In the 1970s, while the United States was mired in a recession, the only university in the country under Orthodox Jewish auspices was awash in red ink.
Because of poor financial procedures in the previous years, Yeshiva University was facing an uncertain future, with an uneven academic reputation and a total endowment of $25 million, a pittance compared to most universities.
Rabbi Norman Lamm, elected as YU’s third president in 1976 — the first American-born leader of the school — is widely credited with not only saving Yeshiva from bankruptcy but setting it on a path of prosperity. His Torah U’Maddah philosophy and personality, combining a strict commitment to both halacha (Jewish law) and advanced secular knowledge, helped persuade a wide range of benefactors, many from beyond the Orthodox community, to support and advance the institution and secure its future.
Rabbi Lamm, who died on Sunday at 92, fortified YU’s endowment and advanced its academic standing as well as its reputation within and beyond the Jewish community. As a skillful administrator, pulpit rabbi, Talmud scholar, author, orator, academic and Rosh Yeshiva of YU’s rabbinical school for six decades, he embraced and proclaimed a form of Modern Orthodoxy for thousands of young men and women at YU and its sister school, Stern College.
Under his tutelage, Yeshiva University established the Sy Syms School of Business, which offered young Orthodox Jews the tools to compete in a competitive employment market. He expanded the Ferkauf Graduate School of Psychology, the Wurzweiler School of Social Work and Talmud study for women at Stern College.
Some of his ideas, like a business school at a yeshiva, drew criticism in some Orthodox circles. Rabbi Lamm’s powers of persuasion, and the growth of the business school, serve as testimony that he was on the right path.
Prior to coming to YU, he served 25 years as spiritual leader of the Jewish Center on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. In an earlier, little-known footnote to his life, he, as a college student majoring in chemistry in 1948, helped contribute to Israel’s success in the 1948 War of Independence by devising a formula for ammunition for Jewish soldiers’ firearms. “It was one of the highlights of my life,” he recounted years later.
A misstep that the rabbi admitted he had taken in his first decade in the YU presidency clouded his reputation. Ten years after he retired as president, accusations surfaced that he had failed to take seriously enough sexual abuse allegations against several faculty members of the YU high school. At the time, he had the faculty members dismissed but took no further action. When in 2013 he stepped down from his positions as chancellor and Rosh Yeshiva, he sought forgiveness. “I acted in a way that I thought was correct, but which now seems ill conceived,” Rabbi Lamm wrote.
His willingness to admit his mistakes, like the words of praise he earned from so many (see obituary on page 6), underscore Rabbi Lamm’s long life of leadership and commitment. May his memory be a blessing.