Orthodox Judaism: Yeshiva University
Yeshiva University is an institution of higher education in New York City.
The Rabbi Isaac Elhanan Theological Seminary (RIETS, named for R. Isaac Elhanan Spektor), the nucleus around which Yeshiva University grew, was founded in 1897 by Rabbis Moses Matlin and Yehuda David Bernstein, and David Abramowitz, as a small institution for the advanced study of Talmud, attracting primarily immigrant youth. RIETS was the first advanced yeshivah in the United States. However, Yeshiva University dates its inception from 1886, when Yeshivat Etẓ Chaim, an elementary school that was merged with RIETS in 1915, was formed.
Following student turmoil over the question of secular studies in 1906 and 1908 the school’s administration was reorganized and some secular studies were permitted. Early presidents of the institution included Rabbi Moses Zebulun (Ramaz) Margolies, Rabbi Bernard Levinthal, and David Cohen. In 1915, Bernard Revel became president and head of the faculty.
In 1916, an accredited high school that combined Talmudic and secular studies was opened. In 1922, the institution absorbed the Teachers Institute, which had been founded in 1917 by the Mizrachi Organization of America. Yeshiva College was chartered on May 29, 1928, and later welcomed its first students. The high school, the college, RIETS, and the Teachers Institute were now all subdivisions of one institution, located in the Washington Heights section of New York City, which was to continue to expand its number of divisions as well as students. In 1970, RIETS was reincorporated as an
affiliate of the university, a distinct legal entity with its own board.
Since its inception, RIETS has devoted itself almost entirely to the teaching of Talmud and codes, the basis of the religious tradition, in a manner no different from any traditional yeshivah. The course of study culminates in a four-year program leading to semikhah (
rabbinical ordination). For students of exceptional ability, there are several kollelim (advanced study programs) that provide training in deciding complex issues of Jewish law. There were over 300 students in the rabbinical program in 2006, whose entrance requirements include a college degree in addition to extensive preparation in Talmud. Some courses in practical rabbinics were given for many years. From 1955, rabbinical students were also required to take courses in such subjects as Bible, Jewish history, philosophy, and Hebrew literature, and in recent years additional requirements have been instituted in the area of practical rabbinics.
Yeshiva University has ordained about 2,600 rabbis since its inception. Over 70 percent of its active rabbinical graduates serve the Jewish community today in some formal capacity – as rabbis, teachers, educators, or communal workers – although the number entering the pulpit rabbinate has declined.
At the undergraduate college for men (Yeshiva College) and at the college for women (Stern College), which opened in 1954, students pursue a dual program of studies, taking courses in Jewish subjects as well as a normal load of secular subjects. Both colleges, with their combined enrollment in 2006 of 3,000 students, seek to impart mastery by the students of two intellectual worlds, the religious world and the secular one. There have been periods in the past, especially in the 1960s, when the emphasis was on integration within the curriculum of both worlds so that the content from one area of study may shed light or direction on the other. The Talmudic faculty of Yeshiva University has always included some of the outstanding rabbinic scholars of the world. Preeminent among its faculty was Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik. An increasing number of the Talmudic faculty are graduates of the institution.
In 1943, Samuel Belkin, a Talmudic authority and Semitic scholar, succeeded to the presidency, left vacant by the death of Bernard Revel in 1940. Under Belkin’s leadership,
There are four alternative Jewish divisions in which all Yeshiva College students must also be enrolled: the Mechina Program (formerly called the James Striar School, for students with little background in Jewish studies); the Isaac Breuer College (which stresses Hebrew language and literature); and two that concentrate on Talmudic studies – the Irving Stone Beit Midrash Program and the Mazer School.
The secular, nonsectarian divisions of Yeshiva University have undergone the greatest expansion since 1945. These divisions now include the Ferkauf Graduate School of Psychology; the Wurzweiler School of Social Work; the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law; and probably best known of all, the Albert Einstein College of Medicine and its affiliated Albert Einstein College Hospital. While these divisions include a diverse student body and a distinguished non-Jewish as well as Jewish faculty, they do, in varying degrees, reflect Yeshiva University’s orientation to Orthodox Judaism. All divisions observe the requiremenhttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QT2xObp-DIUts of Jewish law and offer courses that explore the Jewish dimension of the field being studied. The Wurzweiler School requires all students to attend courses in Jewish sociology and in Jewish social work values. On the undergraduate level, the Sy Sims School of Business enables students both at Yeshiva College and Stern College to major in business-related areas.
In addition to its educational and other scholarly activity, the university plays a major role in the Jewish community through its Community Service Division. This division is responsible for rabbinic and teacher placement, conducts adult education and extension courses, provides educational services to many Talmud Torahs and youth groups, and sponsors seminars throughout the United States. The approximate enrollment in the various schools and divisions of Yeshiva University in 2006 was 6,000.
The economic situation of the country and the pressing needs of the State of Israel hurt Yeshiva University’s ability to raise funds in the early 1970s. Following the retirement of Dr. Samuel Belkin in 1975, Dr. Norman Lamm was elected to succeed him as president of the university in 1976. Lamm proved a potent fundraiser, rescuing the institution from the brink of bankruptcy. But another challenge appeared that threatened the university: the growing polarization of American Orthodox Judaism.
While Yeshiva had traditionally serviced the educational needs of the so-called
modern Orthodox, for whom the combined religious-secular curriculum was essential, the Orthodox community was now turning rightward, and, partially as a result of the year or more that most Orthodox high school graduates were spending at Israeli educational institutions, there was a demand for more rigorous religious classes and less emphasis on secular disciplines. In its undergraduate recruitment efforts, Yeshiva University sought to adapt to the new mood, competing for students with the sectarian yeshivot that were skeptical about college rather than with the nation’s top universities. Its efforts, however, were complicated by the emergence of Touro College, which promised a more rigorously Orthodox environment for those seeking higher secular education, and three new institutions that tried to fill the vacuum in the modern Orthodox sector that Yeshiva University had apparently abandoned: Edah, an educational and consciousness-raising group; the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA); and Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, which trained rabbis to fill modern Orthodox pulpits. The secular graduate schools of Yeshiva, meanwhile, chafed at what they saw as a growing fundamentalist strain within the university.
Yeshiva University’s internal contradictions came to a head with the announcement, in 2001, of Dr. Lamm’s impending retirement and elevation to the post of chancellor. Since the classical Orthodox rabbi-scholar model typified by Revel, Belkin, and Lamm had not been cultivated within the institution for a quarter-century, there was no one in that mold to take over the presidency. It was not until 2003 that a new president was inaugurated, Richard Joel, previously the president of Hillel, the organization of Jewish college students. Neither a rabbi nor an academic – the job of Rosh Yeshiva at REITS remained with Lamm and Joel was president of the University – Joel, enjoying the advantage of the financial cushion provided by his predecessor’s fund-raising, appeared committed to reorienting the university back toward its modern Orthodox roots, but in such a way as to retain the loyalties of the more tradition-bound rabbis. He energetically set out to increase enrollment, boost morale, upgrade student services, and strengthen the university’s bonds with the American Jewish community through the creation of a Center for the Jewish Future.
Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.
G. Klaperman, The Story of Yeshiva University (1967); idem, in: AJHSP, 54 (1964), 5–50, 198–201; AJYB, 68 (1967), 367, index; C.S. Liebman, ibid., 66 (1965), 62–65; 69 (1968), index. ADD. BIBLIOGRAPHY: J. Gurock, The Men and Women of Yeshiva University (1988); V. Geller, Orthodoxy Awakens: The Belkin Era and Yeshiva University (2003).