The Presidency of Yeshiva University: The Harder Questions

Rabbi Michael J. Broyde

And the race is on: already, before a search committee is formed, everyone is discussing who should be the next President of Yeshiva University. Lists and attributes abound, but these discussions are missing a much more important element – the job description and role of the president of Yeshiva University.

Four major issues, I think, need to be well thought out before anyone can be considered for the job of the president of Yeshiva University.
First and most importantly: is the leadership of YU a joint model of a Rosh Yeshiva and a President (as it was from 1928 to about 1980) or a president who is also the Rosh Yeshiva (about 1980 to 2003) or just a President with a nominal or non-existent Rosh Yeshiva (the present)? Not only has Yeshiva University had only a few presidents, but these presidents have functioned with very different models. Rabbi Revel was the President and Rosh Yeshiva when there was no college (prior to 1928), but from 1928 to Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik’s retirement, there were two people heading the institution on many levels: both a Rosh Yeshiva and President, each with different roles, but many key decisions were jointly made. When the Rav retired, Rabbi Lamm assumed both roles and when Rabbi Lamm retired, the job of Rosh Yeshiva was not filled.

If the leadership model is to have both a president and a rosh yeshiva, then much more thought needs to go into selecting both people and maybe even both need to be selected jointly. The candidate for president, as a co-head with the rosh yeshiva, would have a different skill set than just one person who is expected to fill both roles. If Yeshiva University is looking for just one rare person – a University President who can be a Rosh Yeshiva, or a Rosh Yeshiva who can be a University President – then a different profile is needed.

If Yeshiva University is looking for a president with no intent to fill the Rosh Yeshiva position, then much more structural thought needs to be placed into how rabbinic authority is allocated at YU, both formal and informal. The decision not to address that issue will hamper the non-Rosh Yeshiva President in perpetuity and would be unwise. An Orthodox Jewish institution needs formal lines of authority to function, and while it is possible to construct such institutions without a single rosh yeshiva, structured authority needs to be created to avoid confrontation, confusion and complexity.

Secondly, for decades, the president of Yeshiva University ran a huge institution with a billion dollar budget: a medical school, some hospitals and much complexity: legal, social and cultural. This is not true anymore. Besides Cardozo Law School, (which is functionally independent), Yeshiva University is now back to the model of many small colleges or even larger yeshivot: a smallish college (more than 2,000 students), a few small graduate schools (no more than 2,000 students in total) and a rabbinical program of about 300 students. Furthermore, almost no divisions of the University (again, other than the law school) are essentially secular: Azrieli, Wurzweiler, Ferkauf, Revel and the high schools are all institutions now that mostly serve the Jewish community.

In sum, Yeshiva University is now a much smaller institution than it was decades ago, with many different challenges .What skills are needed to run such Yeshiva which is a University? Candidates who lack the skills to run a billion dollar a year yeshiva which is a university might be excellent at running an institution smaller than Lakewood yeshiva now.
Thirdly, Orthodoxy has changed dramatically since 1980. There is much competition within the community for Orthodox friendly college programs, from Maryland to Ner Israel, with Touro in-between. What is the market YU seeks to serve and how should they serve it? What are the skills the leadership of YU needs to have to compete in this market? How should YU be structured in this competitive environment? Which administrative positions are important leadership roles and which are intellectual roles or fundraising roles or Rabbinic roles Is the President of YU essentially now just an administrator of a small liberal arts college, devoid of its historical role as a leader of Modern Orthodoxy? And maybe that is a good thing. But, whatever the answer is, it changes what type of candidate YU ought to be looking for.

Finally, of course, this is an excellent opportunity to ask a really hard question: can the Orthodoxy that sends their children to college really afford two institutions that are fairly similar? Should YU and Touro merge to create a single larger institution? Or to put this differently, should the very talented Dr. Alan Kadish be the next president of YU and the very learned Rabbi Yonason Sacks be the next Rosh Yeshiva?
This is an opportunity to explore many roads and paths that will change Orthodoxy for the next decades and Yeshiva University would be well served reflecting on the road ahead and the path it wants to take and only then on the people who can lead it.

Rabbi Michael Broyde is a proud alumnus of Yeshiva University (MTA ’82, YC ’84, RIETS (Yoreh ’88 and Yadin ’92) and is a professor of law at Emory University.

You may also like...

18 Responses

  1. mycroft says:

    Dr Belkin turned 17 in 1928 he was NOT President/Head of YU until the early 40s. Date intentionally ambiguous he had many administrative positions in the early 40s that could be argued were de facto head of YU.The Rav came to YU as RY after his fathers ptirah beginning of the 40s. The Rav had taught a philosophy class in YU in the 30s while his father was still alive. The Rav also taught for many years a Jewish philosophy class for smicha students. YU never had the official model of a single RY coming from the leading Talmid Chacham-the Rav had by far the most influence, the most smicha students but no other RY was required to follow his approach. One can easily argue that RHS has much more control and uniformity in RY in RIETS following him than the Rav ever had. One can discuss the reasons why that was so and the impact on American Jewry but I believe it is so.

  2. Nachum Lamm says:

    I’m afraid that there are a number of factual errors in this article, some of which affect its very central points:

    -While the spinoff of Einstein is a big deal, that doesn’t mean that all that’s left is a small Jewish college. Cardozo (note the spelling, an odd error for a law professor to make) is no more or less independent than the other graduate schools. Ferkauf (spelling again) and Wurzweiler do not “mostly serve the Jewish community” in any sense. Wurzweiler has some Jewish programs and a clergy program open to all religions, but they are by and large as non-Jewish (or as Jewish) as, say, Cardozo. (Another spelling point: R’ Yonasan Sacks.)

    -I’m not sure what “about 1980” means, or why such a big deal is made about 1928. The history is really quite simple, and is greatly misstated here. The following paragraph is particularly incorrect:

    “Rabbi Belkin was the President and Rosh Yeshiva when there was no college (prior to 1928), but from 1928 to Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik’s retirement, there were two people heading the institution on many levels: both a Rosh Yeshiva and President, each with different roles, but many key decisions were jointly made. When the Rav retired, Rabbi Lamm assumed both roles and when Rabbi Lamm retired, the job of Rosh Yeshiva was not filled.”

    Rabbi Revel became president in 1915. (The institution had existed in one form or another for almost thirty years by that point.) He was both president and an active Rosh Yeshiva, giving shiur almost until the day he died, in December 1940.

    Rabbi Belkin became president in 1943, fifteen years after 1928, as claimed here. He had been an active Rosh Yeshiva (and professor of Greek) until that point, but the institution had grown so that he was unable to continue teaching. He was known as the Rosh Yeshiva, but did not give a regular shiur. He retired and became “Chancellor” in 1976 and died a year later.

    Rabbi Lamm became president in 1977. He, too, was known as “Rosh HaYeshiva” from the start, as distinct from every other rebbe in YU, who have always been known as “Roshei Yeshiva.” (I know this is greatly confusing to people who’ve attended other yeshivot, but it has worked very well for YU for well over a hundred years.) He had not been a rosh yeshiva himself, but had taught Jewish philosophy, but still had the title. By this point, YU and RIETS were officially separate, and he was the “President” of both. Being “president” of the latter meant being “rosh hayeshiva.” He retired in 2003 and became “Chancellor” of both, which meant that he was still known as “rosh hayeshiva,” but he’s since retired from that position. Not having semikhah, Richard Joel became “President” of YU and “CEO” of RIETS.

    So much for history. Now to the main point: YU has *never* had an official “rosh yeshiva” apart from its presidents. In R’ Revel’s days, R’ Polacheck and then R’ Moshe Soloveichik were known as the leading rosh yeshiva, but had no official title marking that. Not even Rav Soloveitchik had any such title, even though he was clearly preeminent from the start (1941) until he retired (about 1986). Not did they have any official power. To say that “key decisions were jointly made” is, at the very least, a great exaggeration, and may way have never been true. The President and Board have always made all decisions. Again, this may seem heretical to those from other yeshivot, but it’s worked quite well for YU. As it happens, R’ Revel, R’ Belkin, and R’ Soloveitchik were all great supporters of the idea of academic freedom and non-interference. Yet again, a heretical idea to some, but these were three great geonim, so they must have known what they were talking about.

    I point all this out to stress that once these facts are laid out, the argument that there is some need for an official “rosh yeshiva”- something YU has never had and has never suffered because of- which animates much of this post falls away. I’m just surprised that someone who spent so many years at YU and has such an analytical mind does not realize this.

  3. dr. bill says:

    it would help to clarify/correct the early history. dr. belkin arrived in 1935 well after the college was established and became president in the 40’s. dr. revel was both President and functioned as RY until his death. neither r. polachek or r. m. soloveitchik had a role similar to what developed over time between the rav and dr. belkin. what you wrote is unclear/incorrect.

  4. Correction says:

    “Rabbi Belkin was the President and Rosh Yeshiva when there was no college (prior to 1928)”

    I think Dr. Revel was the President and Rosh Yeshiva until his death in 1940.

  5. Shades of Gray says:

    “Should YU and Touro merge to create a single larger institution?”

    If YU and Touro were to merge, it might lead to less acceptance of the latter in the haredi world; Touro has its own niche. That said, the two institutions have important things in common. The suggestion reminds me of the proposed merger of Torah Vodaas and Chaim Berlin in 1946 to create the “American Hebrew Theological University”.

  6. Nachum says:

    By the way, a not-so-random question: Why this choice of illustration? I can understand picking the Tacoma Community College because that was the first picture that came up on a web search, but YU happens to be the oldest yeshiva in the country, and one of the largest and most influential. If it wasn’t, this article wouldn’t have been here. You could just as easily have gone with a bunch of people learning in a Beis Midrash. Even a shot of, say, the Lakewood one would have done- change the shirt and kippa colors and there’s probably less difference between Lakewood’s learning and YU’s than between Tacoma’s academics and YU’s.

    [YA – Because the only pictures we have easy access to are the ones that come with the software. Lakewood is not included. Consider this an invitation to purchase a more extensive set of photos for us to choose from.]

    • Nachum says:

      Well,considering all the tech centers in Seattle, it’s not surprising you got Tacoma, then. 🙂

  7. Bob Miller says:

    If some Jewish leader really stood out now as an inspiring visionary scholar with organizational and people skills, we’d already know, and the job description would then become whatever it took to get him on board. These technical discussions point to the possible lack of such a person within YU’s constituency, which really is the main problem.

  8. joel rich says:

    I’m a simple country actuary who sometimes was fortunate enough to work with corporate clients on their human capital issues. The first question asked was what’s your market value proposition (or elevator speech)-why should anyone buy from you (or work for you) and not your competitors. IMHO YU must first answer this question and then move from there to define what makes it different in granular terms. Then you can decide on leadership.

  9. dr. bill says:

    I think that YU’s various schools, if they are to exist, must be more tightly integrated. A vast reduction in useless overhead is required and its real estate must be further rationalized. As well, some of its diverse programs to serve the Jewish community should be integrated under the already separate RIETS charter; some cannot be afforded even if they have “earmarked” funding, while a few associate naturally with the university.

    It does not make sense to look for leaders until massive restructuring is at least planned and a roadmap for implementation is in place. The skills needed for restructuring differ from those to run a stable enterprise. Of course with the new leader(s) arriving as the school runs out of cash, is not a formula for success. Having bankrupted the school, Pres. Joel has timed his exit with precision to the point at which the available cash will exhaust. In the real world the board would not remain in place.

    It also does not help that the RY keep moving right (note where their children are educated) while the remainder of the university remains committed to a centrist/left agenda. (I count only 4-5 RY that are centrist.) My sense is that while RIETS and Touro are overlapping so are YCT and the remainder of the University. Both YCT and Touro do not have the ideological divides that YU attempts to straddle by funding all sides. This may be the hardest issue to address.

    Regardless of the above, I strongly agree with R. Broyde that this type of institution requires at least two leaders; ideally it should undertake a restructuring / merger before recruiting leaders.

  10. Shmuel W says:

    Its Cardozo Law School. And its Ferkauf.

  11. lawrence kaplan says:

    I do not think that YU and Touro are that similar, certainly not in terms of MO ideology. Touro’s motto is Torah U-Parnassah, Torah and professional training. YU’s is Torah U-Madda, Torah combined with the liberal Arts and Sciences. This is why there are English, philosophy, and classic majors at YU and not at Touro; it is why Touro, and not YU, is (if begrudgingly) accepted by the Haredi world. We are dealing here with a key element of MO ideology, not some side issue. Dean Stanley Boylan of Touro, a leading student of Rav Soloveitchik, relates that when he told the Rav of Touro’s curriculum, the latter responded ” That’s a college? No philosophy, no math?” It almost seems as if Rabbi Broyde envisages a Touro takeover of YU.

    • dr. bill says:

      i agree, see my comments about merger below. however, some/many current YU RY have told students that certain courses are to be avoided. In any case, i doubt that Touro does not have math courses. however,your quote conforms with my biased view of what the Rav ztl valued in an academic education, that coming from a Ph.D. in mathematical logic . 🙂

    • Shades of Gray says:

      If R. Soloveitchik was here today, he might concede to Dean Boylan that some Touro programs have since grown and diversified. According to the course bulletin on its website, besides a Mathematics Department,  Lander has a Division of Humanities, Philosophy and the Arts, and also offers an English Literature Major(though the  philosophy courses are probably less extensive than YU, as some are only upon request).  One writer put the Lander/YU relationship as follows:

        “… Lander’s is clearly indicating that they have no intent of challenging or usurping YU’s role as the “Harvard” of yeshiva college programs, but rather presenting an alternative model with different aspirations.” The article lists the differences between YU and Touro including the “Torah U’Parnassah” motto and amount of yeshiva credits( “A Viable Alternative? Lander College” , Five Towns Jewish Times, 6/8/06).

  12. Michael J. Broyde says:

    Thank you to the many commentators.
    At the last minute, I thought about adding a paragraph to this piece (which was ultimately edited out), and I accidentally sent to Rabbi Adlerstein to post an earlier unedited version of the article with many spelling and copy editing mistakes in it that had been fixed in earlier versions. That version was posted through no fault of any one but me and I apologize to the readers of Cross-currents. The post has now been updated to reflect the version that was intended to be posted.
    On to substance:
    The basic claim that YU never had a formal “Rosh Hayeshiva” who was not president is belied by the obvious fact that Rabbi Lamm continued to carry that titled even as he resigned as the president. Rabbi Lamm continued to sign semichot since he was the Rosh haYeshiva. Furthermore, the heightened status of the Rav during his tenrure is made clear along the same lines; the Rav signed semichot at RIETS and was not merely one of the many roshai hayeshiva, albeit with more students. YU’s web page calls him “senior rosh yeshiva” which is clearly not a reference to age, but to status. The same was true for the Rav’s father whom Wikipedia refers to as the co-head of RIETS.
    Furthermore, to the best of my knowledge, Rabbi Norman Lamm (a giant of Modern Orthodoxy, may he live a long and healthy life) did not generally use the title Rosh Hayeshiva at the time of his appointment as President, but slowly added that title as the Rav incrementally retired from YU; for example, if you look in the 1987 (5747) Beit Yitzchok that I happen to have in my office, you see a fine teshuva by Rabbi Lamm on page 5 in which he is entitled “Nasi Hayeshiva” with no notation that he is the “rosh hayeshiva”, a startling omission of a title in a yeshiva setting if it is a title people used. Whereas in Beit Yitzchak 5764, in another excellent article but 17 years later, Rabbi Lamm is simply described as the “Rosh Hayeshiva”.
    Ancient history aside, the simple precedent that Rabbi Lamm continued to function as the Rosh Hayeshiva after he had ceased to be President, is enough to cause anyone to understand that the two offices – President and Rosh Hayeshiva – need not be held by the same person at YU. The Rosh Yeshiva job is empty and YU is looking for a new President. One job or two is the question.
    One final thought. Ideas that are mentioned in this piece are possibilities and not all are ones that I endorse. What I do think is of value is a great deal of contemplation about the harder issues before selecting a candidate.

  13. Steve Brizel says:

    I think ( and wrote here in response to R Gordimer’s earlier column) that YU would do well to be run in the same manner as BMG and Ner Yisrael-with a CEO who is a Ben Torah who understands and is committed to the mission of YU, and willing to do what is necessary to preserve that mission of being a college educated Ben or Bas Torah, review any programs that are in conflict with that mission, and a RY as a theological head.

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This