An Interview with the New President of YU, Rabbi Dr. Ari Berman

By: Mindy Schwartz Miriam Pearl Klahr  |  November 7, 2017

Rabbi Dr. Ari Berman was appointed the fifth president of Yeshiva University at a formal investiture ceremony this past September. Last week Rabbi Berman sat down with The Observer to discuss his new role and his vision for YU.

Mindy Schwartz: In many of your statements you have talked about YU’s connection to Israel, for example by building partnership programs with Israeli universities. What would you say to people who are concerned that your focus is moving away from American Jewry?

Rabbi Berman: Actually, my focus has only been on America. Even when I talk about partnerships with Israel, [those partnerships are] for our students. [Those partnerships will] enable our students to develop the skillsets for success in their future.

It is wonderful to help Israel, but [our] question is: how are we helping our students in America. One of the ways we can do that is through our connections with Israel. Twenty or thirty years ago Israel was thought of [by American Jewry] as our poor cousins that we needed to support; there was an obligation on [American Jewry] to help Israel. But [now] Israel is no longer an obligation, it is an opportunity.

We can also contribute a lot to Israel. We have a lot to add in terms of the dialogue that has developed between the Diaspora and Israel. But [what I have spoken about] is actually very much about the American Jewish community.

MS: What do you think we have to add to Israel?

RB: If we could develop a real fruitful dialogue [between the Diaspora and Israel], I think we could come [to the conversation] with different perspectives on the world and on the Jewish people. When I was in Israel over Sukkot I met with Natan Sharansky and President Rivlin and [they were both] very interested in an Israel-Diaspora dialogue and ways in which YU can [act as a] bridge between worlds, because we can speak these different languages.

Miriam Pearl Klahr: What’s role do you think YU plays in defining American Jewry?

RB: YU is the educational [and] spiritual epicenter for a global movement, and certainly for the American Jewish community. We are the ones who, through the promotion of our values, deal with [the question of] how we can apply our 3,000 year old tradition to today and to the world of tomorrow.

MS: In light of that, what conversations do you think YU must have in terms of defining Modern Orthodoxy in America?

RB: I think it starts with our values; I think it starts with us understanding what we stand for. [That is why] I started my investiture speech by outlining our values, what I called the Five Torot. This is not new, [it is just] a new distillation of the same values we have been taught by our rabbis, teachers, and parents.

To repeat quickly: Torat Emet–we believe not only that the Torah is true, of course, and the Torah was given at Sinai, but we believe in [the existence of] Truth. Torat Chayim–we apply our values to the world. Torat Adam–that God has given each and every individual certain strengths and skill, and developing those skills is holy work. Torat Chesed–we do not just develop our skills for ourselves, but we reach out to others in kindness. And finally, Torat Tzion–which is of course about not only supporting Israel and the Jewish state, but also the establishment of the Jewish State is a means to a greater end: to redeem the world. Those are our core values.

MPK: Can you speak about specific ways you see YU living by those values and influencing the American Jewish community?

RB: First of all, [I see it] in all of our schools. YU is a large project of close to 6,000 students across six campuses and we are trying to activate them with our values, which apply to all of them.

Some of our schools are not just for the Orthodox community, and that is [also] part of our work. When I went to Cardozo law school I said to [the faculty], “I want you to know that I think of your work as holy work–that you are taking students and helping them develop themselves and their strengths in order to give of themselves to society. You would not necessarily word it this way–and I respect that you do not word it this way–but you should know that I think of it as holy work.”

Second of all, we have always encouraged our graduates to be people who go out into the world. We have always promoted an active engagement in society and moving forward history.

MS: Some would say our school has been doing these things for decades. Can you give an example of how you see YU “moving forward history” under your presidency?

RB: My whole point is that this is a continuation. There will be new directions, new educational pathways, new marketplaces of students, and new disciplines, but in terms of [our] core values, we have always been doing this.

We [must] focus on these values [the Five Torot] as opposed to what synagogues we pray in, what clothes we wear, [what we wear on our heads–] a black hart, a kipa sruga, or no kipa. If you are attached to these values, if they resonate with you, if you want to be part of a project that is broadcasting [these values] and thinking about tradition and pioneering, then you want to be part of Yeshiva University. This is our broad base moving forward and this is our continuity. So [these Torot] should not be new, they are just a reformulation of terms.

MPK: Moving to education, we have heard a lot about exciting changes to STEM fields at YU. Do you have any educational visions for the Liberal Arts as well?

RB: Exciting changes in STEM are about the Liberal Arts too. As Science and Technology develop, there will be new existential questions raised. For example–like we covered in our World of Tomorrow conference [held on October 22nd]–there will be questions of what does it mean to be a human [in a time of artificial intelligence]. We will need Liberal Arts–and the wisdom of our 3,000 year old tradition–to answer these deep questions. Focusing on STEM does not detract from the Liberal Arts, it [actually] just highlights the need [for them]. [And that need] and that importance is going to be reemphasized.

On that note–this is the kind of holistic thinking that we need to bring in. We should not see these fields as separate, but think about them holistically, all together. The world is shifting and becoming increasingly interdisciplinary; we are recognizing the need for knowledge to be a more unified structure. And I am excited about the possibilities [this new way of thinking will bring].

MS: Moving from education to financial stability, YU has been slowly recovering from a deep financial crisis. How would you assess YU’s finances today?

RB: Now we are definitely on a trajectory of growth. [The financial officers] have brought us to the point where we can now think about how to expand our revenue base. We are [now] going to expand to new educational pathways, new disciplines, and new marketplaces of students.

MS: Can you elaborate on those areas of expansion?

RB: [First,] in terms of new educational pathways, we are thinking about all of our schools as unified, so instead of just going [to YU] for a BA, your BA [can be] attached to a graduate degree [to] strengthen [your undergraduate degree]. So we will strengthen the pathways between our schools,  strengthen our [existing graduate schools], and create more graduate degrees. We will make YU, which is typically a three year experience, into a four year experience [that includes a bachelor’s and a master’s]. [These programs] will [also] enable us to get new students who would not otherwise be interested in Yeshiva University.  This will not only be helpful for our students by giving them market ready skills, [but it] will also obviously help [increase] Yeshiva University tuition [revenue].

[Second,] for new disciplines in Science and Technology, we need to think about ways we can grow our basic courses that everyone needs now, [in addition to] areas of expertise that people in our communities are interested in [studying] that we haven’t been able to provide [until now]. We have also created a new pathway [for students]: to pursue a master’s degree at Bar Ilan or Hebrew University in computer science. So students who would otherwise not necessarily think about [going to] Yeshiva University, will now think about [going to] Yeshiva University [because of these opportunities].

[Third,] we will develop new marketplaces of students. We are thinking about [recruitment] in broad terms, not just in growing our [undergraduate population] from [Jewish] day schools, but expanding [to places like] China, India, and other places that will give us a greater reach. This will [also] allow our students to have global connections when they graduate that will help them professionally. [This is also] a part of our greater project–to spread Jewish values not just inside [our] community, but around the whole world. These [foreign] students are ambassadors for the Jewish community, wherever they go.

MS: The Katz graduate program, which is made up of almost entirely foreign students from China, holds classes in the 215 Lexington Avenue building on the Beren campus. I have noticed that most students on the Beren campus do not know about the program and are often confused when they see the Katz students, and that there is no interaction between these two groups. Considering the current status quo, how do you plan on creating connections between the undergraduate and graduate communities?

RB: When I lived on campus for three months and I was just walking around, I noticed that too. It is definitely one of the things which is on my mind: thinking about integration not just with [those students], but also with the whole university. We need to create a more integrated institution.

That was the theory behind the World of Tomorrow conference, to gather together the huge interdisciplinary resources of Yeshiva University. We have incredible legal minds at Cardozo, and Einstein (which is still an affiliate of YU) has super scientists. We have incredible resources. When you came into Yeshiva University as a student, I want you to not only be exposed to teachers and scholars of your major or focus, but really the whole constellation of stars that exist in this university. I think that it would help create a very exciting experience here.

MS: Coming back to YU’s fiances, a few years ago there were some reports about conflicts of interests in the investment’s of the investment committee. Those committee members have been replaced and we have been assured that those are not issues anymore. But the University’s conflict of interest policy for its investments is still not public. For people looking for reassurance, can you comment on the fact that the policy is not public?

RB: That is a very important question. [The financial officers] have worked very had to put in place the right financial controls that assure our stability, and there is no question that we need to build our growth on a financially stable platform and a sense of trust. We need people to trust us–internally [and] externally.

This is all preceding me, [but] they did a great job of putting [this] into place so that now we can move forward [with] a strong base and platform.

MS: Right, but if we want to feel confident that nothing sketchy is going anymore, then why can’t we just see the policy itself–not the actual investments, but just the commitments to honest financial dealings that the policy presumably upholds?

RB: I mean I assume that things are public, [but] I will check.

MS: I checked the conflict of interest policy of the investment committee and it is not public.

RB: Okay, so I will check.

MS: Shifting to discuss some contemporary issues–can you speak a bit about your decision to respond to Charlottesville the way that you did?

RB: After Charlottesville people were calling to ask me what statement I was going to  make, like “YU is against Nazis.” I did not do that. And it is not just because that is really not a [bold]  statement [to make], [but rather] because we are not a statement making institution. We are an educational institution. We teach the issues; we don’t make statements about [the issues].

Our strength is bringing our enormous intellectual resources to bear on the current contemporary issues of our day. So in [the case of] Charlottesville, we were able to put out a reader in just a couple of days that dealt with the issues at the core [of this event], and not just from the Halakhic or Jewish philosophical [perspective], but also from historical, legal, and social perspectives. We are uniquely capable of addressing these kinds of issues.

MS: Moving on to another contemporary issue–you mentioned in your Times of Israel interview that there is a greater challenge to find or create roles for female Torah scholars in the US than there is in Israel. Other than the GPATS program, how do you see YU addressing this challenge?

RB: I think they said that. What I said, if I remember correctly, is that Israel is a whole different society with a whole different structure. Just take the basic educational model. We have one primary school of higher education in our community–Yeshiva University, [while] they have hundreds of mechinot, midrashot, and different kinds of yeshivot, and a much bigger community [of Jews]. So what I meant was that there are totally different opportunities [in Israel].

Women[‘s education] today is certainly one of the crucial issues [that] Yeshiva University is concerned about on many fronts. We need to educate our students to think about that, to fulfill their potential, and find the right places where they can shine.

MPK: But since there really is no existing framework in place for women, it is programs like GPATS that create frameworks.

RB: GPATS educates students. It is not the final role.

MPK: But now GPATS helps students find job opportunities. Do you have any visions for programs of that nature?

RB: We are very interested in creating the opportunities of today. These are our values. [This is] Torat Adam–that hakadosh baruch hu has given each of us special talents and we want to develop [those talents] for both our women and our men.

MS: Women who want to learn Talmud at Stern are given just a half or a third of the time to study Talmud than their male counterparts in the Mazer Yeshiva Program are given. This of course gives them an immediate handicap in their learning. How would you address this structural problem?

RB: I love that problem! If there are people expressing greater interest in Torah study I would love to figure out a way to match that [interest]. Those are the greatest problems we could possibly have. And this is what I meant with Torat Adam.

MS: This issue has been discussed in the past and one of the obstacles has been that it would require expensive restructuring of the schedule for a program that only a small percentage of Beren students would be interested in. How would you balance these concerns with the value of Torat Adam that you mentioned?

RB: I do not have specific wisdom on the nitty gritty of to how to work through the structure [so the problem could be solved]. But I would just say that the values are clear.

I would be very interested in thinking about how to help our students maximize their desire and ability to study Torah on all levels. I can not think of a greater [task]. How wonderful it is to have students that are interested in [learning more]. And it is our mandate to develop [those opportunities] so [these students can develop] who they are as people.

MPK: How much time are you planning to spend on the Beren campus?

RB: We don’t have strict rules, but it is very important for me to spend time on all of our campuses. Certainly [to spend time at] Beren and Wilf and, in some sense, Cardozo. It is a little harder to get out to Ferkauf and Central, and certainly harder these days get to the Gruss [Kollel] in Jerusalem. But is is definitely crucial to spend time at Beren and Wilf. I have been [at Beren] and I have been [at Beren] for shabbatonim and it has been a pleasure [to be here].

MS: What has been the most rewarding part of this job for you so far?

RB: I have been deeply touched by the number of people who are excited about YU and have told me that they are rooting for our success. I mean this on many many levels: from students who have come over to me to tell me about their sense of excitement for the future, to the amazing and touching level of support and excitement from faculty, rabbeim, and roshei yeshiva.

The overwhelming interest expressed by the outside community in what is going on at YU now [has also been] mind-boggling. Our reports show that there were over 50,000 people who were livestreaming the investiture and there was over 120,000 people who watched [the investiture] speech. They put out this little video [about the investiture] on Facebook and there was over half a million people that clicked on it. When I was in Israel people told me that there were classes where people were studying [the event] and “asking what is YU doing now?” It is incredible.

MS: Did this outpouring surprise you?

RB: It is not surprising in that I did not expect it; it is surprising because I did not think about it. [It just shows how] we have picked up an enormous amount of momentum in such a short span of time. This is a moment of opportunity for us. We need to capitalize on it, we need to grow. That is why I say we are on a trajectory of expansion and growth–we are developing, building, and putting the building blocks in place for short term growth and long term growth. And we have a lot of support for that.

MS: What has been the greatest challenge in your adjustment as the new president?

RB: There is no question that on a personal level, I just moved half of my family to America so there has been a lot adjustment there. But I have to say that it has actually felt right.

MS: On that note, how does it feel to live in America again?

RB: Coming back here from Israel has given me different perspectives on many things. I have had a whole different range of experiences [by living in Israel]. I was involved in a different kind of religious community, the Dati Leumi community. I studied at Hebrew University and Herzog College [so] even my range of higher educational experiences is different. Being in Israel changes your whole perspective on the Jewish world. So coming back I see things that I know so well, that are in my heart and soul, but I see them a little differently.

MPK: What have you learned about YU that has surprised you since you came back?

RB: One of the areas that is very different than [it was] when I was a student here is the student life outside of academics. Student life has grown to be much more robust and students are more involved in clubs and activities. This place is more vibrant and dynamic; it seems more alive than I remember it.

MPK: Is there anything else you want to the student body to know?

RB: Just to summarize [what I have been saying], YU has a grand purpose. Our grand purpose is for our students to leave Yeshiva University on a mission to not just transform themselves but transform the Jewish world and the broader society. [So] we have global impact. We are thinking big we are thinking broad. And we have great momentum. Its an exciting time for Yeshiva University and we look forward to continued growth.