Today, September 10th, marked the official investiture of Rabbi Dr. Ari Berman as the fifth president of Yeshiva University. Dr. Berman has been serving as active president since June 5th, but today was the formal investiture ceremony. The charters of the university and of the RIETS rabbinic school were given over to Dr. Berman along with the ceremonial president’s medallion, to be worn at official ceremonies such as graduations. The program started at 10 am with shiurim given by Roshei Yeshiva Rabbi Hershel Schachter and Rabbi Michael Rosensweig in the Fischel Beit Midrash. The room was packed with students and guests; a number of people even had to stand. Because the buses from Beren campus only left in time for the formal investiture ceremony and the shiurim were not advertised to female students, there were only seven women in the room, and no female undergraduate students other than the two Observer reporters who heard about the shiurim from the original event press release. In his talk, Rabbi Rosensweig referred to Dr. Berman as “a superb product of our beit midrash” and closed his words by wishing the new president “bracha and hatzlacha l’hagdil Torah u’l’hadir.”
The formal investiture ceremony, which took place in Lamport Auditorium, began with a procession of faculty from the various high school, undergraduate, and graduate institutions of the university. Faculty filled both sides of the auditorium, which was filled to capacity. When asked why she was participating in the event, Nechama Price, Professor at Stern College and head of GPATS, told The Observer, “I think it is absolutely important for faculty to come and show support. It is a monumental event and we should be proud. We have a new president who will bring us to greater heights–especially for women’s Torah learning.”
Rabbi Joshua Strulowitz, Judaic Studies teacher at Yeshiva University High School for Girls, echoed this sentiment. “I’m not obligated to be here and no one even asked me to come but as someone who not only works here but also has three degrees from here–and is pursuing a fourth–I think we should be here to show our support. And I think it is important that Dr. Berman should see and feel our support.”
Additional viewings of the investiture ceremony included a student viewing party in the heights lounge attended by around 175 students which included refreshments and raffles. A number of students were also allowed to sit in extra seating spots in the auditorium.
The YStuds, an acapella group of Yeshiva College, kicked off the event with their rendition of the national anthem. They also performed two songs in the middle of the ceremony and closed the event with Hatikvah. Gedalia Penner, YStuds member and YC alum ‘17 told The Observer, “I felt very honored to be able to stand for an audience in the auditorium of my alma mater and bring in the future of the institution.”
The lineup of speakers included some notable guests. Rabbi Mirvis, Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, gave the invocation. Chuck Schumer, Senate Minority Leader and Senior Senator from New York, gave a short speech in which he joked that it was “nice to have a good heimeshe audience.” He told some “Jewish” jokes, one of which made fun of the fact that his bald spot can be confused with a kippah, and even pointed it out at the podium by bending his uncovered head for the room to see. He noted Dr. Berman’s Queens roots, and ended with a nice yet formulaic statement of YU’s vision and importance.
Gesela Levin, a student at Stern College and sophomore class president, spoke on behalf of YU’s students. Levin mentioned her upbringing as a daughter of two refugees from the Soviet Union and the impact Yeshiva University’s mechina program has on her spiritual growth and religious life. In her speech she stated that “when a person comes to Yeshiva University, they find their voice.” According to another Stern College student leader, Levin “blew President Berman away” when she spoke about her background, and its effect on her experience at YU, at a student leaders meeting with the President a few months ago. On her role at the event, Levin said “I’m honored to have been chosen. I love this institution very, very much and to be able to speak on behalf of every student in it is truly very exciting and humbling.”
After the new President was given the charters and ceremonial medallion, Dr. Selma Botman, Provost and Chair of the Investiture Committee, turned to Dr. Berman and proclaimed, “Welcome Dr. Berman, welcome home.”
The idea that YU is Dr. Berman’s home was echoed in the president’s own speech. Dr. Berman rattled off his YU-history, noting that he first stepped foot in Lamport when he was 13 and just starting high school, met his wife on a Central-MTA blind date, and went on to earn three more degrees from YU. “I am intellectually, spiritually, and socially a product of YU,” he said. “I do not need to read about YU in a history book, it is in my heart and soul.”
In his speech Dr. Berman first set out to answer the question of “what does YU stand for?” In his answer he listed five “torot,” or foundations, on which our university stands: Torat Emet, the belief that the Torah is Divine, Torat Chaim, the imperative to “engage in the world and be responsible to the world,” Torat Adam, the belief in humanity, Torat Chesed, the need to fight for justice, and, lastly, Torat Zion, the responsibility to not only support Israel but also to “move history forward” and “redeem the world.”
While the first half of his speech was more focused on broader, somewhat vague ideas, in the second half Dr. Berman elaborated on three concrete focal points for the YU of the future. The first is a focus on emerging industries by “building opportunities for STEM fields,” like computer science. To this point he announced that the university is working on a number of bridge programs with Israeli universities and officially announced one program which will allow students with BAs in computer science from YU to get MAs in the field from Hebrew University and Bar Ilan. The second is a focus on expanding the market of students, actively seeking out new students to “increase our tuition base and spread Jewish values and ideals across the world.” On this note he praised the Katz Graduate school for its thirty Chinese students this year and stated that such outreach will only be expanded going forward. He also announced that scholarships will be created for students who do sherut leumi or serve in the Israeli or American armed forces before coming to campus.
When asked how he felt at the event, President Emeritus Richard Joel said, “I believe in continuity and change and to that end President Berman does us well. He has all kinds of hopes and dreams. I had the privilege of carrying out dreams for the past fourteen years–we are standing on one of those dreams [the plaza]. But of course the real dream is all of you [students].”
The formal ceremony was followed by the InvestFest – a street festival on Amsterdam Ave and the newly completed plaza including free food, food trucks, carnival games and music. The festival was well attended by undergraduates, faculty, staff and families.
The Observer spoke to Dr. Botman to discuss details of planning such a big event. On the investitures budget she said, “Dr. Berman wanted something modest and so the board [of the investiture committee] acceded to his request.” An outside source furthered this point, informing The Observer that when Dr. Berman saw the original budget for the festival he slashed it, feeling it was too much of an expense. Botman said that the main expenses came from audio visual equipment, staff and renting robes for the faculty, but almost all other frills, usually present at university investitures, were held back at the new president’s request. Fundraising staff noted that while there was no formal fundraising for the investiture event itself, fundraising has already begun in honor of the event for the specific programs Dr. Berman referred to in his speech.
Botman also explained that the festival format was chosen because “the president wanted a celebration and for everyone to get involved” and a street fair was a great platform to attract students. Rabbi Brander echoed this sentiment, telling The Observer that “We wanted to elevate the celebration by getting everyone involved – and first and foremost that means getting students involved.”
The Observer asked a number of students at the InvestFest why they came. “I came for the unity of people and, honestly, also for the food,” said Brent Weinberg, Syms ‘18. Gideon Turk, YC ‘18, expressed a similar attitude, “I am excited for food truck burgers, and for the future of Modern Orthodoxy.”
Recent graduate Jen van Amerongen, Stern ‘17, explained why she came to hear the investiture ceremony live: “During my last semester I met Dr. Berman on multiple occasions and I am a very big fan of his. I am very excited to be at his investiture and see all the wonderful things he is going to do for this university”
Noah Marlowe, YC ‘19, was also eager to hear Dr. Berman’s speech. “I wanted to see his new vision of YU and to be re-inspired for what we can be.”