Yeshiva University News » 2003 » August

Aug 26, 2003 — A record 675 Yeshiva University students from across North America are departing for a year’s study in Israel, undeterred by recent tensions. From August 26 to September 9 students are leaving from metro area airports to participate in YU’s S. Daniel Abraham Israel Program, the largest American study abroad program in Israel.

“Other programs have curtailed or cancelled their programs, but YU continues to emphasize the importance of studying, working, and living in the Jewish State,” said Dr. John Fisher, YU director of enrollment management. Students attend approximately 40 YU-affiliated yeshivot under the program.

Approximately 9,000 students have participated in the program since 1980, reflecting YU’s steadfast support for Israel. Additionally, YU’s affiliated Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary has 39 students studying this year at the Caroline Joseph S. Gruss Institute in Jerusalem.

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Yeshiva University (YU) has been consistently making strides in student quality, academic excellence, and diversity of programs and research over the past decade. YU is now ranked along with Columbia and NYU as the top universities in the metropolitan area.

YU is ranked as #40 in the most challenging category—national research doctoral universities, which has Harvard at the top followed by Princeton and Yale. This is the eighth consecutive year that YU has been in the top tier of national universities.

“We are gratified that Yeshiva University is again ranked among the top universities in the nation,” said President Richard M. Joel. “The quality of our students, faculty, programs in medicine, law, social work, psychology, and education as well as our undergraduate and Jewish studies is on the ascendancy. In no small way, our ranking underscores the critical importance of scholarship.”

Factors that account for YU’s strong ranking include high SAT scores, faculty resources and faculty to student ratios, small class size, significant science and medicine research funding, and sound financial resources.

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Aug 19, 2003 — Freshman orientation is fast approaching, yet that intense time of adjustment does not apply to fresh-faced teens alone. It also extends to new college presidents.

In New York City, among the new presidents joining exhausted parents in counting down the days until school begins are Richard Joel and the Reverend Joseph McShane.

Both are experienced educators, but that’s where most of the similarities end. Mr. Joel is the new president of Yeshiva University, an Orthodox Jewish institution in Manhattan. Rev. Mc-Shane’s office can be found in the Bronx, in the Jesuit-run Fordham University’s Rose Hill campus.

Mr. Joel is the former director and president of Hillel, a movement that works to build up Jewish communities on college campuses. He is a former New York assistant district attorney who has also worked as a dean at Yeshiva University’s Cardozo law school.

Rev. McShane is an ordained priest whose previous job was as president of the University of Scranton, a Jesuit college in Pennsylvania. He has also served as a professor of theology and is the author of the entry on “Roman Catholicism” in the Encyclopedia Britannica.

Ensconced in his spacious, newly renovated Washington Heights office, Mr. Joel sketched his goals and objectives for the coming academic year. “Being the president of a university today is both frightening and incredibly opportune. One of our biggest challenges lies in how we shape the future of Orthodox Jewry, and through that, the future of the Jewish people and building of a better world at large. The stakes are high at Y.U.”

With an entirely Jewish undergraduate population, “We have to break the stereotype surrounding Y.U. students,” Mr. Joel said. “We have to be clear in what we are, and the best in what we are.” He interpreted the school’s Hebrew slogan of “Torah U’Madda” as “viewing all the wonders of life through the world of Torah and Torah values. We have spawned all the great civilizations we call Western civilization, not just in terms of education, but in promoting a God-centered universe. Our job as Jews is to model those values, to be a light unto the nations.” On a more practical level, he said he would like to see the quality of learning at Yeshiva University improve, particularly at the women’s school, Stern College for Women, which has a campus in the Murray Hill neighborhood of Manhattan.

He described some of the unique aspects of running a religious institution. “There’s no question that this is a place where we’re always balancing how we stay rooted to traditional values while boldly going where no one has gone before in the secular world,” he said.

Rev. McShane faces some of the same challenges. “We have to wrestle with the public perception of what it means to be a Catholic institution,” he said. “We don’t believe that being Catholic means being narrow in our approach to the world. The challenge is continually trying to engage people. We’re not inhospitable to ideas.”

He elaborated on some of the issues he would like to see addressed. “Fordham has traditionally been a school that accepts first-generation students from all economic backgrounds. We want to make sure that we have continued access.” He went on,“We also have infrastructure and capital needs, such as plain basic space. We want to improve and refurbish our facilities, the quality of student life.”

Rev. McShane said he’ll have to juggle the various aspects of his jobs.“The president has to switch hats. I’m in charge of leading the university community in prayer…I’m pastor of the university at the same time as I am CEO, fund-raiser, and campus leader.”

He said his previous job at the University of Scranton had some useful lessons, even though it was a much smaller school in a much smaller city. “I learned about the importance of engaging students in dialogue, and of using the city in the context of laboratory and classroom. Practically speaking, you learn how to apportion your time, to speak with alumni — to beg.”

Mr. Joel’s selection as the new president of Yeshiva spurred some debate within the Jewish community because while he is an observant Jew, he is not an ordained rabbi, something many feel to be a necessary part of the president’s profile.“I am a radical departure from my three predecessors, who were very devoted to academia. I am committed to scholarship. I am not a scholar,” he said.

But he said he brings other skills: “For the last 15 years,” said Mr. Joel, “I have done a wonderful amount of listening to young people. I know what their urges and aspirations are, where there’s hunger. I love young people. I can relate to them, and I’m not afraid to empower them.”

Mr. Joel said that, at $939.2 million as of May 2003,Yeshiva University’s endowment is “substantial enough that we don’t need to fear. We can dream 21st century dreams.”

At Fordham, the endowment recently totaled $254.7 million. Rev. McShane calls that “still smaller than it should be” and says one of his major goals is increasing it.

Mr.Joel recently returned from Cambridge, Mass., where he was enrolled in the Harvard Seminar for New Presidents. It attracted professionals from all over the country, from Monmouth College in New Jersey, to the American University in Cairo.

The chair of the Harvard program, Judith Block McLaughlin, said,“All the religious presidents have the same challenges as non-sectarian and independent institutions. But they also have the complex task of figuring out what it means to be a religious university, and how to think about values in that context.”

It’s a complicated task that fills the new presidents with some of the same emotions felt by the new students arriving on campus. Mr. Joel said of himself and the other presidents at the Harvard seminar,“we were all equally terrified.”

But part of the nervousness is anticipation of the new academic year.
“I’m very excited,” said Rev. Mc-Shane. “I really can’t wait.”
©The New York Sun – Yael Merkin

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New York, NY, Aug 18, 2003 — Elisheva Douglas hopes her research on lupus will help scientists better understand the chronic inflammatory disease that affects thousands of Americans each year. She and nine other Yeshiva University (YU) undergraduates spent nine weeks this summer investigating causes and treatments of ailments including cancer, sickle cell anemia, and Alzheimer’s disease under the tutelage of top biomedical scientists at the University’s Albert Einstein College of Medicine.

Ms. Douglas, Nomi Ben-Zvi, Netanel Berko, Chaya Gopin, Aaron Leifer, Dina Ohevshalom, David Rabin, and David Wise were 2003 Roth Institute Scholars for Undergraduate Summer Research sponsored by the Ernst and Hedwig Roth Institute of Biomedical Science Education at YU in New York City. In addition, Tova Fischer and Jeremy Mazurek conducted research at Einstein as University Summer Research Scholars. The annual programs seek to enhance the educational experience of biology and science majors at YU’s Yeshiva College and Stern College for Women.

Mr. Rabin, a biology major at Yeshiva College, investigated the relationship between adipocytes (fat cells) and breast cancer cells, since certain cancer strains require fat cells to grow and metastasize. The goal of his research was to better understand cancer cell growth and find potential methods of halting their proliferation. “I was grateful to participate in fascinating scientific research that may one day advance medicine,” Mr. Rabin said.

Tova Fischer, a biochemistry major at Stern College for Women, studied the genetic expression of Glutathione-S Transferases (GST), a class of enzymes that is involved in detoxification of noxious substances and considered effective in fighting cancers. “I felt my research was important because I had the freedom to conduct my own project, learn from my mistakes, and hone my skills,” said Ms. Fischer, “yet I was very much guided by the experienced members of the lab who taught me valuable principles in science and research.”

The students hail from California, New York, New Jersey, South Carolina, and Israel.

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Aug 22, 2003 — Richard Joel is well aware that on the eve of his being chosen president of Yeshiva University last December, a number of students and rabbis were so opposed to his election that they recited Tehillim (Psalms), a prayerful response to times of crisis and danger. For some, the fact that Joel was not a rabbinic scholar and, moreover, had for years headed Hillel, the Jewish campus organization that celebrates pluralism, signaled an impending revolution for Yeshiva, away from its Torah roots.

But they will be proven only half-right. Yeshiva under Joel indeed promises much change — in style, substance and outlook. That change, though, will stem not from the direction of secularism but from Joel’s commitment to the Jewish people’s historic role as a light unto the nations.

Yeshiva, he believes, stays truest to its mission by expanding rather than narrowing its goals, encountering the world rather than retreat-ing from it.

Six weeks into the new post and preparing for his formal investiture next month as only the fourth president of Modern Orthodoxy’s flagship institution in a century, Joel seems confident that his experience, belief, vision and force of personality will win over skeptics and advance Yeshiva’s motto of Torah U’Madah, the blending of both Torah and secular learning.

He doesn’t say so in as many words, though. And in recent talks he has made reference to his avoidance of the Torah U’Madah phrase, noting that it is fraught with ideology while he is, instead, committed to action. That action most likely will not be frontal, taking on those who oppose his outlook, but rather used to focus energy on his goals, and on those who share them.

During a two-hour conversation — his first full interview as the head of Yeshiva — in his newly renovated office on the Washington Heights campus, the 52-year-old Joel seemed to be trying out his new persona of both university president and representative of an ideology rooted in tradition but obliged to embrace, as well as at times confront, modernity.

“I’m learning a lot,” he says of the several months he has spent talking to students, rabbis, faculty and lay leaders about the needs and goals of Yeshiva, a complex institution comprised of men’s and women’s undergraduate colleges, a rabbinic school, a medical school, law school, and other graduate institutions with sometimes competing needs and interests.

“I want to move forward, but I have to be careful. You want to build this … to last.”

Indeed, he is well aware that many eyes in the Orthodox community and beyond are on him these days because Yeshiva, and by extension the centrist Orthodox community, is in the midst of an intense, ongoing tug of war between those calling for a greater or lesser amount of involvement with the rest of the community, as well as questions about women’s roles and the value of secular education.

Joel’s is a delicate perch, yet instinctively he is eager to engage. He is an advocate and model of Modern Orthodoxy and has expressed frustration over the community’s trend toward separation from the rest of society. There is a part of him, though, that is holding back as well, and he acknowledges the tension.

“I am trying to find my language in this setting,” he says, “but I am not taking on a different world view than I had at Hillel. People who knew me there knew I wasn’t walking away from my commitment to Orthodoxy, but I was embracing others. And from the very beginning we found a way to have a big tent without saying that everyone in that tent was by definition ‘legitimate.’

“We Jews should find the grounds where we can be one people with one heart,” he continues. “But to me pluralism means I honor your right to be wrong. It’s not relativism. I believe that my truth is the truth, and I don’t have to say your truth is the truth. I can honor and esteem who you are, hope there is much we share, and make it safe to argue or fight when it’s appropriate. But I don’t have to say there are many paths up Mt. Sinai.”

Joel seems committed to doing what he did for Hillel when he took over the then-moribund organization 13 years ago, first healing from within, uniting the various elements of the institution, giving students and staff a greater voice, calling for standards of excellence, and sharing his dream with the larger community.

“I don’t want to pretend to be what I’m not,” Joel says. “I am not a rabbi and I am not going to pretend to be a teacher of Orthodox tradition. I am a working Jew, a learning Jew.” And his job, he says, is to build an institution that nurtures learning and inspires “more young people to learn Torah and to live a life of Torah.” He says he is not a spokesman for Modern Orthodoxy but rather the president of an institution “training the next generation of leaders of Modern Orthodoxy.”

But don’t look for Joel to take a backseat role. Officials at Yeshiva say they already sense a change in style at the top, with Joel taking on a more hands-on role than his predecessor, Dr. Norman Lamm, who now serves as chancellor after more than 25 years at the helm. For example, Joel recently chose to get involved in working out a relatively minor faculty dispute, according to a school official, and managed to come up with an agreeable compromise.

He has met with the rabbinic faculty and is says to favor several of the younger rabbis. He wants undergrads to feel more cared for, and has hired Hillel Davis, an experienced business executive, for the new post of vice president of university life. He has also hired Ed Fox, a seasoned administrator, as deputy to the president, and Joel says he is still building an administrative team that will give him strong executive responsibility.

“He is a doer,” one rabbinic member of the faculty says of Joel, “and he is too smart to get caught up in ideological confrontations with the rabbis. He will make his mark through programmatic and communal change,” working around the rabbis if they won’t work with him.

The results may be the same, though, as Joel speaks of placing a greater emphasis on training rabbis to better serve and lead their communities, providing day schools with skilled modern educators, expanding Yeshiva’s involvement in and connection with Israel, and promoting Jewish communal work as a dignified profession. He speaks of kedusha, which he defines as “nobility” rather than sanctity, and calls for “ennobling and enabling” young people to serve the community.

Joel says Orthodox Jews walk a delicate line of being both a part of, and apart from, the world, and that “we have to know our values and be comfortable with them so we can then risk being out in that world.” He admits that it is “a difficult task” to “inform the world and learn from it while remembering who we are,” but notes that “when we retreat to black and white, we sometimes drive the color out.”

He says he also wants to use his “bully pulpit” to tell society at large to “come back from the abyss and latch on to immutable values” like those Judaism has to offer.

Joel feels he is being given a year “to use training wheels” in his new post, but he is well aware of the opportunity he has to set his mark during this honeymoon period. “What’s frightening,” he says, “is that the stakes are so high, but what’s exciting is the prospect of advancing the mission of the Jewish people through our young people.”

Samuel Heilman, a Queens college professor and expert on Orthodox life, gives Joel high marks as “a great public figure and warm human being,” but worries that as “neither a rabbi nor academic, will he have enough of an understanding of what a university is to be able to help it reach its potential?”

His advice is for Joel to hire a “first-rate provost” who understands university life and Orthodoxy.

But Joel is confident he has the staffing he needs and is ready to translate his vision into action, noting: “I was given permission to dream and listen to the dreams of those around me,” he says. “But the only way to make it happen is to wake up.”

©The Jewish Week – Gary Rosenblatt
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