Rabbi Ari Berman’s easygoing manner and gentle, self-deprecating humor belie his position as head of one of Modern Orthodoxy’s flagship establishments.
Newly installed last month as the fifth president of Yeshiva University — an academic institution with over 6,000 students in two high schools, three undergraduate schools and 10 graduate schools spread out over five campuses in New York and one in Jerusalem — Berman finds himself at the helm of a dynamic community that straddles a number of religious and geopolitical divides.
He’s not on unfamiliar turf. The four-time YU graduate cut his teeth in the academy’s high school, he told The Times of Israel in a conversation with several staffers at our Jerusalem offices, and stuck with the system for his higher education, continuing through graduate and post-graduate studies. He received his rabbinical ordination there before becoming the rabbi of Manhattan’s Jewish Center, a leading Modern Orthodox congregation on New York’s Upper West Side that celebrates its centennial this year.
As a denomination that doesn’t traditionally shy away from change and outside influences, Modern Orthodoxy faces challenges sometimes avoided by other, more insular Orthodox streams.
Jewish identity and a deep connection with Israel, which Berman calls “the greatest Jewish project of the last 2,000 years,” must be nurtured alongside a strong American identity. He says the rapid evolution of technology and artificial intelligence challenge our notions of what it means to be a person, and even what it means to be God. And as women vie for equal roles in a relatively progressive faction that nevertheless has strict, conservative roots, it is an ongoing challenge to accommodate an increasingly overt imperative while sticking to tradition.
Berman agrees that these issues and more will require some creative solutions — which are set to be discussed at the university’s October 22 conference “YU and the World of Tomorrow” — but he stands confidently by his guiding principles that Torah and the Land of Israel should be tangible, positive influences on the world.
He certainly walks the walk. In 2008, Berman left his comfortable position as rabbi at New York’s Jewish Center, and picked up with his family to move to Neve Daniel, a small settlement in the Gush Etzion bloc not far from Jerusalem.
“I thought, if we don’t do this now, we’re just going to retire in Israel. We wanted to do something more than that,” Berman says.
He says it was a very difficult decision to return to the US this year to head up the university, but the potential for positive impact won out. He and his wife left their three sons, who are all either in the midst of their army service or set to begin soon.
But, he says, he will return to Israel eventually with his wife and other two kids — it’s just a matter of time.
He met with The Times of Israel staff while on a trip back to Israel for the Jewish holidays. What follows is an edited transcript of the conversation.
The Times of Israel: You’ve been living in Israel since 2008, and this new job brings you back to the US. Why did you choose to go back?
Rabbi Ari Berman: Yeshiva University represents an enormous opportunity to make a difference in the Jewish world and in broader society. And in the process, it seems like I can contribute in some unique ways. First of all, I was raised in this community. I’m a four-time graduate of Yeshiva University. I went to the high school, and then I went to college there, and then to graduate school, and then to the rabbinical ordination program after graduate school, and then I studied in the post-ordination kollel, and then I was an adjunct professor and instructor of Talmud in the college. So I am a son of this community. And as an insider, I know this well.
If I had stayed in the Yeshiva University community, I would have been speaking the same language and thinking the same ideas
But I’m also coming as an outsider because I left the community and I came to Israel, and it changed my perspective on so many things just being here. It’s a whole different world, and a whole different slew of experiences. If I had stayed in the Yeshiva University community as the rabbi of one of their flagship synagogues, and then became the president of Yeshiva University, perhaps I could have done a good job or not, I don’t know — but I would have been speaking the same language and thinking the same ideas. The fact that I left helps me come back with some very different viewpoints.
The feeling was that I could do something significant and grow this institution, and really the key thing is having an impact on the broader Jewish world.
Has there been any kind of movement forward in terms of inclusivity for women in the greater Modern Orthodox community?
We have two undergraduate campuses — one is our Midtown campus, and the other is our uptown campus. The uptown campus is for the men, and the Midtown campus is for women. And they are pioneers in Jewish education. That’s where I’d say that it started and spread. And certainly we’re very interested in growing each person, each individual to his or her human potential.
The role of women in general has been divisive in Modern Orthodoxy. The Jewish Telegraphic Agency has said that in Israel it’s much easier for women to take on a greater role than in the US. Do you agree, and do you think that you can be some kind of bridge between the two?
I definitely think that we can be a bridge for conversations between Israel and the Diaspora. There is, I think, a place for us. We’re uniquely qualified to do many things, but being that we speak different languages — and I’m not just talking about Hebrew and English — we can definitely be a bridge.
But addressing the specific issue of women…
The issue of women’s leadership is certainly a central issue of the day, and one that we’re heavily involved in. Every student who comes to YU, certainly every woman who comes to YU, is potentially a Jewish leader, and we encourage that and stoke that, and we do so in our learning programs.
We have a graduate program for advanced Talmud and biblical studies, and we have a cadre of women who are learning beyond their undergraduate experience, and they just started to be able to get graduate degrees for that — there were no graduate degrees before. But we’re definitely interested in exploring and developing that.
Every student who comes to Yeshiva University, certainly every woman who comes to Yeshiva University, is potentially a Jewish leader
What do you expect a graduate from the female masters program in Talmudic studies to do with her degree?
That’s one difference between Israel and America, is that there’s a whole slew of opportunities in Israel. There are so many educational opportunities, and the community life itself is fundamentally different. We [in America] have one school of higher education — Yeshiva University. Here [in Israel] we have hundreds of yeshivot, hundreds of seminaries, and the communities are different. The synagogues are different.
When I first started, one of my first hires was Mrs. Sally Mayer as resident scholar at the Jewish Center. There’s definitely important areas of communal leadership that we want our women to go into, and we encourage that greatly.
This is a question also in Israel, but I think it’s more acute in America because they don’t have the same full-time positions and the same number of opportunities. But there are roles that they fill, whether it’s in education or whether it’s in communities around the country. So there are some outlets, but it’s a challenge, I agree.
What were some of the things about your experience living in Israel that changed how you looked at the mission of YU and the role of American Jews in this relationship?
Being in the religious Zionist community here versus being in the Yeshiva University there was fascinating, because these are parallel communities on the one hand, but with very different nuances, stresses and emphases. And that in itself was fascinating. Also, just being out of the New York bubble and moving to Israel gives you a whole other perspective on the Jewish world, and actually the broader world, as well as the challenges and opportunities facing our people both in Israel and the Diaspora.
There has been a huge uproar recently about the cost of living for Orthodox Jews in the US and irresponsible spending. Can you speak to that?
This is one of the most serious challenges our community faces, and the ripple effects are so drastic. People’s career choices — you know, when I told my family I was going to be a rabbi, that was met with not joy, let’s just say that. I actually was in law school — I took the LSAT, I was in an Ivy League law school, and I decided to turn it down and then go to smicha [rabbinical ordination]. My poor mother-in-law — her daughter was engaged to a future Ivy League lawyer! And now this. And that’s just being a rabbi. Forget about being an artist, or an electrician — anything you use your hands for, basically.
And then you come to Israel. I remember I lived in this yishuv [settlement] Neve Daniel [in the Etzion Bloc south of Jerusalem], and there’s a plumber, and there’s a baker, and there’s a gardener, and I’m like, ‘Are you guys Jewish?’ Because we don’t have Jews doing that. We are lawyers, we are doctors, businessmen, [in dire circumstances] we’re rabbis, and anything else, people are doing it for us. And it’s a box. People can’t grow their talents.
We have a community of people who are born to run, but they are forced into being lawyers and businessmen, and they do not feel God’s presence when they’re doing that
It’s like that scene from [1981 British film] ‘Chariots of Fire,’ where the runner’s sister asked him why he was wasting his time running. And he said ‘God has given me the gift of speed, and when I run I feel his presence.’ So we have a community of people who are born to run, but they are forced into being lawyers and businessmen, and they do not feel His presence when they’re doing that.
And it’s not just costs, it’s an issue of values: Do you have to live in this place, do you have to go to this camp? It’s a lot of things to work on. You’ve got to start early, and these are huge questions.
I just came back to the US after a number of years away. There’s camps — I went to Camp Morasha. It was a very nice camp, you go for two months and have a great time. People can’t afford to go for two months anymore, so they go for a month. They go to camp in nice little bungalows in Pennsylvania, and in the middle they take their kids and drive to the airport and fly to Costa Rica because they need a vacation from camp.
The things that have become normal — I’m coming back, so I see it differently, and I’m a little stunned. But that needs to be thought through. And what are the consequences of this? They’re making choices, and we need to flesh out the underlying choices that they’re making — do they understand the choices that they’re making, and what are they losing by doing this?
What is the financial status of YU right now?
We’re in a trajectory of growth. The last administration did a great job of hiring the right people, right-sizing the institution, so we have years now of a runway to think about growth and expansion. And that’s what we’re doing now. Our goal, when we think about Yeshiva University, we’re thinking about our new opportunities. So our new opportunities are new student bodies, new educational pathways, and new disciplines and areas of focus.
We do a great job of raising great Jewish doctors and lawyers and businesspeople, but the world of tomorrow is filled with scientists and the world of technology and entrepreneurship. And we’re thinking greatly about how we’re going to shift and focus on those areas as well.
Does YU, as an American institution, see itself as having a role in Israeli politics?
The American Jewish community can be involved in Israel issues — the question is how are they going to be involved in Israel issues. They can work towards dialogue, they can promote their views within Israeli society, there’s nothing wrong with that, and they can advocate for their views — there’s nothing wrong with that, either. Should they go to the American government and advocate for their views about what’s right for Israel to do?
The American Jewish community can be involved in Israel issues — the question is how are they going to be involved in Israel issues
[Certain advocates’ argue that] ‘We have a position on France, we have a position on Haiti, we have a position on other things, why can’t we have a position on Israel?’ And my answer to them is, if you are taking a position on Israel because you’re an American and you’re concerned about America, and this is what America should do, just like it’s France or just like it’s Haiti, then you have every right to take your position to the government and do so.
But if you’re taking your position because you’re a Jew, and you’re so connected to Israel, and then you’re going to the American government over the head of the democratically elected Israeli government? That seems to me really off. You want to argue your view within Israel, you want to support the people who hold your view within Israel, that’s great.
Have you met with any government officials during your visit?
Well, in my past visits I’ve been meeting a lot with presidents of universities because we’re trying to create bridge programs with them.
But I met with [Minister of Education] Naftali Bennett, and it was interesting because I wanted to talk with him about [education], but all he wanted to talk about was the Diaspora. [But] they’re encouraging us to create these programs [bringing Yeshiva University students and alumni to Israel] — they want to bring international students in.
And I am meeting with [Jewish Agency head] Natan Sharansky and President Reuven Rivlin. At our investiture President Rivlin sent a video of congratulations, and we had [deputy minister and former ambassador to the US] Michael Oren, so we’re certainly heavy in the [political] space.
That’s actually another place where Yeshiva University can be a base for Israel. Maybe we’re the only university where an Israeli politician can actually come and not just be greeted without the throwing of rotten tomatoes, but actually be cheered.