YU President Richard Joel argues that profound ignorance of Judaism is a shared crisis of Jews in Israel and the US
“So much of this conversation is a question of perspective,” said Richard Joel, President of Yeshiva University (YU). With this, he opened a panel discussion at the Mandel Leadership Institute (MLI) coined “the Continental Drift”, questioning whether the distance is growing between Modern Orthodoxy in Israel and North America.
The evening was part of a series of public discussions on education and society taking place at MLI, to raise the level of public discourse, disseminate important new ideas, and provide existence proofs of vision-driven education.
Joel, whose appointment as President of Yeshiva University in 2003 was controversial due to his lack of rabbinic credentials, claimed one of his goals as President is, “to strive to press a reset button at YU and end a period of too much defensiveness and too much self abnegation on the part of our community.”
“I don’t think our world view is how we can compromise with modernity or hide from it,” he continued, “Torah U’Mada ( ‘Torah and Science’ - the motto of YU) is not making the best of it but ennobling and enabling young people to bring our values to the world.”
Joel maintained that the North American and Israeli communities “have parallel but distinct identity challenges.” One of these, he claimed, is that Israel, like the American community, struggles with a cultural assimilation and problems of transmission to the next generation.
“There is a profound ignorance of the Jewish story here, said Joel. “But this is a profound ignorance of the majority of the Jewish people; this is a shared crisis – both societies have those similar challenges of assimilation.”
Addressing the subject of cooperation with Conservative and Liberal streams of Judaism highlighted yet another difference between North American and Israeli Modern Orthodoxy. “It’s much easier for you [in Israel] to have ‘hashkafic’ [philosophical] discussions than in America,” said Joel. “In America we are not allowed to ‘legitimize’ other streams by appearing with their representatives in public. It is harder,” he said, admitting the complexity of the issue, “but our agenda should be to create a dialogue with fellow Jews. We are making a big mistake to shut the door on them.”
Nonetheless, according to Joel, this winter YU sent a delegate of students to attend Limmud, the non-denominational Jewish education conference in which most of the Orthodox world declines to participate.
Incorporating respondents Malka Bina, founder and Director of Matan Women's Institute for Torah Studies and former MK Rabbi Yehuda Gilad, Rosh Yeshivat Maaleh Gilboa; the discussion indeed revealed thinking along similar lines, as well as telling differences of opinion.
Bina identified a drift between the two communities in the area of politics. She made a distinction between individuals and institutions claiming she feels a little less community support and that modern orthodox institutions are not always sensitive to the weaker individual.
Rabbi Gilad asserted that socially, the two communities feel closer than ever and he does not feel any lack of support or solidarity. He did, however, highlight several phenomena that can be found in Israel which do not exist in North America; namely those of neo-hassidism, the phenomenon of the haredization of orthodoxy, and the spiritual consequences on the community of living in a time of ongoing war .
“We are so close and so far at the same time,” said Gilad, “We cannot diminish the importance of the fact that we are leading such different lives in such different situations. While we need to strengthen ties, we cannot ignore the gaps which exist.”