Richard Joel spoke of renewal when he became president of Yeshiva University in 2003, promising higher academic standards and broader horizons. At first, the charismatic lawyer delivered.
Then came 2008 and Bernard Madoff and the economic collapse.
Today, Modern Orthodoxy’s educational core is showing cracks. Secular faculty members are furious over salary cuts. Students, aware that their professors are polishing their resumés, have challenged Joel over his own salary. Moody’s has downgraded the school’s credit rating, citing deep financial troubles. And a $380 million sex abuse lawsuit has the potential to take a chunk out of the school’s reserves.
Meanwhile, the number of undergraduate applicants has dropped, forcing the school to become less selective. And centrist rabbis worry that the religious side of the institution is swaying ever more to the right, alienating moderate students.
Brought in to modernize Y.U., Joel, 63, has presided over a period of greater turmoil than it has faced in decades. Is it Joel’s fault?
“I think this is the reality catching up with the dream,” said Rabbi Shmuel Goldin, a former president of the Modern Orthodox Rabbinical Council of America who has taught at Y.U. Goldin, who supports Joel, said, “The fact [is] that reality has caught up with us, all of the Jewish community.”
Many at Y.U. believe that Joel has done as well as he could under the circumstances. “I think President Joel’s leadership through this has been the best it can be,” said Gavriel Brown, a senior at Yeshiva College and the editor of The Commentator, the official student newspaper.
Others are more critical of Joel’s role. “I look at his leadership with profound disappointment,” said Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld, a Y.U. graduate and a congregational rabbi in Washington. Herzfeld said that he no longer encourages congregants to apply there.