An Interview with President Richard M. Joel

SZ: Can you describe your career trajectory- how you went from a career in law to a career in Jewish leadership?

RJ: I can’t really say whether I ever had a career trajectory, and I’m not sure if I have a career in Jewish leadership.  I often tell people that I am in no way the poster child for career planning, because my career has been – if you believe in hashgahah peratit, guided by a mostly kind hand, which resulted in an almost accidental career.  I certainly didn’t start by saying, ‘What do I have to do to become president of Yeshiva University?’ or even, ‘What do I have to do to be in a position of working for the Jewish people and being an influence?’

While at Hillel in Washington, I once interviewed a young man who was looking for an opportunity to work for the Jewish community. A Phi Beta Kappa summa cum laude graduate from an Ivy League school who had been working at one of the major consulting firms, this fellow felt that by the age of twenty-seven, he knew everything there was to know, and was now going to give himself as a gift to the Jewish people.  At a certain point during our discussion, he committed the cardinal sin of interviews, and said, “Can I be perfectly honest with you?,” which meant, of course, that he had not been fully honest until that point.  He said, “Do you know what I really want?” Pointing at my seat, he said, “I want to sit in that chair.”  When I asked him why, he said, “The power and the glory.” I said, “You made a mistake; the Oval Office is six blocks down,” and we joked a bit.  He then asked, “When you were my age and were thinking about what you were going to do to make it, what did you say?”  Stunned by his question, I took it seriously nonetheless, and responded that I honestly didn’t remember thinking, “What am I going to do to make it?”  I do remember thinking, “What am I going to do to make it better?”  If there is a trajectory that Esther and I had, it was: “How do we build a joyous life, with our relationship and love at the center of it, serve God, create a happy family, and be involved in a community?” It wasn’t out of a need to make it.

We were married, we moved to Forest Hills, [and] from there to Oceanside, where I was the youth director - not because I wanted to make it, or even to make it better; we needed to make a living. When R. Benjamin Blech (then the rabbi of Young Israel of Oceanside) recruited me for the youth director position, he said, “You’re a young couple, looking to live in suburbia, and this is a nice community and it’s a part time job and you get a house.” For those lofty leadership reasons, I accepted what I said I would never do, which was to work for the Jewish community. So I became a youth director.  During our joyous 14-year run there, we were involved in all sorts of ‘lay kodesh[i] things that really mattered. Over the course of our time there, our community built a hevra kadisha, a mikveh, and a great youth program, and we were active in the Hebrew Academy of Long Beach, as well.  Because of my background as a volunteer with the Torah Leadership Seminars, which were similar to CJF activities, I had been bitten by this sense of the potential to make an impact. I felt that I had some talents in helping to frame an environment and give it some nobility, and I had a good eye for getting people more talented than I to get involved and make things happen.

In my generation, people didn’t give very much thought to what they were going to do.  I knew that I was going to be a lawyer since the age of twelve, because law was a respectable field, where I could make a living while improving the world. My early vision was to be a general practice lawyer - to go to a community, hang up a shingle, make a living, and help people.  When I got to law school, I found out that this is not necessarily the classic definition of what lawyers do, and also discovered that law had become more of a business than a profession. However, in my generation, career choice was very simple – you would either be a doctor or a lawyer or a businessman, or be involved in Jewish life as a rabbi. You chose one of these options and pursued your career path without thinking too much about it. This generation is going to live much longer and thus has the pressure as well as the luxury of saying, “How am I going to matter?,” which I think is great.  I try to attract people to Yeshiva so they can think about life as being ennobled and enabled.  I talk about being kelei kodesh and lay kodesh.

I started out as an assistant district attorney because I wasn’t interested in the business of law, but in making a difference. Instead of going to a Wall Street firm and then doing some pro bono work, I chose to do a public service internship at the DA’s office. Working there, I felt, “this is justice; this is nice; this is noble,” and was quite happy.  Life was really wonderful and has been consistently wonderful throughout the years. I almost hate to say it – it’s been a magical journey.  While I was going through the period at Cardozo, helping to build the law school, and teaching law while wearing a yarmulke, there was this little voice in me saying, “what’s next?”  When I mentioned to my wife that I was thinking of joining a law firm, Esther said I wouldn’t be happy practicing law.  I said, “We have a wonderful life.  I can continue practicing law, we’ll make more money, we’ll be involved in all these activities,” and she said, “I think you need more than that.”

As I was about to accept a job at a Manhattan law firm, Hillel called me out of the blue (I think because they were desperate), and said that they wanted to talk to me about running Hillel.  I had nothing to do with Hillel; I was a complete outside choice.  A motif that goes through my life is that my not being a rabbi seems to be a qualification.  As I was recruited for that job, I said no and my wife said yes; I accepted in the end. The job was great to me because it was Jewish, and it allowed me to simultaneously run a serious institution, be a change agent, and be an educator. I feel that the Jewish People can only be sustained if they know their story, and if they feel some degree of passion about it, and both of these things are in Hillel’s mission.  At that point, we moved down to Washington and continued to have a wonderful life being involved in the community, and I got to go on this magical mystery tour of building institutions that would matter for the Jewish people.  It all flows from Esther and from my relationship with God and Torah and my children.  That has never wavered.

The one job in the Jewish world that I knew I would never have was president of Yeshiva University.  It was at the beginning of the process that I was mentioned as a candidate, and I refused to be a candidate, saying that I loved what I was doing in Washington.  I thought the YU presidency was a very important, but also an extremely difficult, job, and I didn’t think I had what they would look to for qualification.  They went through two years with me not being a candidate, and finally, at the very end of October 2002 I was somehow recruited by Mr. Stanton and Mr. Bravmann, I was engaged in six weeks of conversations, and apparently was elected.

I don’t think that my perspective was, “How can it be that I go from law to Jewish leadership?” I think we’ve spent our lives saying, “If you’re lucky, how do you take advantage of opportunities to build a home and family, provide for them, and play to your strengths in advancing the Jewish story and civilization?”  I think everybody has that career path open to them.

SZ: How is your role at Yeshiva University different than it was at Hillel?

RJ: In substantial ways, it’s not different.  Taking responsibility for an enterprise, articulating a vision and developing an implementation strategy, while recruiting gifted, talented people, lay and professional, to advance the enterprise – those factors are the same.

On the other hand, there are some differences.  Hillel was running a global franchise, so there was a certain safety in the headquarters in Washington as I worked with the seventy-five people who were all part of my infrastructure.  I would also deal with the local Hillels, but it wasn’t quite as up-close-and-personal as things are at Yeshiva.  Also, the organization was limited to informal and experiential Jewish education. I was more involved in the fabric of community, on a more global Jewish level, although I think a lot of Yeshiva University is about a global Jewish level too. At Hillel, I had much more to do with the network of federations, the different agencies of the Jewish people and denominations, to work towards success.  The phrase that Hillel Chairman Edgar Bronfman and I formed was that we didn’t believe in Jewish continuity; we believed in Jewish renaissance.  I think haddesh yameinu ki-kedem, which is the definition of renaissance, is a theme at Yeshiva University as well.

There is clearly a difference between the business aspects of each position, in that my current job is the business of a university.  The budget is about ten times the size of Hillel’s, and my job entails dealing with an entire body of delivery of service, not just a piece of campus life for students.  The mission at Yeshiva is a more focused mission, though the ramifications are every bit as global.  Here I am a chief executive officer, but I am also involved in formal education and, to a lesser degree, experiential education.  The fact that the institution is concentrated in one geographic area makes it more intense.  When President Obama is interviewed and talks about problems of “life in the bubble,” I understand his dilemma in the way that few others can.  The president of Yeshiva University’s role is viewed very much under a microscope.

The YU presidency entails responsibility for a diverse, integrated, and interesting academic institution of high quality which aims both to shape the Jewish future and succeed academically as a great graduate and professional university.  When I first became president I went to a seminar with thirty other presidents, and at the end of the four-to-five day seminar, my colleagues elected me the new “president with the most difficult job.”  Why?  They said, “Because you are running a major research university, and you have the Jewish People.” They did not mean to put down the Jewish People in any way; they were simply noting that at Yeshiva, there is a peculiar partnering of agendas. The mission of Yeshiva University is not only to be a great university, but also to impact the Torah-observant community, the broader Jewish community, and, through those channels, all of civilization.  The particularism of YU makes me a figure of interest in the world.

Another unique aspect of this job is the loss of anonymity. Unlike the experiences of other university presidents, my key constituencies are always front-and-center, where I live and where I eat and where I play and where I pray. It is hard to get away from being the president, and I’m just a guy, so I need to get away from it sometimes.

SZ: What is your favorite aspect of being president of YU, and what is your greatest challenge in that role?

RJ: I could say that I am in love with education, and love advancing the agenda of Torah in the world, and that’s a great thing, but if you ask me what I like the best, it’s being with students. Keeping myself intellectually and socially alive by having these interactions is critical to me, and joy comes from thinking that maybe I have the zekhut to, through those interactions, contribute in some way to whom they will become.  Another aspect of being president that I enjoy is running an inspired team of educators and leaders.  I love being able to think that we’re impacting our world.

In terms of the challenging parts of the job, I’ll answer in two ways: First, YU is one of the largest, if not the largest, Jewish institutions in North America.  We are at a time of real civilizational turmoil and financial challenge.  The hardest thing is seeing all the wondrous undertakings that we are involved with, and knowing that we must move forward in an environment of not just restraint but constraint.  The goal is not to figure out how to endure under such conditions, but how to break through and triumph, how to win.  Additionally, as president, through my efforts, my successes or failures, I affect the lives of the people who depend on YU for parnasah (livelihood).  Some people come and some leave, which can be a very hard thing. The second difficult aspect of being president is that working towards large goals in our retail world requires investing energy in individuals, which can often be very challenging, and makes it easy to focus more on the smaller details and lose focus of the larger picture.

In terms of challenges, did you find that the panel, “Being Gay in the Orthodox World,” and the ensuing fallout created a challenge in terms of keeping in mind all the different constituencies while responding to it?

Looking back, I can say that this was one of the wonderful opportunities I had, because it really called on my strengths, as well as the strength of the people around me. Nonetheless, if you asked me about the last seven and a half years (in the presidency), the panel doesn’t stand out as being the most challenging event.  I think that that issue is part of the reality that you deal with, whether it gets the light of attention or not, in so many ways.

And we’ve had so many things, from the time I’ve come here.  Remember, this was an activist period.  My charge, as Dr. Lamm encouraged me, was to stand on his shoulders and go to the next place.  So it hasn’t been about maintaining but creating, about haddesh yameinu ki-kedem.  So for me, all of this is about creating a revolution no one notices until it’s done.  So if you ask me about how I emulate God, one way I love to do it is the way He makes flowers grow.  You look around and there’s nothing, and all of a sudden there’s a flower.  If you were standing and watching, you’d never see movement, and yet there’s a flower.  I think a lot of that is what’s been happening at YU.

I think the program last year was extraordinarily challenging.  Partially, it was challenging because it was important, and I don’t know if we ran the whole enterprise the way we ideally should have.  So I was on a jet plane on my way to London, and a lot of the “critical moments” had to happen while, in fact, I was in a hotel in London on a cellphone in the bathroom – because the bathroom was the only room where I could get cell reception – dealing with really challenging issues and statements to be made, and how to make them, and how to think about my different constituencies. And long-distance-leading is hard.  But I also had the benefit of R. Reiss and R. Charlap and R. Joseph, and my professional team at that moment, and of lay leaders who helped.

I think it’s painful dealing with rage or outrage.  I don’t think we’re ever at our best when dealing with rage or outrage.  The challenge of an event like that is to not get sucked into the moment, but to keep your eye on the ball and think about the broader perspective, to realize that there are issues of that kind of moment that take place all the time here, and this is a university, which also means that it’s a place where ideas will be explored, and this is Yeshiva University, which means that it’s a place where issues of consequence for the Jewish People and for Torah get explored. It certainly wasn’t fun, and along with a lot of other things, it presented the weight of responsibility: knowing that, at the end of the day, you are the only one who is going to go to sleep knowing that there’s no one else to push this off to.  But we’ve had other really hard issues, and hard decisions, that shaped the future. This was a matter of dealing with it, getting the right learnings from it, realizing that it was good or bad from a lot of directions and a lot of people’s perspectives, and we had to figure out how to negotiate that.

What is the most unexpected thing you have learned about being a leader in the Jewish community?

Before I came to Yeshiva University, I had a strong sense of what Yeshiva was. At this point, I had been leading serious Jewish institutions professionally for almost 23 years, which gave me some degree of experience.  The Torah Leadership Seminar, the youth programs that I was involved in, leading as a volunteer in my college and graduate school days, in many ways was the microcosm of how community works. Being involved in such programs taught me how to progress in a mission-driven way, how to work both cooperatively and rigorously to create a wonderful and successful institution. Furthermore, my mentor, Dr. Abe Stern, z”l, who was the director of the Youth Bureau of Yeshiva University, taught me a tremendous amount about leadership. A social worker, musmakh, and mensch par excellence, Dr. Stern modeled for me how the focus of leadership is about making it better and not about making it.  I don’t know that I felt tons of surprise; there were always learning moments along the way.  The most unexpected aspect of leadership at Yeshiva was the relentless nature of the position.  Being president can almost feel like being the guy in the slapstick routine who looks one way and gets a pie thrown in his face, and after wiping his face off, he turns the other way and the pie comes again - he just cannot run away from the pie.  That imagery accurately describes the sense of constant work that being in this position at YU demands.  I often feel that I am performing the trick where people balance plates on sticks and they keep adding sticks and plates and soon they are balancing five sticks at once. Here at Yeshiva, there are all these plates on these narrow sticks, and you need to figure how to run along the line while still keeping the plates from dropping.  I think that aspect of the job was a little surprising.

Looking ahead, what is the greatest challenge facing Modern Orthodoxy, and how should our leaders deal with it?

The key elements, in my mind, of what you call “Modern Orthodoxy” and I call “Orthodoxy,” are the primacy of a deep commitment to Torah and continued investment and growth in Torah, coupled with the mandate to regard the great ideas of the broader world and channel them, in partnership with God, to the betterment of society. On an individual basis, the challenge is to create a life of fulfillment and happiness through these commitments.  It is a noble and worthy mission that requires work and ongoing effort.  Additionally, the imperative to be generous and nonjudgmental toward Jews to our right and to our left, leaving the realm of judgment to the Ribbono shel Olam alone, remains a serious challenge.

Furthermore, we must maintain the awareness that our specialness derives from the fact that we are neither exclusively collectivists nor individualists; we are both.  We are capitalists and we are socialists, in the sense that we believe in the capacity of the individual to maximize his or her potential, and we also believe in the individual’s responsibility to define him or herself as being part of the group.  I think a clear Modern Orthodox credo is the ma’amar of Hillel ha-Zaken, “Im ein ani li mi li… ve-im lo akhshav eimatai” (“If I am not for myself, who is for me?…and if not now, when?”),[ii] that tells me I have to be responsible for, but not exclusively focused on, myself, and I must accept responsibility now and not defer it for the future. Maintaining that balance, we believe in an integrated life, with Torah at its core.  That requires nuance, to be able to build communities, and we’re a small community, we’re a very small community.  We’re growing, but we’re a small community.  I don’t think the answers will be in the numbers.  The answers have to be: to be generous, to be sure that we recognize that perhaps we have a role as the leviyyim of the Jewish People, that perhaps our role is not to be their kings or leaders in any way, but to recognize that the drumbeat of the purposefulness of Torah has to be articulated by us and worked with others together.

So whether it’s kelei kodesh or lay kodesh, the word kodesh has to be modeled, that we live a life of nobility.  I think there’s all types of little challenges- the price of being Jewish.  There are lots of generations that would happily put up with that being the major struggle.  The essential challenge is to celebrate nuance and not relativism, and to accept that ours is not an intellectually or spiritually easy path, but it’s the one we think is enormously fulfilling.  To accomplish our mission we must not forget the rest of Kelal Yisrael, and we must learn to have humility and boldness at the same time.  I think that is the major challenge.

Who are going to be the leaders of the future?  Pulpit rabbis? Those in Hinnukh? Lay leaders? Will there be a change on this count from the current reality?

I’m not sure what the current reality is; I think it’s mostly confused now.  In order for us to be a kehillah kedoshah, it requires a deliciously complex partnership of lay and kelei kodesh, it requires Yissakhar and Zevulun, it requires the kohanim and leviyyim, and it requires the other tribes. We need a symphony of Jewish voices that share a commitment to moving society forward.  What makes us unique, I think, is that we believe in investing both in the sacred scholar and in the engineer and neuroscientist. We believe in those who will write our prose and those who will compose our poetry.

A leader is not someone who stands up and declares himself to be such, but is someone who takes responsibility.  When our community takes responsibility and stands up for its constituents, learns how to fight while still recognizing the value of the other, then we advance.  Currently, at Yeshiva University, I believe there are more students, women and men, than there have ever been who are living in an environment that successfully models responsible leadership. They see that there are opportunities, both in professional and lay ways, to assert that responsibility, and that is going to build the Jewish future.  YU is sui generis because even with all of its flaws, and I have been told a few of them, Yeshiva is a place that is a model for successful community, with Torah and with Madda, with curricular and extracurricular, with thinking outward and looking inward. We are not asking that each student be actively involved in every one of these endeavors but there must be an appreciation of the splendor of a community that includes all of them. The sum of the human has millions of cells. You can start with a basic building cell and build the whole human body, but each cell has its own particular purpose.  I truly believe that.

Furthermore, the role of the teacher, the Rav, has to be very strong and we must have talented people in those positions.  At Yeshiva University, Torah is the center of our lives. Without the yeshivah, its rabbeim, and the vibrant beit midrash, including the conversations that span the millennia that take place within its walls, YU would be just another nice university.  Yeshiva University’s distinctiveness derives from the fact that it is a yeshivah unlike all others but its identity is first and foremost a yeshivah.

The future leaders of the Jewish People will most certainly include the rabbis who serve as the teachers of Torah, pulpit rabbis, roshei yeshivah, members of battei din and the elite, the posekim of the Jewish People. However, the leadership will also necessarily include the explorers, scientists, scholars, businesspeople, and lawyers - a real mix of lay and kelei kodesh.  At least from my perspective, the shared noun kodesh is what makes us distinctive, and whether you’re lay or kelei, there are different roles to be played.

Where do you see the State of Israel or aliyyah as fitting in with the mission of YU?

It is unimaginable to think of yiddishkeit without the State of Israel, and at YU, we proudly call ourselves a Zionist institution. I believe this is the only university in the United States of America that flies the Israeli flag next to the American and university flag. Additionally, I think that there are more students making aliyyah from this university than from any other university in the world, and this phenomenon is growing. To me, it is clear that Israel is the destination of the Jewish People, even if making aliyyah is not for me today. The job of the Jew is to live a Torah life and to strive individually to achieve shelemut.  One cannot read through the Torah without soon realizing that the home of the Jewish people is Erets Yisrael, which today also means Medinat Yisrael. There are clearly more mitsvot to observe and be mekayyem (fulfilled) in Artseinu ha-Kedoshah than anywhere else.

However, there is a lot that Jews can and must do throughout the world, even beyond supporting Israel or being involved in hinnukh. Just as there are many different ways to achieve shelemut within Torah, so too there may be many different places to achieve this goal most productively. Certainly, the center of the Jewish world is Medinat Yisrael and we view aliyyah as a wonderful aspiration for all of our students.  However, there is also an aspiration for our students to go to Houston, Denver, Seattle, and Johannesburg to model the Jewish story and Jewish values. Living and spreading the values of yiddishkeit is our mission.  The late Dr. Israel Miller, z”l, the senior vice president of Yeshiva, was very active in Israeli matters, and had relationships with all of the national Israeli leaders. I was fortunate enough to have this great Jewish leader as a mentor. Someone once questioned him about his dual loyalty to America and Israel, and he responded, “I love my mother and I love my wife.”  Institutionally that’s what we believe in.

How much interaction should the leadership of the Modern Orthodox community have with leadership from other denominations of Judaism, and, beyond that, with leaders of other religions? 

We have a responsibility to work hard to find ways, difficult though it may be, to maintain and invest in Kenesset Yisrael. Although we may disagree with their viewpoints in many instances, we must see all segments of Jewry as part of Beit Yisrael. Without every Jew, we are just a series of little enclaves. It is no great victory to say here we are and everybody else has disappeared; that is a failure. Our job is to be welcoming and open and, when we are able, to participate in the broader Jewish community. We don’t want to develop the attitude of “we’ll be reasonable; everything is relative.” Nor do we have to judge every interaction with our non-Orthodox counterparts by saying, “Am I being mekaddesh this person right now?” We strive to be dan et kol ha-adam le-kaf zekhut and see that our role as the leviyyim of the Jewish people is to keep the Jewish ball in play by encouraging people to engage in the pursuit of Jewish knowledge and experience, in shared commitment to Jewish education and to the State of Israel.

To pursue these goals, we have to find ways to be counted.  That is why I think it is important that our students attend the General Assembly of Federations and that we have service learning programs in Israel that are invested in citizenship of Israel.  That is why we host programs at YU that the entire community is invited to.  It is really important that I be able to sit down, without making statements of who is in and who is out, and have those conversations.  At Wurzweiler, we have a Jewish communal program where everyone can learn the commitment and passion of Judaism without having to sign on to our way.

YU needs to be a service arm for the entire Jewish community, and to not have a narrow funnel of who is admitted. Certainly, we are unapologetic about what our undergraduate education is and what our Torah perspective is, but we have riches to share with the larger world as well.

In terms of other religions, we also send our students to Nicaragua and El Salvador.  I have also had the privilege of being at some meetings between us and the leaders of other religions, which we do mindfully and with good will, when they reach out to us.  However, in today’s world, inter-religious dialogue is not the highest item on our agenda.  Rather, by modeling our world and living our values, we advance civilization.  If, in the course of doing so, there are opportunities to meet and discuss communal issues, though not engage in debates or doctrinal conversation, which may have other possible appropriate venues, then such interactions can be worthwhile, but I don’t see them as being the top of the agenda.  The top of the agenda is to advance civilization by being benei Torah and doing so generously.

What advice do you have for the current and future leaders of the YU student body? 

Number one, learn Torah.  Number two, love it all! Experience it all and push your own envelopes.  It may seem counterintuitive, but now is not the time for you take it as easy as can be, but strive to drink from all the troughs that have been made available to you.  At this time in your life, you have the ability to work hard and really have it all.  Also, be respectful partners in this enterprise.  Push the envelope, but push it from within the tent, not from outside the tent.  Have some hakkarat ha-tov, and recognize that those in your community want to be in contact with you, want to help shape you and want you to shape yourselves.  They know that they will be influenced by you as well, but by virtue of being older we have more experience and maybe have more knowledge that we get to share.  Students should accept that.  Another important piece of advice is by all means be skeptical but never be cynical.  People are involved in YU because they want to advance our story; cynicism is only corrosive and destructive. By all means ask questions, by all means advocate, by all means look to what needs improvement, but also recognize that your mission is not a monologue. There is a dialogue, with testing and limits, and, more than many other places, YU is a place with our own definitions.  We are what we are; we’re not relativistic, we’re particularistic.


Richard Joel is president of Yeshiva University.

Shlomo Zuckier is a RIETS student and a former Editor-in-Chief of Kol Hamevaser. 

[i] President Joel often uses this term to refer to the valued secular leaders of the Jewish community. It is a word play of kelei kodesh.

[ii] Avot 1:14.