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Behind the Headlines Chosen to Head Yeshiva University, Joel Faces a New Raft of Challenges

December 9, 2002
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Students from Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life gathered one night during the recent General Assembly of the Jewish federation system and confronted Richard Joel.

The students peppered Joel, Hillel’s president and international director, with criticism that events during the United Jewish Communities’ annual gathering had condescended to them.

Joel — who had delivered speeches, participated in panels and spent days working the summit halls — listened intently. He expressed sympathy for the students and asked them how they would have done things differently.

For Neil Moss, the chairman of Hillel’s board of directors and a longtime colleague, Joel’s reaction was “warm and engaging” — typical for a corporate chief who also plays accordion, dances and sings into the wee hours at summer Hillel retreats.

“Sometimes I joke with him that he’s an overgrown camp counselor,” Moss says. “He’s the guy who loses his voice.”

Joel’s voice now will resonate in a much wider arena: On Dec. 5, Joel, 52, was named president of Yeshiva University, the flagship institution of modern Orthodoxy.

His mission, Joel says, will be “to move along an institution whose job is to inspire and educate and give opportunities to a generation of young people, who will in fact lead Orthodoxy and Jewish life and the world at a time when there is a darkness of values.”

He will make the transition from Hillel to Yeshiva by spring 2003, Joel says.

Joel’s election capped a controversial two-year search that reflected the debate over whether to allow someone other than a Torah scholar to head the world’s largest Orthodox university.

For the first time in its 116 years, Y.U. officials named neither a rabbi nor a Torah scholar, but a charismatic, popular modern Orthodox figure widely regarded for his management and fund- raising skills.

“I think he’ll take an excellent institution and take it to all kinds of places we haven’t dreamed about,” says Barry Shrage, president of the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston.

Shrage, who also is a member of the modern Orthodox movement, predicts Joel is “going to continue to develop a vision for modern Orthodoxy that can be communicated within the community and outside of it.”

For his part, Joel insists he’s setting his sights strictly on the world of Yeshiva, where he once was dean of the Cardozo School of Law. He has a daughter at the school’s Stern College for women and a son at the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, or RIETS.

“With real humility, I’ve accepted the presidency of Y.U. No one has offered me the leadership of the Orthodox world,” he says.

It’s noteworthy that he was elected during Chanukah, Joel says, as his new role also is “about the kindling of lights.”

Many who have worked with Joel say they’re confident he’ll succeed.

In part, they point to Joel’s professional skills and his 14-year track record at Hillel: He took an organization of campus religious chapters loosely tied to B’nai B’rith and on the brink of financial collapse, and transformed it into a high-profile, well-funded, corporate-style entity, they say.

“He took an organization that was considered dorky and turned it around into a place kids want to be,” says Lynn Schusterman, president of the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Foundation, which has donated a good portion of Hillel’s $46 million annual budget.

Many involved in Hillel say Joel fueled the turnaround with his sheer magnetism. Schusterman calls Joel a “pied piper,” while many cite his “charisma” in the near-reverent tones groupies reserve for rock stars.

“He has a vision for Jewish life that is very deep and compelling and profound,” says Rabbi Jim Diamond, director of the Center for Jewish Life at Princeton University and of the Princeton Hillel.

“He is the total package. He has extraordinary ability in all areas — vision, speaking, people skills, management skills, creativity,” adds Jay Rubin, Hillel’s executive vice president.

Joel’s rhetorical abilities are well known. Rabbi Moshe Krupka, a spokesman for the Orthodox Union, says Joel “realizes the power of language in conveying ideas, in motivating people and institutions.”

It was Joel who created the two key catch-phrases at the core of Hillel:

“Jewish renaissance” and the motto, “maximize the number of Jews doing Jewish.”

Still, some say the key is Joel’s ability to marry lofty words to real strategies.

“It’s not a JFK-style charisma, it’s something deeper,” Shrage says. “What he has is a real vision that he can articulate and bring to life. People know he’s for real.”

Joel is also a workhorse, many say. Seth Goldstein, now a New York University law school student, earned an Edgar Bronfman scholarship while he was a Hillel member at Cornell University, which enabled him to work as an aide to Joel for a year.

“He’s nonstop; he never says no,” recalls Goldstein, 24. “His days start at 6:30 a.m. and go to 2:30 a.m. I would leave him at 1:15 a.m. and he’d still be going.”

Joel also served as chairman of an O.U. commission investigating sexual harassment in the case of Rabbi Baruch Lanner. In December 2000 the panel released part of a scathing 332-page report blaming O.U. leaders for ignoring reports of Lanner’s abuse and urging major organizational reforms

At Hillel, Joel applied the kind of power-sharing leadership techniques that management gurus advocate. Colleagues speak of having “autonomy” and being allowed to “take ownership” of their work.

But he also set the bar high.

“One of Richard’s hallmarks was to say, ‘We’ve done this — now what?’ “

Rubin says. “He strives for excellence.”

“Now what?” is a good question.

The search for a new Y.U. head was so fraught with tension that it was only in the two days preceding the Dec. 5 vote that the boards of trustees for the university and RIETS appeared ready to back Joel.

Even then, it came only after Joel met with the trustees at length, face to face.

In the end, Y.U. officials arrived at an arrangement that some called

rising: Joel was named president of Yeshiva and chief executive officer of RIETS, while Y.U.’s outgoing president Norman Lamm, a highly regarded Torah scholar, will become rosh yeshiva, or head of RIETS, and university chancellor.

Yeshiva, a top-ranked university with five locations in New York — including RIETS, medical and law schools, affiliated health-care centers and high schools — has become a “variegated” entity, according to Julius Berman, president of the RIETS board and a former president of JTA’s Board of Directors.

In light of its “complex” character, Berman says, Yeshiva “requires that much more leadership.”

The institution will remain committed to the motto “Torah U’madda” — Torah and science — indicating a synthesis of Jewish and general studies, Berman says.

Joel also has vowed to encourage “a more integral relationship” between different segments of the university, Berman adds.

For example, Joel might invite Lamm or other Torah scholars to lecture at the medical school on cloning and Jewish law, Berman says, or ask a medical school professor to speak at the college.

Exactly how Yeshiva’s new power structure will develop remains to be seen.

Berman and others, including Joel himself, say the exact parameters of the roles Joel and Lamm will play still need be defined.

But those who know Joel say he embodies what Yeshiva is about, and is deeply committed to the university’s success.

A former New York assistant district attorney, Joel remains devoted to his wife and six children, reportedly never missing a Shabbat with them.

He also helped found a modern Orthodox congregation, Kemp Mill Synagogue, in his home city of Silver Spring, Md., that today includes 250 families.

Diamond, of Princeton, predicts Joel will “do great things” for Yeshiva, though even his friend is “not the Moshiach,” or Messiah.

“No one is perfect. He moves very fast, he has a clear idea of what he wants and doesn’t want, and he can be very tough,” Diamond says. “But I think that’s going to help him at Yeshiva. To be a university president, you have to be tough.”

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