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Y.U. Chief’s Quiet Gambit Creates Space for Change

Richard Joel, president of Yeshiva University, will not be in attendance when hundreds of Orthodox liberals gather Sunday in New York for the biennial Edah conference.

The official explanation: He has a previously scheduled out-of-town fund-raising event. Joel’s absence, however, is likely to be interpreted by many attendees as a capitulation to right-wing rabbis at Y.U.’s affiliated rabbinical seminary.

In his 18 months on the job, Joel has appeared bent on avoiding any direct clash with the school’s traditionalist wing. But with several recent moves — including the appointment of two relatively liberal rabbis, J.J. Schacter and Kenneth Brander — Joel seems to be quietly creating an alternative power base that could eventually shift the religious balance at Y.U. and in the wider Modern Orthodox community.

Just don’t ask him to say so, because it will only make his seemingly impossible job even harder.

As president of both Y.U.’s network of undergraduate and graduate schools, as well as its affiliated Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, or Riets, Joel stands at the center of a theological tug-of-war triggered in large part by the decline and eventual 1993 death of Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, for decades the religious leader of Modern Orthodoxy.

Soloveitchik was the main unifying force in a religious movement often strained by its commitment to engaging the wider society while upholding Orthodox rabbinic law. Without him, as Joel can attest, the schism between left and right has often seemed unbridgeable.

News of Joel’s impending appointment was met with pleas for divine intervention: Several of the top rabbis at Riets joined with students for public recitations of psalms to protest the selection.

Some of the more conservative critics objected simply because, unlike his three predecessors, Joel is not a rabbi (he’s a lawyer). Others blanched at his successful stint as international president of Hillel, a job that required him to work in tandem with Reform and Conservative rabbis. And finally, Joel’s right-wing opponents were well aware of his ties to and warm relations with liberal Orthodox entities vehemently and publicly opposed by several rabbis at Riets, including Edah, a grass-roots organization, and Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, a rabbinical school founded by Avi Weiss in response to Y.U.’s perceived rightward lurch.

On the other side of the spectrum, many Orthodox liberals have been grumbling from Joel’s first day in office, insisting that he lacked either the conviction or the religious credentials to confront what they describe as a rising tide of close-mindedness and fundamentalism emanating from the study halls of the Y.U.-linked seminary.

So far, Y.U. insiders say, Joel has appeared to focus more of his energy on attempting to secure the trust of the rabbis at Riets than on courting alienated liberals. He started by giving many of them raises, and, according to several sources, he has made it a point to engage them on a regular basis in ways that his immediate predecessor, Rabbi Norman Lamm, never did.

During Lamm’s quarter-century tenure, he and the Riets rabbis often coexisted like a husband and wife trapped in a dying marriage, but managing to carry on under one roof by living separate lives. Lamm generally ceded the seminary study halls to the more conservative rabbis, but assumed the role of Modern Orthodoxy’s leading public intellectual as he worked to rescue Y.U. from bankruptcy.

The results were mixed: The school now stands on firm financial footing, and Lamm proved to be an exceptional public ambassador. But, critics complained, he often avoided the internal ideological battles between right and left. Furthermore, the task of reinvigorating a religious movement, of bringing to life the ideals that Lamm so eloquently articulated, often was neglected.

Joel has similarly avoided weighing in on a host of ideological fights.

“I’m not a person who says less,” Joel insisted during a recent interview in his office. But, he added, “In an environment where every one of your words is parsed, that can be difficult and reckless.”

Yet silence, in Joel’s case, should not be mistaken for inaction.

He has begun the task of creating an infrastructure and assembling a team of prominent former pulpit rabbis capable of building a religious movement. The centerpiece of this blueprint is the newly created Yeshiva University’s Center for the Jewish Future.

The center is being billed as a “think tank for Jewish public policy, leadership and partnership strategies, community strengthening in Israel and throughout the Diaspora, and life-long Jewish education.”

However, a deeper look suggests that the role of the center might be to serve as a balance to the Riets rabbis, while improving Y.U.’s ability to train pulpit rabbis and day-school educators dedicated to advancing Modern Orthodoxy. One need look no further for proof than the prominent rabbis tapped by Joel to staff the center: Brander, the new dean, is widely credited as the architect of the booming Orthodox community in Boca Raton, Fla., while Schacter, one of Modern Orthodoxy’s leading intellectuals, is to assume a position as the center’s senior scholar.

Both are foot soldiers in the war to preserve Modern Orthodoxy, and neither would seem interested in joining Y.U. simply to ponder philosophical questions about Jewish life. In fact, Schacter, who served for two decades as the religious leader of one of the movement’s flagship congregations, was rumored to be a candidate for the Y.U. presidency until he appeared to take himself out of the race with a move to Boston.

To be sure, if you ask Joel about the center, you’ll never hear any of this, not even the words “Modern Orthodoxy.” But that’s not surprising: When faced with the combined pitfalls of university politics and synagogue politics, even for a champion schmoozer, it’s best to let your hirings do the talking.

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