Echoing anonymous reports earlier this week, YU Chairman of the Board Moshael Straus announced that the presidential search committee has voted to recommend Rabbi Ari Berman, who has lived in Israel since 2008, as the next president of Yeshiva University. The presidential search committee met on campus Tuesday to vote on his candidacy. Chairman Straus, who also chaired the presidential search committee itself, stated that Rabbi Berman will be meeting with trustees, faculty and “other key university stakeholders” over the next few weeks, at which point “it is anticipated his nomination will be forwarded to the board of trustees,” according to a report from the YU Commentator, the school’s student newspaper.
YU President Richard Joel announced last September that he planned to step down after his term expires in 2018, but various news sources reported that he would be willing to vacate the post earlier if a replacement was found in shorter order.
Rabbi Berman is a triple alumnus of YU—Yeshiva College, Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies, and the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary. After his aliyah, he earned a PhD in Jewish thought from Hebrew University.
The sixth rabbi of The Jewish Center of Manhattan, on the Upper West Side, Rabbi Berman succeeded the immensely popular Rabbi Dr. Jacob J. Schacter, a talmid of the Rav who spent many years heading the Soloveitchik Institute in Brookline, who also now works at YU as a senior scholar at the Center for the Jewish Future. Berman was Rabbi Schacter’s rabbinic intern and subsequently the shul’s assistant rabbi for several years before being promoted to senior rabbi upon Rabbi Schacter’s departure in 2000. Rabbi Berman also taught Gemara at YU for close to a decade. Another prominent rabbi of the Jewish Center was Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm, YU’s former chancellor.
Over his 14 years at the Jewish Center, Rabbi Berman led the shul’s transformation by upgrading the financial systems and budgeting processes, successfully completing a capital campaign, and enhancing programs and outreach, according to a release from YU. Rabbi Berman was the founding rabbi of the shul’s Rabbi leadership minyan, credited with popularizing the shul among young couples and singles.
Rabbi Berman, who is 47, grew up in Forest Hills, Queens. He is the middle child of Rosalie and Rabbi Tobias Berman, with siblings Alex and Cheryl. The family belonged to the Young Israel of Forest Hills, which was headed by Rabbi Feivel Wagner, z”l. Berman also spent a year in Israel after high school at Yeshivat Har Etzion and spent another year in Israel as a fellow of YU’s Gruss Kollel Elyon after he completed his semicha.
Berman’s paternal uncle, Rabbi Julius Berman, is a former chairman of the board of the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, and a longstanding YU board member. He was also the chairman of the Conference on Jewish Material Claims against Germany, Inc. and honorary president of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America. Julius Berman has headed many national Jewish organizations, including the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency and the American Zionist Youth Foundation.
Rabbi Berman is now the rosh ha-merkaz of Hechal Shlomo in Jerusalem. In his email to students, Chairman Straus referred to him as its CEO. The Straus email also reportedly emphasized his experience with executive management and finances, though the YU Commentator noted that Hechal Shlomo is a relatively small organization compared to a research university, housing an art museum and an auditorium that hosts performances and lectures. Rabbi Berman also serves on the executive leadership council of Herzog College, a small teachers’ college in Alon Shvut.
Even as a YU insider, Rabbi Berman certainly has a difficult path ahead if he becomes president. “It will not be an easy job, dealing with the financial uncertainty of YU’s future (it took a huge hit from the Bernie Madoff scheme, and has been operating at a deficit since) and the different forces and visions all jockeying for position within the Modern Orthodox world,” wrote Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein, director of interfaith affairs for the Simon Wiesenthal Center, on the website Cross-Currents.
“I have known Rabbi Ari Berman since we were kids growing up in Forest Hills, and overlapping at MTA High School,” said Teaneck resident Zevi Fischer. “Already in high school, he always stood out as mature beyond his years and possessing great leadership skills. I remember, quite fondly, how, when he was a high school junior and I was a freshman, he would take out time to counsel and advise me as we rode the school bus from Forest Hills to MTA.”
Fischer, who is an alumnus of Yeshiva University’s high school, Yeshiva College and Cardozo Law School, agreed that the job will be a challenge. Any incoming president will have the heightened challenge of re-establishing YU as Modern Orthodoxy’s flagship institution. “Rabbi Ari Berman’s unique influence and ability to appeal to the entire spectrum of Modern Orthodoxy makes him a perfect choice to assume this challenge,” he said.
Rabbi Berman, with his wife, Anita, and children currently live in Neve Daniel.
By Elizabeth Kratz