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Who Will Be the Next President of Yeshiva University?

Modern Orthodoxy is at a crossroads. The person chosen to lead its flagship institution will reflect the movement’s direction.

Yair Rosenberg
October 19, 2015
Photo Collage: Tablet Magazine; original images: Wikipedia
Photo Collage: Tablet Magazine; original images: Wikipedia
Photo Collage: Tablet Magazine; original images: Wikipedia
Photo Collage: Tablet Magazine; original images: Wikipedia

Last month, Richard Joel announced that he would be stepping down as president of Yeshiva University. The departure will open a void at the heart of both an institution and a denomination—Modern Orthodoxy—that stand at a crossroads.

On the one hand, Y.U. is the flagship of Modern Orthodoxy. It is an institution that fuses high-level religious learning with secular instruction and consistently ranks in the top 50 universities named by U.S. News and World Report. On the other hand, the school has been beset by financial difficulties and management failures, and has come under increasing attack from a right that views it as too modern and a left that sees it as too conservative. A new president would need to restore donor confidence in the institution and infuse it with an ideological message that resonates more broadly in the Orthodox and wider Jewish world.

At the same time, Modern Orthodoxy itself is poised at a moment of great promise and peril. Recent surveys of the American Jewish community have found that the denomination has succeeded, better than any other group, at maintaining high levels of commitment to Jewish values, religious practice, and Israel, all while fostering high birthrates and secular educational attainment with minimal intermarriage. As Brandeis sociologist Sylvia Barack Fishman commented on the Pew Research Center Portrait of Jewish Americans, “it is a very clear demographic reality that Modern Orthodoxy is thriving.” With the gradual erosion of America’s liberal Jewish denominations, and an increasing number of Jews identifying as unaffiliated, a big tent Modern Orthodoxy is uniquely positioned to grow dramatically in the years ahead, adding adherents from both within and without.

Yet Modern Orthodoxy also stands at the precipice of a potential schism. Debates over women’s religious roles, critical academic study of sacred texts, and integration into the secular world threaten to split the movement in half. As Haaretz religion reporter Yair Ettinger recently wrote, while Modern Orthodoxy is “the wealthiest Jewish group, the most educated and—after the ultra-Orthodox—the youngest,” there is “a rift on the horizon.” Partisans on both extremes of the community have been quite happy to spur such a split, with those on the right seeking to excommunicate liberals for heresy, and those on the left aiming to jettison their more conservative brethren as backward troglodytes. But if Modern Orthodoxy is to live up to its potential and absorb more American Jewish seekers, it will need someone at its flagship school willing and able to hold the community together.

In other words, whoever replaces Joel at Y.U.’s helm—after a search process that could take anywhere from six months to over a year—will have a significant impact on which course Modern Orthodoxy and its flagship take. Will it be a future of expansive growth or a collapse into internecine warfare? If the goal is the former, who is best suited to steer the ship?

To answer this question, it’s worth looking back at the position’s previous occupants. Few remember it today, but Joel’s selection as president in 2002 was actually deeply controversial, due to the fact that the then-director of Hillel International did not possess rabbinic ordination. In fact, Joel was the first head of Y.U. not to have semikha or a doctorate in Jewish studies. His predecessors, by contrast, had both.

Y.U.’s first president, Rabbi Bernard Revel, also held a masters in medieval Jewish ethics and a doctorate in ancient Jewish thought. His ability to traverse both the scholarly and religious realms famously enabled him to befriend Albert Einstein, after whom the university’s medical school is named. Revel’s successor, Samuel Belkin, was an ordained Polish Talmudic prodigy who studied at Harvard and earned his doctorate in Jewish studies at Brown. He went on to teach Greek at Y.U. and to author many books on biblical interpretation and modern Jewish philosophy that drew on his diverse reservoirs of learning. Norman Lamm, who followed Belkin and preceded Joel, studied science as an undergraduate, served as a pulpit rabbi in New York for 25 years, and completed his Ph.D. in Jewish thought. His writings on religion and science, Jewish philosophy, and the Bible are still widely read.

These examples are worthy ones. At a time when Modern Orthodoxy needs someone who can hold the ideological center and speak credibly to a broad range of the community—left and right, traditional scholars and academics—it is time to return to this model of public religious leadership. Such a person offers Y.U. its best chance to unify the Modern Orthodox community and reach beyond its borders to the world at large.

Here, in alphabetical order, are six candidates who fit the bill:

Erica Brown

At a time when such august institutions as Columbia, Dartmouth, and Stanford have yet to appoint a female president, it seems unlikely that Yeshiva University will beat them to it. But should Y.U. opt to do so, Dr. Erica Brown is the person for the job.

Over the last two decades, Brown has carved out an impressive career as a Jewish public intellectual. Currently the community scholar at the Jewish Center in Manhattan, she previously served as the scholar-in-residence at the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington. She has written award-winning books on Jewish thought and leadership; mentored countless students, Orthodox and not; and taught not just in synagogues and Jewish centers, but at Georgetown and American University. Brown herself holds masters degrees from Harvard and University of London, in addition to a doctorate in Jewish history.

Widely held in high regard in the Modern Orthodox community, she has also served as a spiritual guide to many of Washington, D.C.’s non-Orthodox elite, including former Meet the Press host David Gregory, Atlantic correspondent Jeffrey Goldberg, and New York Times columnist David Brooks. All three have cited her work in effusive terms, speaking to Brown’s ability to translate Judaism across denominational divides. Brooks memorably described her as “leading Torah study groups and teaching adult education classes in Jewish thought, and … somehow inspiring Justin Bieber-like enthusiasm.”

If Y.U. seeks someone who can make Jewish tradition speak to even nontraditional Jews, all without compromising its Orthodox sensibility, there are few candidates with a better track record than Brown.

Michael Avi Helfand

Last December, when Yeshiva University was buffeted by stories in the Jewish media about its financial woes and mismanagement, leading some to question its viability, a young Pepperdine University law professor named Michael Helfand wrote an unsolicited op-ed in the Forward titled “Why We Need Yeshiva University.”

“Yeshiva University may very well be the No. 1 producer of human capital bolstering the Orthodox Jewish community’s infrastructure,” he wrote. “A world without Y.U. graduates is one in which most of the institutions that will ensure Jewish continuity for my children and grandchildren simply won’t be thought up.”

Helfand is in many ways Y.U.’s poster child. Originally its valedictorian, he went on to obtain a J.D./Ph.D. from Yale. Today he teaches at Pepperdine, helps direct its Institute for Jewish Studies, and consults with the Beit Din of America, the country’s highest Modern Orthodox religious court.

As debates over religious liberty rage across the country, Helfand has made important contributions to both the public and scholarly discourse on the subject. While working through these questions—whether advising Orthodox institutions, contributing to interfaith symposiums, or presenting at academic conferences—Helfand has earned the respect of many in the Jewish community and beyond.

It is a testament to Helfand’s accomplishments that his name has surfaced as a presidential prospect, despite his relatively young age of 36. That said, Revel became president at 30, and Belkin at 31, so this should not prove too great of an obstacle.

Gil Perl

Gil Perl may not be a household name, but he is one of Modern Orthodoxy’s most talented young educators and thinkers. A Harvard-trained Jewish historian and Y.U.-ordained rabbi, he has immersed himself in Jewish education across the country, taking on key roles from elementary school through college, and earning numerous accolades along the way.

A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, Perl completed his doctorate in Jewish studies at Harvard, while simultaneously obtaining ordination from Y.U.’s rabbinical seminary. His doctoral dissertation was quintessentially Modern Orthodox: an intellectual biography of Naftali Tzvi Judah Berlin—the 19th-century rabbinic dean of the famed Volozhin Yeshiva—in which Perl showed how the traditional sage integrated modern sources into his commentary on the Torah. (Readers can see Perl expound on this part of his research in his public lecture “What Was the Rosh Yeshiva Reading?”)

Today, Perl serves as head of school at Kohelet Yeshiva High School in Philadelphia, having previously held that position at the Margolin Hebrew Academy in Memphis, Tennessee. But Perl is no stranger to the academy. Before turning his attention to high-school education, he served as an instructor in Modern Jewish History at Y.U., where he was named Professor of the Year in 2006. Before that, he was twice awarded Harvard’s Certificate of Distinction in Teaching as a graduate fellow.

A champion high-school debater and charismatic speaker, Perl has rhetorical and fundraising abilities that are anything but academic. Most important, he has written and thought deeply about fostering what he calls “passionate Modern Orthodoxy.” His mix of scholarship, pedagogical skill, and ideological commitment might be just what Y.U. needs to reinvigorate its prospects.

Jonathan Sacks

The case for Jonathan Sacks is almost self-evident. The former British chief rabbi is far and away the best-known and most successful spokesperson for Modern Orthodoxy—and perhaps Judaism in general—in the public sphere today. A regular face on the elite editorial pages and news programs in both Britain and the United States, he is beloved in the American Modern Orthodox community. Its congregations were some of the first to adopt the daily prayer book he edited, and they are where he regularly draws overflow crowds as a guest lecturer.

Cambridge-educated and the author of numerous award-winning and best-selling books on religion, Judaism, and contemporary society, Sacks embodies the ideals of Modern Orthodoxy. Few have the potential to bridge the left and right of the community as he does. The problem is not, then, that he is not qualified for Y.U.’s presidency. It’s that he probably doesn’t want it.

In 2013, Sacks retired as chief rabbi after 22 years of service in Britain, and set out to establish a more global profile—to be a sort of unofficial chief rabbi of the world. Indeed, though he might seem old on paper, at 67, he has been more active than ever, spending time teaching students at Y.U., New York University, and King’s College London, lecturing in Israel, and traveling to far-flung Jewish communities around the globe. Last month, he produced a six-minute video explaining “Why I Am a Jew” that has already garnered hundreds of thousands of views on social media.

Having finally escaped the shackles and institutional politics of one official position, then, Sacks seems unlikely to want to assume another set across the ocean. But even if he opts out as a candidate, he should serve as a model for the selection committee.

Meir Soloveichik

Meir Soloveichik is Modern Orthodox rabbinic royalty. A scion of the famed Soloveitchik family (from the side that spells it without a “t”), his great-uncle Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik is considered the founding father of Modern Orthodoxy in America and Y.U.’s most influential rabbinic leader. The elder Soloveitchik, a prodigal Talmudist, immigrated to the United States after receiving his Ph.D. in philosophy from Friedrich Wilhelm University.

Meir Soloveichik’s rabbinic and academic credentials are similarly impeccable. A summa cum laude graduate of Y.U., he studied at Yale Divinity School, received ordination from Y.U., and completed his doctorate in religion at Princeton. Today, Soloveichik serves as the rabbi of New York’s historic Congregation Shearith Israel and directs Y.U.’s Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought, where he has dialogued with everyone from Sen. Cory Booker to former U.S. Attorney General Michael Mukasey, reflecting his commitment to making Judaism manifest in the outside world.

If anything, what might hamper Soloveichik’s candidacy is that he has been a little bit too engaged in the public square, specifically in Republican politics. An unabashed and articulate religious conservative, Soloveichik famously delivered the opening invocation at the 2012 Republican National Convention, and has written for a variety of center-right publications. While such proclivities are entirely suitable for private rabbis, they would probably prove polarizing for Y.U.’s president. Presumably, Soloveichik would commit to scale back some of his political engagement should he pursue the position. Doing so would allow his natural affability—he is known for his humorous speaking style, as well as his encyclopedic knowledge of film—to shine through.

Jeremy Wieder

Jeremy Wieder has unusual credentials for a rosh yeshiva, or rabbinic dean, let alone the youngest ever appointed in Yeshiva University’s history. In addition to being a summa cum laude graduate of Y.U. and ordained by its rabbinical school, Wieder also holds a masters in American Jewish history from Y.U. and a Ph.D. in rabbinic literature from New York University. And these degrees aren’t just lines on a résumé; they inform his teaching and worldview.

A formidable scholar whose knowledge spans both rabbinic and biblical texts (as a teen, he became one of the only Americans to win Israel’s International Bible Contest), Wieder has long been a strong proponent of including humanistic learning in the yeshiva curriculum. He integrates modern critical scholarship in his Talmud and Bible classes and does not shirk from confronting the questions its findings raise.

Wieder has also been willing to take stands on the issues of the day through the prism of Jewish texts and historical experience. In one instance last December, he addressed students in the Y.U. study hall and urged them to protest the killing of African-American Eric Garner by New York police. “If we complain—and we do—when the world remains silent in the face of mistreatment of Jews,” he said, “how dare we remain silent of the suffering of others in our own backyard?” And at a time when women’s religious roles have been a flash point within Modern Orthodoxy, Wieder has argued forcefully for expanding their advanced Jewish learning opportunities.

Whether Wieder would be willing to complicate his intellectual and pedagogical pursuits as a rosh yeshiva with the politics and administrative requirements of running a university remains to be seen. But of all the school’s rabbinic deans, Wieder is the most suited to take charge of the institution and hold it to its highest ideals.


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Yair Rosenberg is a senior writer at Tablet. Subscribe to his newsletter, listen to his music, and follow him on Twitter and Facebook.