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Brute charismatic force propelled Joel from there to the inner circles of Modern Orthodoxy’s hierarchy. While many of the young men whom Joel influenced went on to Y.U.’s rabbinical school, Joel went to NYU’s law school instead. He worked as an assistant district attorney in the Bronx before then Y.U. president Norman Lamm asked him back to Y.U. to create an alumni office. From there, Joel was made an assistant dean at Cardozo, which Y.U. had just established. He was teaching at the school and working as an administrator when he was selected in 1988, at just 37, to lead Hillel, the national campus Jewish outreach group.
When Joel arrived, Hillel was a subsidiary of B’nai B’rith, the venerable but then shrinking Jewish fraternal order that also spawned the Anti-Defamation League. Joel took advantage of Jewish communal anxiety over intermarriage spurred by the 1990 National Jewish Population Study to draw donors and energy to Hillel. Joel ultimately spun the group off from B’nai B’rith and built a board packed with wealthy donors. Edgar Bronfman, heir to the Seagram’s fortune, was an important early backer.
“It was [by] force of personality and charisma and ideas,” Jeff Rubin, who worked as Hillel’s communications director under Joel, said of how Joel was able to grow the then-low-profile group.
Joel’s reputation grew with Hillel. In 1999, the Orthodox Union picked Joel to lead an internal investigation of allegations that the head of its youth group had abused multiple teenagers over many years.
“I was under the opinion… you had to go out front and expose it and tell people the truth,” said Dr. Mandell Ganchrow, who served as O.U.’s president at the time. Yet Ganchrow also wanted someone who respected the O.U. “Who do you appoint that will be both fair… [and] accepted by the public, but not ruin the organization?” Ganchrow said.
The answer was Joel, whose report received respectful coverage in The New York Times.
“We basically saved the name of the union,” Ganchrow said. “I have only the highest regard for what Richard did.”
Joel’s handling of sex abuse charges at his own institution has been more controversial.
In December 2012 the Forward reported that Y.U. had covered up allegations of sexual abuse against students for decades. Though the alleged incidents happened long before Joel’s tenure, two men who claim that faculty members abused them while they were students at Y.U.’s high school said they told Joel of the abuse after he became president.
Joel has yet to respond to Forward inquiries as to what he did to investigate those reports between his appointment as president and the publication of the Forward’s story.