Hillel Chief May Head Yeshiva Univ.


Richard Joel, the man responsible for rejuvenating Hillel, the Jewish campus organization, has emerged this week as most likely to be chosen Dr. Norman Lamm’s successor as president of Yeshiva University, The Jewish Week has learned.

On Tuesday, the executive committee decided to “pursue conversations with Joel,” according to Ronald Stanton, who became chairman of the board of Yeshiva last month and is advocating hiring the president and international director of Hillel for Yeshiva’s top spot.

Joel, 52, has made it clear that he is happy with his present job and is not a candidate seeking the YU post, according to several school leaders, but appears open to the possibility of being drafted as president.
Joel could not be reached for comment.

At least some key rabbis on the faculty of the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary (RIETS), Yeshiva’s rabbinical school, have voiced opposition to Joel, asserting that the president of the university should be a leading rabbi who holds the title of president of the university, president of RIETS and rosh yeshiva, or rabbinic authority, of RIETS.

Rabbi Lamm, who holds those three titles, as did his predecessors, appears to be a key figure in the dispute that pits the rabbis’ views of Yeshiva — namely, with the rabbinical school at the institution’s epicenter — vs. those who see YU as a more modern, complex university, which includes, but should not be driven by, the rabbinical school.

Rabbi Lamm is considered to have the most clout in quelling any potential protest from the RIETS faculty, and though he has played a neutral role until now in the search process, he is said to be actively supportive of Joel now.

He declined to be interviewed for this article.

Last winter, in a speech at a rabbinic convocation, Rabbi Lamm expressed his belief that the president of the university and of RIETS should be the same person. He is said to be reconciled now to not necessarily having a rabbinic leader at the helm.

According to this scenario, Rabbi Lamm’s successor most likely will hold the title of president of the university and of RIETS while Rabbi Lamm would retain the title of rosh yeshiva and remain in the post for at least several years.

Some say this redefinition of the role of the president is a lowering of the bar; others see it is a nod to the reality of the situation in that for the last 19 months, YU’s lay leaders have conducted a protracted, rocky and often awkward search for a successor to Rabbi Lamm, 75, a respected Torah scholar and philosopher who was scheduled to have stepped down last summer after a tenure of more than 25 years.

“Along the way,” said one board member, “we came to discover we were using an unrealistic model. There simply isn’t anyone out there who meets all the qualifications of Torah scholar and secular intellect who is a wonderful fund-raiser and can run a complex university. We realized we shouldn’t be looking for a successor for Rabbi Lamm but for someone who can lead YU.”
With the redirection of the search for the best-qualified person — whether or not he is a rabbi and scholar — Joel became the top choice of key lay leaders, including Stanton, the longest serving member of the board of trustees, at 26 years.

A businessman who is said to be direct and vigorous in his dealings, Stanton has streamlined the search process and pledges to name a new president by the end of next month.

The fact that Yeshiva leaders would look favorably on someone who is neither a rabbi nor academic scholar underscores Joel’s strong qualities as a Jewish educator, administrator and fund-raiser as well as the difficulties the leadership has had in finding a candidate who fits the Lamm mold.

In a search process littered by high hopes and dashed dreams, the news about Joel comes even as the YU community had been scrambling to learn more about Baruch Brody, a Houston professor of biomedical ethics and philosophy who last week was named a leading, and surprise, candidate for the presidency by Stanton. But by Tuesday, Brody had withdrawn from the race, apparently upset that his candidacy already had been eclipsed by the leadership’s interest in Joel.

Joel’s name is not new to those who have followed the long and difficult search process. During that time, he has been discussed longingly by some YU board members because he is considered a relatively young, dynamic Orthodox educator who has a proven track record of successfully running a complex Jewish institution — Hillel is the largest Jewish campus organization in the world — and who knows the culture of Yeshiva well. He was associate dean and professor of its Benjamin Cardozo Law School before joining Hillel, and the three oldest of his six children have attended the university. Further, he has been widely praised for resuscitating and leading Hillel, a rags-to-riches communal success story, the last 14 years.
Joel cultivated a number of major Jewish philanthropists, including Edgar Bronfman, Michael Steinhardt and Lynn Schusterman, and her late husband, Charles, in helping to raise more than $100 million for Hillel in the last six years.

But for all his leadership qualities, Joel, who holds a law degree and at least one honorary doctorate, did not meet the criteria of rabbinic and academic scholar, said to be prerequisites for consideration for the top position at Yeshiva, the flagship of the Modern Orthodox movement, which includes undergraduate colleges for men and women, a rabbinical school, the Albert Einstein Medical School, and other graduate and affiliate programs.
After several men withdrew their candidacy over the last nine months, however, and the search committee was replaced several weeks ago, Yeshiva’s leaders seemed to have changed their views about who to look for.

One practical problem the YU board faces now is that Joel has made it clear he will not be a candidate and compete for the presidency. He has let it be known that he is perfectly content to remain in his current position at Hillel, which just moved into a new $15 million building in Washington and remains the darling of the Jewish communal world. He is said to have told YU’s leadership he will only accept the presidency if it is offered to him outright.

“He doesn’t need the job but is intrigued by the vast potential,” one source close to Joel said. “But he’s seen how names have been tossed around and reputations damaged,” the source noted, referring to the short-lived candidacy last March of Dov Zakheim, undersecretary of defense in the Bush administration (and ordained rabbi), and most recently, Brody, a highly respected director of the Center for Medical Ethics and Health Policy at Baylor University and director of the ethics program at the Methodist Hospital in Houston who has written or edited more than 25 volumes in his field.

David Shatz, a philosophy professor at Yeshiva and Columbia University, withdrew his candidacy this fall, apparently unwilling to take on the administrative burdens of the presidency. That leaves David Schnall, dean of Yeshiva’s graduate school of education, as the only active candidate for the post.

One reason Joel may be meeting resistance from some of the leadership and rabbinic faculty of RIETS, besides his not being a Torah scholar, is his work as chairman of the Orthodox Union’s blue-ribbon panel investigating the Baruch Lanner case two years ago. The committee’s findings of extensive abuse on Lanner’s part and failure to remedy the problem on the part of the OU was viewed as overly harsh by some affiliated with RIETS.

Finally, while much of the intrigue about the search for the next president has focused on the role he would play with RIETS and the political clout of the rabbis, other graduate schools affiliated with YU are critical of the attention being paid to rabbinic credentials. Key officials at the Einstein medical school, a jewel in Yeshiva’s crown along with the Cardozo Law School, may balk if a rabbinic figure is named to head the university. Both schools are said to be lacking in their commitment to contribute financial aid to the poorer schools in the YU family.

Overall, Yeshiva, which was on the verge of bankruptcy when Rabbi Lamm began his tenure in 1976, is said to be doing well financially, with endowments and other funds exceeding $1.3 billion. But large sums of money are earmarked for Einstein, for example, while the undergraduate schools remain strapped — all issues to be dealt with by the next YU president.

Overall, Yeshiva, which was on the verge of bankruptcy when Rabbi Lamm began his tenure in 1976, is said to be doing well financially, with endowments and other funds exceeding $1.3 billion. But large sums of money are earmarked for Einstein, for example, while the undergraduate schools remain strapped — all issues to be dealt with by the next YU president.