The spring semester is in full swing, and the president of Yeshiva University, Richard Joel, is walking the two-and-a-half blocks from the schoolâ€™s main study hall to his office.
It should take about four minutes. But with Joel, it takes considerably longer.
Students and faculty members stop him as he makes his way south on Amsterdam Avenue, and Joel seems more than happy to engage them.
At one point he calls out to a familiar face, â€œWhat are you doing to justify your existence today?â€
Joel’s visible presence around the university — he also holds occasional town hall meetings and hosts viewings of the television show “The West Wing” featuring ethical discussions during the commercial breaks — is only one of the many changes he has instituted since becoming Yeshiva’s fourth president nearly five years ago.
Joel is working to expand and improve the faculty and student body, and raise the universityâ€™s academic and religious profile. Heâ€™s also overseeing a tremendous building boom.
What makes such ambitions possible, however, is Joelâ€™s most quantifiable accomplishment to date: Heâ€™s raising a ton of money. In fact, the school received a record amount of cash in the past year — $104 million, including 30 gifts of $1 million or more, Yeshiva announced this week.
The announcement suggests Joel is well on his way to replicating at YU some of the success he had as director of Hillel. Joel is credited with transforming the international Jewish campus organization that had a reputation for attracting, as he puts it, “the nerds, the dweebs and the geeks.”
Under Joel’s leadership, Hillel’s annual budget more than tripled, new staff was added and the organization expanded its international reach.
Now with Joel heading YU, the university is pouring about $30 million into its Manhattan campuses annually, renovating classrooms, expanding faculty office space and building new laboratories. At Stern College, the women’s campus in midtown, a glass-walled, 120-seat study hall opened last year. And at the uptown Wilf Campus, the first new building in more than 20 years — the Glueck Center for Jewish Study, which will feature a two-story, 470-seat study hall — is rising on 185th Street in the Washington Heights section.
Last month, its Albert Einstein School of Medicine opened the largest medical research facility built in the Bronx in more than a half-century, the university said. A new student center opened at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in 2006. And more than $80 million was spent acquiring property in Washington Heights.
Meanwhile, the university has added 56 full-time faculty positions since Joel’s arrival.
Joel also has loosened the purse strings on salaries for the faculty, several of whom told JTA they are given wide latitude to conduct research and attend professional conferences. In 2006, according to national rankings from that year, Yeshiva’s faculty was the ninth highest paid in the country. (Joel’s compensation was $619,700 in 2005-06, more than the president of Harvard earned that year.).
Propelling much of the growth at YU is Joel’s demonstrated fund-raising prowess. Total annual fund raising — both pledges and gifts — has tripled from about $50 million five years ago to $160 million last year. The university endowment — the 51st largest in the country, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education — has grown to $1.4 billion, with roughly a third of that growth coming since 2003.
Perhaps in his most stunning success, Joel secured a $100 million pledge in 2006 from New York industrialist and former YU chairman Ronald Stanton (now chairman emeritus), the largest gift in Yeshiva’s history and, the university says, the largest ever to Jewish education in North America.
But while Yeshiva’s institutional strength is exploding, some worry about the state of its mission as the leading exponent of Torah U’Madda — literally Torah and secular knowledge, the ethos of Modern Orthodoxy.
For years predating Joelâ€™s appointment, critics on the more liberal end of the Orthodox spectrum have been charging that rather than boldly articulating a moderate, modern approach to Judaism, the university has fallen under the sway of more right-wing elements. And Joel’s selection as president, after a two-year search that failed to identify a candidate in the rabbi-scholar mode of Yeshiva’s previous leaders, suggested to some that the Torah U’Madda ideal was in decline.
Joel shrugs off the latter suggestion, calling it a “bogus notion” and a “false dichotomy.” As for the supposed rightward shift, he acknowledges that the community has become “more rigorous, more intense,” but it’s not a worry that keeps him up at night.
“I think pendulums swing,” he says. “I don’t think we should spend all our energy tilting at windmills.”
His role, as Joel sees it, is keeping the Modern Orthodox tent large and welcoming, not drawing firm lines in the sand.
“You can’t go to most yeshivas and get multiple opinions,” Joel says. “Even some of the places from which criticisms are coming are not creating an environment where they’re celebrating a breadth of symphonic worldviews. They’re saying everybody has gotten too narrow, you really should be like us. Well, I don’t embrace that. I don’t think that’s the liberal arts tradition.”
At Joel’s 2002 investiture, his predecessor and now the university’s chancellor and rabbinical school head, Rabbi Norman Lamm, called him the “unshakeable and uncompromising guardian” of the university’s “ineffable mission — Torah U’Madda.”
Lamm, who like both his predecessors holds a doctorate in addition to rabbinic ordination, saw himself as not just a university president but as the defender of an idea. Joel, a lawyer who began his career as an assistant district attorney, is disinclined to claim that mantle for himself.
“I didn’t sign on to be the leader of Modern Orthodoxy, and I don’t think anybody elected me,” Joel says. “I agreed to be president of Yeshiva University knowing full well that it’s an environment that should provoke both a big tent of Orthodoxy, should be open to the larger Jewish world, but within that big tent also have a particular brand.”
Joel uses various catch phrases to describe that brand — “ennoble and enable” is a favorite, and lately, “Torah U’Madda l’chatchilah,” which implies a focus on the practical implications of the Torah-secular knowledge dichotomy over its more esoteric aspects.
Where Lamm devoted his philosophic energies to extrapolating Torah U’Madda, Joel sees his job as enabling multiple types of students to find their particular paths as they struggle to meld opposites.
“I do think that the whole world right now is much more comfortable in a corner than they are struggling with the nuance of the middle,” Joel said. “And I think my teachers taught me that sunlight is better than shadow, and that we should encourage our children to struggle with nuance. And it’s hard.”
Joel’s unabashed commitment to the big tent — he stipulates that the tent is bounded by the parameters of halacha, or Jewish law — is in large part what unnerved some of Yeshiva’s more right-wing elements, which derisively branded him a “pluralist” when his appointment was announced.
Two days before his election, a group of leading Yeshiva rabbis told Joel to his face that they thought as a non-rabbi he was unsuitable for the job. Petitions were circulated and an emergency prayer session for the university’s future drew some 100 students in addition to faculty members.
On the day of the election itself, a rally was held opposing him, which Joel found out about from his daughter, who phoned him in tears.
“That I’ll never forgive them for,” Joel says now. “That was just an outrage.”
Much of that initial opposition has dissipated, in part due to Joel’s charisma and legendary people skills. Joel also has had a long association with Yeshiva, serving as an associate dean of the law school and educating his children there.
“I think all that has abated,” says Rabbi Zevulun Charlop, the outgoing dean of Yeshiva’s seminary. “There’s not merely a rapprochement, which there is, but really a much deeper feeling.”
But vestiges of that early opposition remain in the concerns voiced by some Yeshiva figures at news that Joel plans to increase the undergraduate population by an unspecified figure, often said to be 1,000 students.
Enrollment in the college already has grown by 9.3 percent under Joel’s leadership, but the president wants even more. He aims to attract roughly one-third of graduates of Modern Orthodox high schools, up from about a quarter now, but some at Yeshiva worry that may dilute the school’s religious atmosphere.
“It would have been unheard of until recently to see a student eating in the cafeteria without a yarmulke,” said one longtime Yeshiva administrator. “Now you already can find such students at YU. And if you’re going to raise by some number on campus, the question is where are they going to come from.”
Joel is impatient with questions about the religious politics at Yeshiva and refused to discuss on the record the firestorm that erupted in March over remarks made by Rabbi Hershel Schachter, a leading religious figure at the university, to a group of students in Israel.
Schachter told the students that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert should be shot if he asks the army to carry out missions that contravene Jewish law. Schachter subsequently apologized, saying he wasnâ€™t serious, but Joelâ€™s left-wing Orthodox critics protested that the rabbi was not removed from his post.
Joel is more comfortable in booster mode than refereeing university politics, singing the school’s praises to donors and strengthening Yeshiva’s role as a training ground for future Jewish leaders. That’s easily discerned during one of Joelâ€™s walks around campus.
Ducking into the cafeteria, Joel breezes through the food line with the practiced charm of a politician on the campaign trail, gesturing to the school’s new sushi chefs and complimenting the lunch selection of a student buying a salad.
“Healthy, good,” Joel says, patting the fellow on the back and flashing a broad smile.
Bounding down an underground hallway off the cafeteria, an area recently rehabilitated with new office space and a state-of-the-art psychology lab — “It’s like a real school,” Joel gushes — the president pokes into the office of a recently hired faculty member to inquire about her research interests.
In the dining area he chats with a high school student thinking of applying to Yeshiva and graciously accepts a smiley-face button from an undergraduate promoting a happiness campaign. At any moment, Joel seems like he might start kissing babies and posing for pictures.
Joel likes to tell the story of how, during in the second year of his presidency, he was asked whether the next gadol hador, or Torah giant, would come from Yeshiva or from Lakewood, a fervently Orthodox institution in New Jersey. And whether the next Nobel laureate would come from Yeshiva or from Harvard.
“This is what I do know,” Joel recalls answering. “The next Nobel laureate is not going to come from Lakewood and the next gadol hardor is not going to come from Harvard. But both of them might come from YU.â€