Born YU: A Biography of President Rabbi Dr. Ari Berman, Part I
If you looked at President Berman’s Wikipedia page, it would say that he was born on Feb 18, 1970. He would dispute that claim: “I always start my identity before my own life, with my parents, grandparents and earlier. Today, there is a focus on the individual that doesn’t give people roots.”
Berman comes from a historic YU family. His father and grandfather were major talmidim of the Rav, and his grandfather had a close relationship with Rav Moshe Feinstein. In fact, Rav Moshe would retreat to Berman’s grandparents’ house in West Hartford, CT, to work on the Igros Moshe in the summers. “Those are the types of people my grandparents were,” he said. “They hosted Rav Moshe in the summer.”
President Berman grew up in Forest Hills, Queens, and attended Yeshiva Tifereth Moshe in Kew Garden Hills for elementary school. Half the students in his elementary school went to Modern Orthodox high schools; others went to more yeshivish high schools. Growing up, his family attended Young Israel of Forest Hills, where Berman worked as youth director during his teenage years. He spent his summers at Camp Morasha.
As a kid, Berman enjoyed hanging out with friends and playing hockey. He also revealed that he is a huge Dallas Cowboys fan who thinks Tony Romo was an excellent quarterback. In case you were wondering what President Berman wore on Purim, it was a Roger Staubach jersey.
For high school, Berman attended MTA. Although he knew he wanted to attend yeshiva in Israel after high school, he did not know whether to choose Sha’alvim (where his older brother attended) or Gush. When the rosh yeshiva of Sha’alvim interviewed Berman, he mentioned that he would not be viewed in his brother’s shadow. Berman realized that clearly, they were already thinking about him in the context of his brother, and thus chose Gush.
When interviewing for Gush, Berman had a poignant experience of being interviewed by Rav Aharon Lichtenstein in the Rav’s apartment, which “inspired a lot of Yirah.”
Before leaving for Israel, Berman told his parents to disallow him from staying for Shana Bet as he predicted a future version of himself potentially asking for it. Inevitably, Berman learned a great deal during Shana Aleph and begged his parents to allow him to stay Shana Bet. His parents allowed it.
Berman described his years in yeshiva as a fully Israeli experience, crafted in every way by Rav Lichtenstein. After learning under Rav Yair Kahn and Rav Ezra Bick his Shana Aleph, Berman studied under Rav Lichtenstein during Shana Bet in Gush and later on for two years in Gruss. Although Berman was terrified of approaching Rav Lichtenstein, he developed a relationship that meant the world to him.
“One of the great brachot of my life was developing a real relationship with him. I would speak to him regularly,” he shared. “It is so important to have a rebbe in life. For many big life decisions, I would go to Rav Lichtenstein. I would speak to Rav Lichtenstein annually about whether I should make Aliya.”
After his years in Israel, Berman returned to YU and learned under Rav Michael Rosensweig while majoring in philosophy. Once again, Berman found a rebbe in Rav Rosensweig: “I would speak to Rav Rosenweig about the Gemara and secular classes. Rav Rosenweig knows everything. I would ask him about Aristotle and Plato, as well as life questions.”
Then came shidduchim. In high school. After college, Berman married his wife Anita, who he met on an “MTA-Central blind date” as a senior. In yeshiva, he would send her tapes while guarding the Yeshiva on shmira.
After graduation, Berman spent his first year of semicha in Washington Heights, where he lived in the “The Rav Goldwicht Building” on 186th St.. The Bermans then hopped on a plane to finish semicha in Gruss. While in Israel, Berman gave a chaburah at the now-defunct BMT and was offered free room and board to teach there if he stayed in Israel. However, at the same time, he was offered a position at The Jewish Center on the Upper West Side, and his wife was offered a position as a dorm mother in the Touro College dorms, where they would live.
After much struggle and discussion with Rav Lichtenstein, the Bermans returned to America, where President Berman served as a rabbinic intern at The Jewish Center while learning in Rav Schachter’s Kollel, ultimately ending up in the Kollel Elyon.
While in the Kollel Elyon, Berman became a rebbe in BMP, was promoted to assistant rabbi at The Jewish Center, and eventually became the head rabbi of The Jewish Center. While serving at this pulpit, Berman developed a relationship with Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm, who attended his shul. After every speech, Lamm would give Berman constructive criticism and help him improve. Ultimately, Lamm offered Berman a position as a rosh yeshiva in YU. While it took time for Berman to figure out how to manage his schedule, he ended up serving as a rosh kollel for Rav Schachter’s Kollel, in which students were transported to his shul on the Upper West Side to learn.
Everything was perfect for Berman. He had a major position as a pulpit rabbi and the title of rosh yeshiva.
But he felt unfulfilled. He was not in Israel.
As their son entered eighth grade around 2007, the Bermans knew that if they did not try aliyah, it would not happen until they were retired. Thus, they took a sabbatical to try it out, and at the end of the sabbatical year, the Bermans decided to stay in Israel.
During his years in Israel, Berman worked on his doctorate at Hebrew University, where he studied the Rishonim and Acharonim under Prof. Moshe Halbertal. He wrote a doctoral thesis on ger toshav, as “it was important as a category of a non-Jew that Chazal thought had a status similar to Jews in some cases, and the explanation of the commentators about why the ger toshav deserved these rights is revealing about the lives of the commentators.”
In 2015, Berman began receiving calls from search committees and roshei yeshiva asking him to be president of YU, an offer Berman initially rejected. However, as the calls added up, Berman became more “thoughtful about the opportunity that YU students represented.”
“The first thing I did was speak to my family,” he said. “The most important thing you can do in life is as a husband and a father.” After much consultation, Berman chose to return to America, taking the helm at YU on June 5, 2017, succeeding Richard Joel. Three of his older children stayed in Israel while two came back to America with him.
And now he is here. For the past six years, Berman has been leading the prized institution we all attend. Berman has many thoughts and messages for the YU community, as well as announcements about the future that will be shortly revealed. What are they?
Stay tuned for Part II
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Photo Caption: President Rabbi Dr. Ari Berman
Photo Credit: YUNews