What Abuse In The ’80s Obscures About YU Today
Tue, 08/13/2013
Special To The Jewish Week
Yossi Prager
Yossi Prager

The recent news stories about Yeshiva University bring back memories from my own experiences in the 1980s, when I attended both high school and college at YU. For me, those were positive and powerfully transformative years, with YU playing the central role. I am profoundly sad that not all of my peers had the same experience, and of course pray that deep wounds suffered by victims of abuse will be healed.

But focusing our current attention only on the YU of 30 years ago obscures extraordinary changes that have reshaped the institution’s impact on Jewish life in the 21st century. We ignore these changes at our own peril, as the cost of the failuring to appreciate and support YU could be a retreat from some of its recent achievements.

The YU I attended was principally a source of future talent (rabbis, educators, lay leaders as well as doctors, lawyers and engineers) who would, after graduation, contribute to both society in general and to the Jewish community in particular. In the last decade, YU has become a stronger academic institution. This is reflected by a greater number of tenure-track and tenured faculty (20 new grants of tenure were just announced), honors students and national science grants, and by a new multi-disciplinary Yeshiva College curriculum and a higher level of faculty-student engagement. Student enrollment growth has led to capital expansion, including a beautiful new Beit Medrash. 

One key feature of YU in the 21st century is an additional focus that extends YU’s impact from producing leaders for the future to strengthening the vitality of Jewish life today. In 2003, fresh from transforming international Hillel’s contribution to the lives of Jewish college students, Richard Joel took over the YU presidency. He came to the university with a commitment to outstanding academics as well as a broad outward-looking vision.  He inspired and attracted other impressive Jewish leaders to join him. The resulting change has benefited schools, synagogues and communities across the country, even as YU suffered alongside other nonprofits from the troubled economy.

In the area of day school education, which I know best, YU has established and developed a division for university and day school partnership (YUSP) and has added faculty to the Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education. YUSP now works with dozens of day schools on programs addressing financial benchmarking and re-engineering, assessment, bullying prevention and blended/online learning. The Azrieli faculty educates a larger number of master’s and Ph.D. students than in the past (58 master’s and five Ph.D.s were graduated in June 2013) while also focusing research on projects that benefit schools and students. YU is today recognized as a powerful force in day school education with an accomplished staff and a growing track record.

YU’s Center for the Jewish Future (CJF) is another highlight. CJF serves the dual role of being the center of Jewish experiential education for YU’s students and bringing YU’s resources to rabbis, lay leaders and communities. For students, CJF enables the YU experience to include service learning (in Latin America and Israel, as well as in New Orleans and Long Island after natural disasters) and bringing the celebration of Jewish life to smaller Jewish communities. These programs recognize that students are both consumers of education and also producers of social good. In this way, CJF complements the yeshiva and academic program, seeking to ensure that students live the values and skills they are learning.

The CJF programs that bring YU resources to communities also continue to grow. I will mention only those that I know first-hand: robust online and in-person professional development for rabbis and their families that covers Jewish legal issues, pastoral skills and the personal needs of these community leaders; training for lay leaders; adult education for day school parents (in conjunction with the Kohelet Foundation); and weekly discussion guides for Shabbat tables. Because of ongoing dialogue with community leaders, YU better understands and responds to their needs.

Although I write as a private individual, my perch as North American director of The Avi Chai Foundation enables me to see that the YUSP and CJF programs are making a difference for teens, singles, families, rabbis, families and lay leaders. I also see YU’s potential to serve as a bridge between two Jewish poles: the growing haredi community, on the one hand, and the increasing number of Jews who receive little or no Jewish education.

More than each individual component — high-level Torah study, enlightening academics/experiential education and strengthening Jewish communities — YU provides magical moments and lifetime memories that remind students and others of the power of Judaism to change the world. Yeshiva University is simply an engine of Jewish life in America.

I do not mean to suggest that YU is without flaws or challenges.  The most recent challenge is the Moody’s downgrade of YU’s debt rating. YU cannot continue to help its students and communities across the country reach their potential without continued enrollment growth and an increase in annual fundraising and endowment giving. Funding will increase as donors come to appreciate the full story of YU’s achievements and promise. This story is, I fear, being lost in the current articles about terrible mistakes made 30 years ago. No doubt, YU and all of us must ensure that protecting children becomes and remains the first priority. But YU’s increasingly vital role in Jewish life depends on it doing more than addressing the past. If others feel the same way, we should express that support and enable the university to continue to bring to life the powerful possibilities of Judaism in the 21st century.

Yossi Prager is executive director of the Avi Chai Foundation in North America.

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I too attended MTA during the early 1970s and was absolutely miserable. That said, I have serious doubts about some of the allegations surrounding Finkelstein during that era. Was he a jerk of the first order - yes. Was he strange - yes. Was he clueless as to the numerous problems that plagued MTA students- yes. Was he a sexual abuser - doubtful.

This is not about the 80s but instead about YU in 2013 and its leadership's callous cynical mercenary short sighted CYA approach to a terrible chapter. Shame on them for 2013.

Well said. I graduated MTA and YU and would never ever donate to either. I was slapped by a "Rabbi" because i didnt receive a good enough grade on 1 of my subjects. I never complained because I would have been thrown out on my ears. That was in the late 70s.

My brother attened MTA in the 80s and he too got smacked by a rabbi. Then they expelled him in his senior year promised to graduate him and didn't. The experience pushed him away from education and religion. I attended central and stern, I now have a strict rule. My children are not allowed to attend any undergrad YU schools.

You are a smart woman to keep your kids away from YU. When I got married I actually told my wife that I would never ever allow any of our kids to go to MTA - under any circumstances. She now understands why I said that. I am sorry to hear about your brother's bad experiences and the after effects of being smacked by a "Rabbi" - if it helps ask your brother if it was Rabbi H who smacked him. If it was tell him he wasnt alone. If it was someone else tell him that the physical abuse was apparently common.

Interesting how the rapid response brigade of professional victims is always on call to attack YU but never around to answer simple questions.1)Why did abuse victims continue at YU for undergraduate and graduate work? Why did you wait 40 years to bring a lawsuit? Why didn't your parents get you out of YU if they knew (and they did know) what Rabbi Finkelstein was doing. How bad could it have been. Why do you attack people just for asking questions and slandering them as enablers? How did you make it to the top of your professions if you were so badly damaged? If you knew what these men were doing why not sound the alarms 40 years ago and prevent new victims?

Are you referring to me? You are so wrong its not funny. First of all, I am not part of the "brigade" of plaintiffs - I have not sued nor have I ever sued anyone for abuse. Second, who is slandering whom? I was slapped by a "Rabbi" and I wont mention his name so as to not slander anyone. That hard slap and the hurt feelings is something between the good Rabbi and Heaven (until 120). So I am not slandering anyone but you are. Third, did you read the complaint? Many of the plaintiffs have suffered from depression, inability to marry, and job problems. So much for your "top of their professions." Fourth, the reason I didnt say anything is that I knew I would be thrown out. They would have called me a liar and blacklisted me from any yeshiva. Listen pal, I dont know if you are a paid stooge by YU or what your agenda is here but YU is guilty of allowing MTA to be run as a joke. There was NO accountability. There was NO mechanism for complaints. There was NO transparency. YU and MTA were nothing more than average academic institutions that parents thought were "high level." They have great PR and parents send lots of money to pay the huge slaries and bonuses of the senior managers. YU is guilty of a cover up in order to keep the gravy train while lives were wrecked.

Very nice of you to go of on that Megillah since I was NOT referring to you. Isn't the name of the game to get out of MTA if you are being tormented there? Would it not have been better (if this blacklisting shtick were true which it is not-I left MTA and went to YHSQ. No problem except for your self-serving conspiracy theories). People who have not been abused suffer (Lo Aleinu) from depression,inability to get married and job problems. There is no proof that they are connected.I have read the complaint and I know much information is 100% bogus in the damages section."Paid stooge for YU"? I could not care less if they close tomorrow. What really bothers me is that people who differ and ask questions get this type of treatment. It is just impossible for you to believe that somebody else might have a different opinion. I have been accused of being a paid hack for Satmar,YU,etc because if there are those who think in a different way they must get paid to do so. People are entitled to see things a different way.

Excellent points. And yet, Richard Joel, who served as the head of the special commission impaneled by the Orthodox Union (OU) to investigate allegations that community leaders had ignored charges against the abusive outreach rabbi Baruch Lanner, an executive with the OU's National Conference of Synagogue Youth (NCSY), the commission which concluded that many OU and NCSY leaders had made serious errors in judgment, now leads YU which seems to be continuing the ill-advised policy of ignoring abuse victims. And Kenneth Brander, head of the CJF so lauded in your piece, has a questionable involvement with an abuser named in the YU lawsuit during his tenure at Boca Raton Synagogue. Using your phrase, ignoring the actions of the current leadership is at our own peril, no matter how much has been achieved. The continued aversion to transparency and compassion for the victims is what is obscuring YU's achievements, not the focus on the YU of 30 years ago.

The past?

For those who were abused, your past is their present. Every living minute of every single day of it.

A little compassion on your part would go a very long way. And, calling a bad guy a bad guy, would do a lot to restoring anyone's faith in what otherwise proves with every word to be a compassion-less and self-serving point of view.

That pesky Merkin/Madoff mistake was much more recent.

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