TORONTO — According to Richard Joel, left, not only did he not expect to become president of Yeshiva University, but he was certain it wasn’t possible, given that his predecessors have all been rabbis.
Before he became YU’s fourth president in September 2003, Joel spent 15 years as president and international director of Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, where he was widely credited for bringing new life to the campus organization. He is also a former YU faculty member and parent.
A genial New Yorker who still describes himself as “a recovering lawyer,” Joel was in Toronto last week as keynote speaker for the launch of YU’s new “Toronto Partnership.”
More than 500 people attended the sold-out April 7 event, which honoured Joseph and Cheryl Greenbaum, John and Lori Ulmer and the late Bill Rubinstein. The dinner, which was held at Copper Creek Golf Club in Kleinburg, raised approximately $3.2 million for the project.
Toronto’s partnership with YU and its Center for the Jewish Future will have educational, professional, spiritual and social components.
It’s an effort both to strengthen YU’s philosophy here and to make the community more appealing to young religious Zionist couples, said Mo Lidsky, national director of Canadian Friends of Yeshiva University, citing focus groups the organization conducted last summer.
As part of the project, the organization plans to bring in nine young couples, all “highly educated and committed to the Jewish community” from the university and from Israel in August 2009. They will serve as staff members for three or four years, spending time in local schools and institutions.
In a separate interview, Joel added, “As a major training institution for rabbinic leadership and educational leadership, we have a responsibility to be of as much help and partnership with the institutions of Toronto as we can be.”
The school also gains because the result will be more potential students, he said. “By having that happen, our world goes on.”
Yeshiva University – a 122-year-old institution commonly described as the flagship of modern Orthodoxy for its combination of Torah and secular studies – currently has about 220 Canadian students, 120 of whom are from Toronto. Its secular studies include medicine, law, social work and the liberal arts.
But Lidsky, like Joel, shies away from the term “modern Orthodox.” In a similar vein to Joel, Lidsky explained that he doesn’t want to jeopardize YU’s welcoming of people “to the right or to the left of where they perceive Yeshiva University to be.”
He added that the school, which has an almost $700 million annual budget and 7,000 students on four campuses, stands for core values that include dedication to Jewish learning for men and women, commitment to Jewish tradition and Israel, communal leadership for women and men, higher education, and engagement with the modern world.
In the context of what is sometimes referred to as the “haredization” of Orthodox Judaism, Joel said that one of the school’s goals is “to very proudly and non-defensively talk about an aspiration to… an integrated life, involved in the world, [and] based on the primacy of Torah. That’s really what we stand for.
“But coupled with that is a sense of Yeshiva also being a big tent, that… all serious Jews who are equally committed to the world of Halachah, are welcome at Yeshiva without having to swear fealty to the particular drive of Yeshiva University.”
He said he understands and respects why people create more insular communities to protect their children and the Torah from “corrupt and corrupting” influences, but he does not agree with that philosophy.
“I think our Jewishness is flavoured by that encounter [with the outside world], and as long as it’s girded by a deep commitment to Torah, we get richer for it… The challenge has always been how to be a part of the world even as we are apart from the world.”
In a talk to students at Yeshivat Or Chaim and Ulpanat Orot the same day as the dinner, Joel was challenged by a student who asked how he reconciles the centrality of Torah with the pluralistic approach that characterized his years at Hillel.
Joel told The CJN he believes that it’s beneficial and healthy to dialogue with non-Orthodox Jewish leaders, and he does so both informally and on public panels.
However, he added, there are issues he won’t address in such dialogue, such as “doctrinal challenges.
“But I do believe there are things we share – [such as] a commitment to Jewish peoplehood, a commitment to Jewish education, and the safety and security of the State of Israel.”
He defined pluralism to the students as being “prepared to respect your right to be wrong, not your right to have another truth… I’m going to have respect for your dignity, and I can find the sparks of godliness in you.”
He told The CJN that it’s easier for him as a Jewish “layman” – a non-rabbi – to engage in such dialogue.
“I’m careful in what I say, [but] probably not as careful as some people want.”