On Motzaei Shabbat, January 26, Young Israel-OZ of North Riverdale hosted a fireside chat with Richard Joel, on the occasion of the release of “Ennoble and Enable,” a new academic publication known as a festschrift, literally a feast of essays. A festschrift typically contains pieces written by colleagues in honor of an accomplished scholar. A capacity crowd filled the former Riverdale White House of Yeshiva University, as the retired YU president chatted about his storied career in Jewish communal service.
The title of the book, “Ennoble and Enable” is based on a phrase Joel used during his investiture address and throughout his three terms as YU president, encapsulating his vision for the university’s goal in educating its students. This collection of essays was written in President Joel’s honor by a wide variety of rabbis, scholars, colleagues, donors and students. Among the noted contributors are Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the former chief rabbi of the United Kingdom; Rabbi Dr. Ari Berman, Joel’s successor and fifth president of YU; Jewish Theological Seminary Chancellor Dr. Arnold Eisen; and recently retired NYU president John Sexton. Local essayists featured include YIOZ’s founding rabbi, Nachman Cohen; current YIOZ rabbi Shmuel Hain; and SAR Academy principal Rabbi Binyamin Krauss.
One of the more intriguing featured essays was written by Marjorie Diener Blenden, a YU trustee and former chair of Stern College for Women’s board of overseers. This piece examines the parallels in vision and experience between President John Quincy Adams, the sixth president of the United States, and YU’s fourth president.
Opening the discussion, Joel described leadership as “requiring vision and implementation.” He further stated, “Wearing of a kippah identifies one as an observant Jew, but also gives one the responsibility of behaving as such.” Quoting from a pre-Pesach shiur given by Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik early in Joel’s career, he said, “‘The destination of the Bnei Yisrael leaving Egypt was Eretz Yisrael but its destiny was receiving the Torah at Har Sinai!’”
Prior to his investiture as Yeshiva’s fourth president, Joel served as an assistant district attorney in the Bronx, a leader of YU’s kiruv programs, associate dean of Cardozo School of Law and, from 1989 to 2013, as president and international director of the Hillel Foundation. At Hillel, he greatly expanded the religious scope of the college campus organization. Under Joel, Hillel’s motto became “Maximizing the number of Jews doing Jewish with other Jews.”
As a national communal leader, he led the investigative commission for NCSY after a major scandal was uncovered. Another accomplishment he is proud of is the founding of Birthright, which has brought many thousands of Jewish youths to visit Israel.
Joel reminisced about an interview he conducted at Hillel’s headquarters in Washington, DC. An Ivy League alumnus, former Hillel chapter president and Phi Beta Kappa member presented his dream of one day sitting in Joel’s chair. Joel quipped, “So I got up and offered him the chance.” He asked him why he wanted it, to which the interviewee responded, “Because of the power and the glory.” Joel responded, “You are mistaken. The power and the glory are several blocks away in the Oval Office.” The applicant challenged Joel, “When you were younger, didn’t you ask yourself how you were going to make it?” Joel thought about it and said he never did think that way. He declared, “I wondered how I would make it better!”
Joel revealed, “Prior to accepting the offer of the presidency, I did a lot of soul-searching, including many discussions with my wife and children.” They had to be comfortable with the loss of privacy. In one conversation, he said, “I was concerned that I would be the topic of discussion at 5000 Shabbat tables.” He told the attendees that his wife, Esther, reminded him, “But you will only be sitting at one.”
One of his proudest accomplishments as YU president was the founding of the Katz School, which promotes online and general education, beyond the limits of the campuses.
More information about this book, edited by Rabbis JJ Schacter and Zev Eleff, can be obtained from Yeshiva University Press and its Israeli partner, Maggid Books, a division of Koren Publishing, or the website, www.yutorah.org/yeshivapress.
By Judy Berger