Joel of YU: All Jews own a ‘sacred story’

Jews may love to tell each other the hoary joke about how three Jews, stranded on an island, will build four synagogues — one for each individual to pray in, and one for all three to boycott.

But for Richard Joel, president of Yeshiva University, the Jewish communal trait satirized in this joke “is a problem,” not a delight.

Joel came to Milwaukee last month ostensibly to be featured speaker at the installation on May 2 of one of his school’s graduates as rabbi of Anshe Sfard Kehillat Torah.

But this leader of the flagship institution of American Modern Orthodox Judaism sought to do more than wish Rabbi Wes Kalmar and his wife Jessica good luck and blessings in taking the synagogue’s reins from now emeritus spiritual leader Rabbi Nachman Levine and his wife Leah.

Joel also apparently wanted to communicate some messages and visions about Jewish life in general and the need for all Jews, despite disagreements with other Jews, to live as “a people with a purpose.”

“Our sacred story has to be owned by everybody,” Joel said to a group of about 25 local Jewish leaders — rabbis, plus agency executives and volunteers — in a meeting at ASKT prior to the installation ceremony. “In the long term,” Jewish life cannot endure “if it is not informed by some type of sanctity,” he said.

‘Enable and ennoble’

This does not mean ignoring the divisive issues. Joel said he hates the idea of “consensus, which is what displeases everybody least.”

He also unequivocally stated that he is a believing Orthodox Jew, and that true pluralism means he is “free to say you’re wrong” to other Jewish movements.

But pluralism also means “your right to be wrong,” he said, and “that doesn’t mean we can’t find ways to build the future together.”

“We need to talk about [Jewish] peoplehood, even if we disagree about what defines membership,” Joel said. Jews have “never been created as ‘I.’ We are ‘I and we’… You can’t dance around the Shabbat table by yourself.”

Ultimately, “you can’t ‘do Jewish’ and be ignorant,” Joel said. Therefore, “if we going to keep existing, we need to invest in what we are.”

In his address at the installation, Joel told the audience of ASKT members and guests that he preferred a different translation of the charge in Leviticus 19:2, “You shall be holy, for I, the Lord God, am holy.”

Joel cited a different interpretation: “You shall be noble as God is noble.” “Each Jew can attain nobility,” he said.

Indeed, Joel seems to have made the phrase “ennoble and enable” his motto. According to an anecdote he told, he even made a point of saying this phrase to President Bush during a visit to the White House.

“We can achieve a great deal” if Jewish students can be provided with professional skills that enable them to succeed, plus a “charge to nobility,” he said.

Joel also said he believes the Orthodox Jewish community is in a struggle, but a “struggle in a good way,” to be at the same time “part of and apart from” the society and world around it. Trying to maintain that balance, he said, presents “wonderful challenges.”

And Joel praised Milwaukee as “a community that knows how to be a community,” where “all different flavors” of Judaism can “come together and celebrate being without sacrifice of principles.”

In a conversation with The Chronicle after the event, Joel said that YU also is “committed to Zionism” at a time when many U.S. institutions of higher education appear to be struggling over Israel.

He said the Israeli flag flies next to the U.S. flag on the campus; that some 80 percent of YU students have spent a year of post-high school study in Israel; and that some 15 percent of the school’s graduates move to Israel.

Joel, 61, was inaugurated as YU’s fourth president in 2003, and he is the first one not to be an ordained rabbi. For 15 years before that, he was president and international director of Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life.

Yeshiva University, based in New York City, has some 7,000 students in its undergraduate and graduate programs.