The mood at the national convention of Modern Orthodox rabbis was somber on the day that Yeshiva University Chancellor Norman Lamm announced his retirement.
Lamm, 85, attended the convention, walking with a cane and looking frail. On July 1, the day his retirement letter was made public, the revered elder statesman of Y.U. sat in the audience as rabbi after rabbi acknowledged his leadership.
“It’s a dramatic and tough moment for him and for us,” said Rabbi Shmuel Goldin, president of the Rabbinical Council of America, which hosted the conference. “Everyone who has gotten up to speak today has spoken about the impact he had on their lives.”
The day was bittersweet for Lamm’s former students and colleagues, coming amid rising furor over Y.U.’s handling of allegations of sexual abuse against students at the Yeshiva University High School for Boys in the 1970s, ’80s and early ‘90s. In his letter announcing his retirement, Lamm apologized for failing to alert police of sex abuse allegations brought before him when he was president of the university.
While news of Lamm’s apology dominated the media coverage of his retirement, Lamm’s admirers preferred to focus on his decades as Y.U.’s guide and protector. Goldin said of the alleged sex abuse cover-up that he “would hate to see this as the defining feature of his legacy. Here is a man who has contributed tremendously to the Modern Orthodox community and the Jewish world at large…. That should be the overwhelming aspect of what we think about as he departs.”
Lamm was a pulpit rabbi in New York City when he was selected to replace Rabbi Samuel Belkin as president of Yeshiva University in 1976. Like most Modern Orthodox rabbis of his generation, Lamm had received his ordination at Y.U.’s rabbinical school under the tutelage of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, known as the Rav, the key intellectual figure of Modern Orthodox Judaism.