New Dean From The Beth Din
08/24/07
Associate Editor

From the beginning of Richard Joel’s presidency at Yeshiva University in 2003, observers were waiting to see what he’d do with YU’s rabbinical program, what he calls “the soul” of YU but a place that others considered an isolated and traditionalist fiefdom sometimes at odds with the “university” half of YU’s moniker.But as the advance word spread of Joel’s appointment of Rabbi Yona Reiss as dean (expected to be announced this week), the positive reaction Joel said he’d been getting had Joel feeling rightly proud. Rabbi Reiss is currently director of the Beth Din of America, the largest rabbinical court in the country.Speaking by telephone from meetings in Florida, Joel said, “Nice move, huh? As I speak to people about this, they go ‘Oooh, that’s kind of outside the box. And then the smile starts growing on their faces as they realize how substantial, how decent, how much integrity, how much breadth this young man has. All of a sudden there’s a ‘wow.’ My roshei yeshiva [the rabbinic leaders and teachers at the seminary] are embracing the appointment, feeling he’s both m’shelanu, one of us, responsive to who they are, as well as someone with a strong backbone and able to lead.” Rabbi Reiss, 41, is indeed one of them. His Beth Din is affiliated with the Rabbinical Council of America and the Orthodox Union, the largest Orthodox rabbinical and synagogue groups in the nation, each predominantly featuring YU-ordained rabbis. Rabbi Reiss, a graduate of Yeshiva College, was ordained at YU’s RIETS (Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary) in 1991, as well as earning the more advanced Yadin-Yadin ordination in 2002.He is also clearly “out of the box,” recruited from outside YU, from outside academia altogether. Despite ordination, he chose not to become a practicing rabbi but to earn a law degree from Yale, where he was senior editor of the Law Journal, before practicing for six years at the international law firm of Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton.RIETS ordains about 40 rabbis each year, and in the last five years, 83 percent have gone into the pulpit or Jewish education. Rabbi Reiss will assume the duties of dean next July, when Rabbi Zevulon Charlop, who has been dean for more than 35 years, moves to become “my consigliere,” said Joel, or more officially, his special adviser on yeshiva affairs.Rabbi Reiss told The Jewish Week, “To be able to educate students in the Torah U’Madah tradition, in the best sense of the word, is an extremely exciting opportunity for me.” He defines Torah U’Madah as “the notion of developing the full awareness and reverence for God’s presence in the universe by learning and understanding as much as possible about the universe as a whole; to excel in Torah learning while being mindful of general learning in all the sciences and in all the disciplines.”He said he left international law because he preferred the practice of Jewish law, “the most ideal and divine system of law that exists.”His Beth Din handles about 600 cases a year, including some 350 divorces. The Orthodox community still has its share of agunot — women unable to remarry because of an inability to extract a get, or Jewish divorce, from intransigent husbands — but the problem has essentially been solved within Rabbi Reiss’ jurisdiction. Attributing much success to the increased usage of the RCA’s halachically airtight prenuptial agreement, of the 15,000 divorce cases that have come before the Beth Din in the past five years, he estimates that less than 10 are unresolved, an agunah rate of less than one-tenth of 1 percent.Rabbi Reiss’ wife, Mindy, teaches Jewish studies at SAR Academy, a Modern Orthodox day school in Riverdale, the Bronx. where they live with their five sons.Joel described Rabbi Reiss as “a poster child for both Torah commitment and halachic rigor coupled with a sense of wonder about the world and appreciation for excellence in those pursuits. He is not someone who sought this job, but the more I talked to him the more I concluded that this is someone whose destiny it is to be a partner in building this enterprise. New times have to make way for fresh perspectives” in what Joel calls, “the technicolor world of Torah U’Mada.”

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10/13/2009 - 09:52

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