Philanthropist Attacks University for Right Turn

By Steven I. Weiss

Published April 02, 2004, issue of April 02, 2004.
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The gloves came off in a long-simmering intra-Orthodox battle last week as the chairman of an upstart seminary castigated the leadership of Yeshiva University for a perceived rightward shift.

Howard Jonas, the billionaire chairman of the fledgling Manhattan-based seminary, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, declared in a speech at the school’s first gala dinner that he had attended Y.U. “in the last decent days that that institution had,” and that it had been allowed to shift rightward by “a combination of the gutless and the spineless in a coalition with the mindless and the senseless.”

Chovevei, founded nearly four years ago and preparing to graduate its first class of nine rabbis, has since its first days been locked in a struggle with Y.U., long considered the flagship institution of Modern Orthodoxy. The ongoing battle has often resembled a family feud, given that several members of the Chovevei faculty are Y.U. graduates, including the founder and dean of the new seminary, Rabbi Avi Weiss, and that many of the students are Y.U. transfers.

On several occasions Y.U. leaders have worked behind the scenes to keep Chovevei students from landing rabbinic internships at synagogues, while leaders of the new seminary have quietly criticized the direction of Y.U. Still, the fight has generally taken place outside of the public eye — until now.

After his speech, Jonas told the Forward that the alleged rightward shift had been led by two prominent Y.U. rabbis, Hershel Schachter and Mordechai Willig. When asked why he felt the desire to send such a pointed message at this moment, Jonas said: “Opening [Chovevei] was sending the message, I was just sending the message that we’re succeeding.”

Jonas, who has long served on the board of trustees at Y.U.’s undergraduate Yeshiva College, is a member and former president of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, where Weiss is the religious leader.

Asked to respond to Jonas’s comments and to speak about the relationship between the two institutions, Y.U.’s new president, Richard Joel, said, “I’m not thinking about Chovevei.”

“I’m using all of my energies,” to run Y.U., said Joel, adding that while Jonas is “a serious philanthropist,” it is not clear that “I should focus overmuch, if at all, on the off-hand comments of a philanthropist.”

Joel has received praise from Chovevei leaders, who see his appointment as a sign of more liberal forces on the Y.U. board attempting to reverse any rightward tilt at the institution. During his speech, Jonas even said that Joel has attributed his hiring to the creation of Chovevei.

Since its founding in 2000, Chovevei has preached a message of “open Orthodoxy” and sought, as Weiss has said in the past, to seek a partnership with “the other 90% of Jews” who are not Orthodox. As an example of this openness, the school prominently featured congratulatory letters from the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College and the Conservative University of Judaism in its dinner’s advertising journal. The school also claims to allow for a wider debate and more liberal positions on several key issues, including the role of women in Orthodox life, than is often the case in other Orthodox seminaries .

In addition to these differences, Chovevei leaders claim to offer more counseling and Bible studies than Y.U., along with the talmudic and Jewish legal training typical of an Orthodox seminary.

The primary question facing Chovevei has been the degree to which its graduates would be accepted by the Orthodox world and succeed in landing pulpit jobs. As a result, Chovevei supporters have been very upset by what they describe as Y.U. efforts to sabotage their students’ careers. Chovevei students say that in 2002 they learned that certain synagogues had been told not to consider them for rabbinic internships, and that in at least one case, an internship offer was revoked following pressure from Y.U. rabbis. That same year, another student was fired from his position at Y.U.’s Stern College for Women.

In advance of their annual dinner, Chovevei supporters were expressing hope that the new seminary was finally breaking through, noting that its inaugural dinner was to be attended by Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, executive vice president of the Orthodox Union, an organization representing about 1,000 congregations, and Rabbi Basil Herring, the executive director of the Rabbinical Council of America, the main Modern Orthodox rabbinical union, dominated by graduates of the Y.U.-affiliated Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary. A number of prominent Y.U. board members and graduates also attended the dinner, including Rabbi Kenny Brander of Boca Raton, who leads what is often said to be the fastest-growing Orthodox community in the United States.

Weinreb, through a spokesman, declined to comment for this story, and Herring did not return several phone messages.

Before Chovevei’s founding, Weiss had launched a training program for future rabbis that included weekly lectures and discussions with a wide variety of Jewish leaders and scholars. Jonas said that he had heard of Y.U. rabbis telling their students not to attend the program, and that he had also heard that Schachter had referred to Weiss as “an apikores,” or apostate.

Schachter did not return a phone message left at his home.

Jonas told the Forward that at a breakfast meeting with Norman Lamm, the then-president of Y.U., he was asked to give additional funding to the university. Jonas said that in response he voiced concerns over the institution’s rightward shift, specifically mentioning the opposition to Weiss’s program. Jonas said he asked that Weiss’s program become a part of Y.U.’s rabbinic curriculum. According to Jonas, Lamm said that he did not have the power to take such a step.

Lamm, who assumed the newly created position of chancellor after stepping down as president of Y.U. in 2003, did not return several calls seeking comment.

Jonas said that had Lamm agreed to his request, “There would have been no Chovevei.”

Jonas also said that until Lamm leaves the scene, freeing Joel’s hand, “Y.U. would still be a place that people pay to get into when they can’t get into anywhere else.”

Weiss was unavailable for a phone interview owing to a death in his community. But in an e-mail to the Forward, he wrote: “With so much to be done for the Modern Orthodox community I view [Chovevei] and RIETS as complementing each other. While our academic and professional curriculums may differ we share a common goal — the strengthening of Modern Orthodoxy and the whole of the Jewish community. I especially look forward to working together with my dear friend President Richard Joel.”

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