The First Ladies of Yeshiva University

By: Leah Klahr  |  January 22, 2018

Dr. Samuel Belkin, Yeshiva University’s first president wrote, “My heart and soul are in the holy Yeshiva which I helped to build. The Yeshiva is the most valuable fortune possessed by American Jewry, and it gives life to orthodoxy in this country.” The unique vision and role of Yeshiva University was built by the people who dedicated their lives to the ideas and reality of the institution. Among these people are the five presidents of YU; these five men are renowned within the University and beyond for their devotion and vision for YU. However, less renowned are the women who also played a role in building the institution that YU is today. These women include the First Ladies of YU; though they assume an unofficial title and role at YU, the First Ladies of YU are an integral part of the YU story.

YU’s first First Lady, Sarah (nee’ Travis) Revel, was raised in Marietta, Ohio. Her family immigrated to the U.S. at the turn of the century from a suburb of Riga. Upon immigrating, their last name was changed from Rabinowitz to Travis. At first, they worked as farmers in Ohio. Later, Sarah’s brother bought land in Oklahoma which proved to be rich with oil, and the family became involved with the petroleum and gasoline industries. Sarah and Bernard Revel met through the part-time Rabbi of the Marietta, Ohio community, and the couple was married on Thanksgiving of 1908. Though little is known about Sarah Revel, in Aaron Rothkoff’s biography about Bernard Revel, her presence in the Yeshiva University enterprise is conveyed. Rothkoff describes how the couple hosted the YU rabbinical students at their home on Purim. In a Commentator article, an anonymous student described his surprise at seeing Sarah Revel attending Bernard Revel’s rabbinical lectures–the only woman among dozens of Rabbis and rabbinical students. Rothkoff records that Bernard Revel’s last words to his wife were “It was my privilege to serve God, the Torah, and the Children of Israel.” While Sarah Revel’s work and interests remain unknown, undoubtedly, she played a significant role in this endeavor, establishing the role of a YU First Lady.

Much more is know about Abby (nee’ Frosburg) Belkin, YU’s second First Lady, who was an influential journalist, writer, and feminist. As an established journalist, Abby worked as the editor of the Women’s Section of the Long Island Daily Press, and was a member of the Women’s Newspaper Associations. Her niece, Myra Becker explained, “Abby was always interested in supporting more education for women, and in her career as a journalist, she always resisted being pigeon-holed as ‘the woman writer writing about recipes’” Becker added that for over two decades, “[Abby] held salons in her apartment to which only women were invited for an evening of intellectual discussion and sharing.”

Later in her career, she worked as a speechwriter for New York state governor Hugh Carey. Blu Greenberg, a highly influential Orthodox Feminist thinker and writer since the 1970s, shared her impressions and memories of Abby Belkin with The Observer. She described, “Abby was one of the most down to earth and kind First Ladies. For all her high station, Abby was one of the most modest, genuine persons one could ever know. She had a sparkle in her eye and an easy laugh about life in general. Abby truly had a great heart and loved people and took them at face value. No intrigue, no politicking, no airs about her. But she was not at all light-minded. She could analyze a situation or an encounter with great perceptivity–and still treat everyone with kindness and generosity.”

In 2016, the seventh annual Stern College Senior Art Show at the Yeshiva University Museum was dedicated to Abby Belkin. The art exhibition, called Gray Matter, was produced by ten Stern College students, and dedicated “in recognition of [Abby’s] profound and lasting impact on Yeshiva University, and her abiding enthusiasm for educational, cultural, and artistic advancement.” Dr. Karen Bacon, the Mordecai D. and Dr. Monique C. Katz Dean of Arts and Sciences at Stern College described, “Abby had a distinctive voice—and the way she supported Stern College for Women made sure that all the women there found their distinct voices.” When Samuel Belkin passed away at 64 years old, Abby Belkin continued to live and work with the same passion and positivity. Blu Greenberg described, “After Abby was widowed at a young age, she accepted her fate without self-pity and carried on her life with the same cheer and goodness as before. She had no expectations of deferential treatment, neither as wife of the president nor as a widow. She sought out friends and took initiative to build a positive life.”

Mindella (nee’ Mehler) Lamm, YU’s third First Lady and a grandmother to two current Stern College students, shared both her childhood and first lady experiences with The Observer.  Mindella Lamm was born in Midwood, New York. Her father passed away when she was very young, and she shared with The Observer, “I was raised in an environment of very strong women who overcame tragedy and raised a wonderful family.” After completing her Beis Yakov education, she attended Hunter College, where she majored in Education and minored in Drama. Mrs. Lamm explained, “I have always loved the theater and arts. When I was younger I loved to sing and act in local plays. When I got older I was drawn to the extraordinary arts of New York City and became a devoted fan of opera, ballet and theater, and attended these events very regularly.”

Upon graduating college, Mrs. Lamm worked in the New York public school system. However, she explained that once she met her husband, Dr. Norman Lamm, she transferred her energies to YU. “Being involved with YU on so many levels was the experience of a lifetime,” Mrs. Lamm wrote. “Before Dr. Lamm became president of YU, I was very involved in all of the chesed work of the Yeshiva University’s Women’s Organization. They do marvelous work and don’t get enough credit for the enormous chesed they do for students. Once Dr. Lamm became president, I assisted in every way I could. Those were both very tough times, but also times of great building and hope.”

Mrs. Lamm explained that once her children were older, she accompanied Dr. Norman Lamm to meet with dignitaries across the world. Mrs. Lamm recounted that they traveled to Egypt, London, Paris, Australia, and Beijing during her husband’s presidency. She added, “We entertained in our home or at YU on behalf of Yeshiva and the entire Jewish world and were privileged to get to meet or know many extraordinary people—whether it was Abba Eban or Natan Sharansky, Yehuda Avner, Menachem Begin, Yitzchak Rabin, and many others. It was a tremendous privilege. But with all of the extraordinary people we met, including undergraduate faculty, Roshei Yeshiva and graduate school faculties and administrators, [the] students were always the highlight.” She explained, “I loved meeting Stern college students when I audited classes, which I did often.” Additionally, Mrs. Lamm explained that she greatly enjoyed when students used to visit their small summer home in Sackett Lake, New York.

YU’s fourth First Lady, Mrs. Esther  (nee’ Ribner) Joel, shared with The Observer, “I’ve known Mindy Lamm and her family for many years and I am always impressed by her. She was and is the ultimate First Lady, and I’ve always looked to her as a role model.”

Mrs. Joel received a Yeshiva Day School education, attended Barnard College, and then earned a Ph.D. in psychology from YU’s Ferkauf Graduate School. She then pursued a career in Education, teaching math, science, and psychology. She has also worked as both a college and high school guidance counselor. Mrs. Joel said, “My interests range from puzzles of all kinds to reading, needlepoint, folk dancing, swimming, and most important, spending time with our children and grandchildren.”

She shared with The Observer that “since high school, I have been involved, in some way, with Yeshiva University. I worked in Camp Morasha, many of my friends were students at YU and my brother and father graduated from YU, so I was very familiar with what YU was and what it stood for.” She added, “During my college and graduate school years Richard and I were very involved in a program run by YU at that time, called Torah Leadership Seminar–a five-day experiential Jewish education program for high school students.”

However, despite their involvement with YU, Mrs. Joel explained that her husband’s decision to accept the presidency was made with careful consideration of how the role would affect the entire family. She explained, “When Richard finally accepted the offer to become president of YU, the decision was made as a family, fully understanding that both he and I, and our children, would be invested in the position.” Renowned for their generosity in hosting YU students for Shabbat, Mrs. Joel stated, “From the beginning we decided to entertain often, inviting faculty, Rabbeim, board members and donors to our home. [But] best of all was having students for Shabbos. We had student groups and groups of random students throughout Richard’s tenure. Each time a group left after Shabbos, Richard and I would remark about how wonderful our students are.” Mrs. Joel also commented on the opportunity of spending Shabbat in diverse Jewish communities both within the United States and internationally as representatives of Yeshiva University, giving them “the chance to learn more about the communities, connect with people, and be a spokesperson for YU.”

Another aspect that Mrs. Joel singled out as part of her experience as a First Lady of YU was the annual Rebbetzins’ Yarchei Kallah, which enabled her to “meet amazing women who, together with their husbands, serve their communities across the country.”

Like Mrs. Joel, YU’s fifth and current First Lady, Anita (nee’ Ash) Berman, has had a connection to YU since her high school years. Mrs. Berman attended Yeshiva University’s Central High School. “During those years, I met YU’s future president,” she explained; President Ari Berman was a student at Yeshiva University’s MTA High School and the two met on the ‘Central-MTA blind date.’ Mrs. Berman then majored in Nutrition at Queens College, and continued studying nutrition in graduate school, where she became a Registered Dietician. The Bermans have been living in Neve Daniel, Israel, and have moved back to America for President Berman’s YU presidency. In Israel, Mrs. Berman had a private Nutrition practice. “At the moment, I am helping my family acclimate to all of the major changes in our lives, and I look forward in the future to returning to my clinical work,” she told The Observer. Ms. Berman added, “I believe deeply in the value of Yeshiva University and its ability to educate the next generation of religious, communal, and professional leaders. Although I do not formally work for the school, I hope to assist in spreading the new vision for its future.”

Though the role and title of The First Ladies of YU remain unofficial, and were embraced differently by each first Lady, the lives of these five women touched, and were touched by, the YU institution. And perhaps these women are paving the way for the next YU President—this time, a woman.