the Holocaust, there were no longer European rebbeim to teach at YU, which caused YU to shift and Americanize. Part of this transformation was to hire a mashgiach ruchani (spiritual guidance counselor) who could help YU segue into a yeshiva model that better fit this new wave of American students. In 1977, Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik zt”l and Rabbi Norman Lamm zt”l, the heads of YU at the time, felt that Rabbi Blau was the perfect figure for this role, and Rabbi Blau has held the position ever since.
When asked about assuming the position, Rabbi Blau mentioned that he “couldn’t imagine taking a role in yeshiva as an American.” He was tasked with creating a new model for this position since the previous model of Rabbi Yaakov Moshe HaCohen Lessin zt”l, his predecessor, was so different and no longer befitting in the new model of YU. “The job was never very clearly defined, not from day one until today, it was very much what I made of it,” Rabbi Blau remarked. As one of the only American rebbeim in YU at the time, students were more comfortable with him and felt that he was relatable, which Rabbi Blau believes is a crucial element to being a mashgiach ruchani. Rabbi Blau feels that the most important part of his job is to be available for students on both campuses. Rabbi Blau is known to go up to every student in the beit midrash to strike up conversation; this is Rabbi Blau’s method of forming relationships with students. “I’ve focused very much, from the outset, in not so much the formal talks, but on being available… I’d be [in yeshiva] all the time,” he commented.
Rabbi Blau’s influence on the men’s campus is undeniable; however, he felt that it was important to extend his role to the women’s campus as well. He expressed that “[he] always felt that the women in Stern weren’t getting things that are available to the men in yeshiva,” and decided to start commuting to Beren to sit in the beit midrash and be available to the women there. Rabbi Blau believes it is important to support the women’s beit midrash on Beren Campus, and many students, like Noa Berkowitz (SCW ‘23), feel that his presence greatly enhances its atmosphere as a Torah environment. “Having someone like Rav Blau in the beit midrash on a consistent basis greatly contributes to the Torah atmosphere at Stern,” she said.
Rabbi Blau has dedicated his life not only to chinuch, but also to activism and chesed in many shapes and forms within the Orthodox world. In his youth, Rabbi Blau served as the president of Yavneh, an organization founded to help make Orthodox life sustainable on secular college campuses, along with his wife who was one of its founders. Although this issue isn’t as prevalent today, in this time, it was extremely difficult to be an observant Jew on a secular college campus. Rabbi Blau and his fellow Yavneh members would travel around the country to different colleges to assist Orthodox Jews with any issues they had with observing halacha on campus. He was also involved in chesed missions on a global scale. Rabbi Blau led YU student aid groups to countries in Central America and taught a number of times in Australia with Counterpoint, in Canada and in Poland.
As a member of the rabbinate, Rabbi Blau has been involved in various religious organizations, using his knowledge of Torah and halacha to enact change in the Orthodox community. He served as the president of the Religious Zionists of America for twelve years. Rabbi Blau is heavily dedicated to working with organizations for victims of sexual abuse in the Jewish community in both Israel and America. He is an executive board member of Magen, an organization in Israel committed to “developing and implementing programs and services that create a culture of transparency that prioritizes the well-being of victims, holds predators accountable, and eliminates the stigma surrounding sexual abuse,” according to their website. Additionally, he serves as the halachic posek for Za’akah, an American organization whose website claims is “at the forefront of the fight against child sexual abuse in the Orthodox Jewish Community.” In his work with Za’akah, Rabbi Blau was instrumental in the formation of the organization's Shabbos & Yom Tov Peer Support Hotline, the first and only Jewish support hotline available on Shabbat and the holidays. His work with victims of sexual abuse is just one example of how Rabbi Blau uses his rabbinic title to be a moral voice in the Orthodox world. Recently, Rabbi Blau spoke at the YU Stands with Uighurs’ event, proving once more that he is a moral beacon in our community.
If you ever have a conversation with Rabbi Blau, you are sure to hear about his children and grandchildren. He and his wife, Dr. Rivkah Blau, have three sons who are all rabbis and involved in chinuch all over the world. Their oldest, Rabbi Binyamin Blau, is the rabbi of the Green Road Synagogue in Beachwood, OH, rosh yeshiva of the Fuchs Mizrachi School in Cleveland and serves as the president of the Rabbinical Council of America. Their second son, Rabbi Yitzchak Blau, is the rosh yeshiva of Yeshivat Orayta and a teacher at Midreshet Lindenbaum in Israel. Finally, their youngest, Rabbi Yaakov Blau, is a teacher at The Frisch School in New Jersey. Dr. Rivkah Blau, like her husband, has been involved in different religious organizations and has been an educator for many years. She is now an English professor at Stern College. It’s clear that Rabbi and Dr. Blau set a great example to their sons as they follow their footsteps in education and religious outreach.
It is quite evident that Rabbi Blau has a tremendous impact in the orthodox community, whether that’s through his quiet influence in YU or his active involvement in various organizations. Rabbi Blau was asked out of all the work he does, which is the most important to him, and his answer is a true testament to his care for those around him. “I would like to think my concern for the people in need, for those vulnerable, is most important,” he said.
It’s difficult to fully capture the impact that Rabbi Blau has had on the Orthodox world and do justice to all he has done. What is certain is that YU, and the Orthodox community at large, will forever be indebted to Rabbi Blau for all he has done and continues to do for our community with his morals, wisdom and tremendous kindness.
Editor's Note: This article was updated on March 28 to correct several minor errors regarding Rabbi Blau's professional career, among other slight changes.
Photo Caption: Rabbi Yosef Blau serves as mashgiach ruchani at YU.
Photo Credit: YUTorah