What About YU and American Jewry?

By: Miriam Pearl Klahr  |  October 19, 2017

The Investiture of Rabbi Dr. Ari Berman was an exciting day in YU’s history. Perhaps this was especially true among the students in attendance, who had all never been present at an investiture before, and were filled with an unprecedented excitement regarding the future of their university. What drew them, myself included, was more than the free food; we were all eager to hear President Berman’s vision for Yeshiva University.

Yet as I listened to President Berman’s beautiful speech, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of disappointment. The question of “What does Yeshiva University stand for?” was posed. But the five torot offered as an answer were a vague, though inspiring, message that could apply to many a Jewish institution. Then the speech shifted to outlining specific initiatives: expanding STEM offerings, creating scholarships for students who excel in community service, and foreign relationships between YU and other universities across the globe. A common theme among them was Israel. President Berman cited men and women who served in tzahal as those eligible for the new scholarships, along with bridge programs between Hebrew University or Bar-Ilan as the new inter-university global relationships.  These examples reminded me of a concern I have had since first hearing Dr. Berman speak, and helped me realize what I felt was missing from the address.

In many ways, Yeshiva University is known as the United States flagship Modern Orthodox institution. The lessons and norms students are introduced to in the walls of YU do not only influence them; they impact the entire American Jewish community. Yet I have never heard President Berman speak of YU in the context of the American Orthodox community. When I first met Dr. Berman at a Shabbat on the Beren campus, every conversation eventually circled back to Israel, and the initiatives he outlined at the Investiture seemed to do the same. I heard how YU can gain from Israel’s many start-ups, spiritual learning programs, excellent masters degrees and heroic soldiers. But I still haven’t heard  about what YU will contribute to the world, and especially, American Jewry.

For a university to be relevant and vibrant, there needs to be a give-and-take. The school must be open to external ideas and influences, but it must also have its own ideas to offer. A strong university should look outwards, but it cannot forget those who comprise it and the many individuals who look up to it. Over the course of the Shabbat that President Berman spent  on  the Beren Campus for the first time, a few students who did not spend a gap year in Israel noted to me that his emphasis on Israel and what YU could learn from the “seminary experience” made them feel left out and isolated. As I listened to the speech at the Investiture, I wondered if YU students with no interest in making Aliyah now felt isolated as well.

Yeshiva University’s support, admiration, partnership, and love for the State of Israel is an important part of its identity, but there is so much more to it. I enthusiastically wait to hear about the rest. Programs like GPATs have changed women’s Talmud study throughout America. How will our school continue to define and expand women’s Torah learning? And what will Torah learning for men at YU look like; will the diversity of Torah learning options be strengthened in any way? Will YU engage with complex academic issues and their relationship to Judaism? How will the University balance Orthodoxy and the inclusion of the LGBTQ members within its community? As Akiva Schick noted in his Commentator article, what will become of the school’s liberal arts curriculum? Will YU continue to promote the value of a well-rounded education as key to creating active leaders and engaged Modern Orthodox Jew, a value that is interestingly not promoted in Israel? Will new community service projects and student opportunities based in the United States be introduced?

I know an Investiture speech is always broad, and that there will be time for President Berman to address each of these issues throughout his presidency. We have also seen Dr. Berman engage the American Jewish community in a powerful way with the Reflection on Charlottesville faculty blog post that he led. It was a project that created much hope for unique and new ways the YU can engage with its broader American community. But I just wish this could have been mentioned in some way at the Investiture.

At the Investiture, President Berman concluded his speech with the story of a Beren campus student who called out “Rabbi, we are rooting for you.” I am writing this article because I too am rooting for Rabbi Berman and eagerly await hearing a more expanded vision for Yeshiva University’s future and the role it will play within American Jewry.