It was a pleasure meeting Rabbi Dr. Ari Berman, the president of Yeshiva University, last Sunday. We spent a good part of an hour getting to know one another and discussing his newly released book, The Final Exam.
I’m plumbing my way through the book but so far can certainly appreciate and even try to internalize his message. The book is written in the form of an address to his students and the many thousands of graduates over the years to whom he remains connected, as the highest visible representative of this great institution.
Why is a book like this so important? I didn’t ask the Rabbi that question directly but through our time talking it became abundantly clear that YU and, more specifically, its graduates, who are ambassadors of Orthodox Judaism around the world in industry, education, and as rabbanim, are out there communicating the important message and success of Jewish life when lived with a Torah influence.
In my estimation, that is Rabbi Ari Berman. And while the book is not about him, it is very much about the hashkafos he has imbibed as a product of YU and the YU-influenced yeshivas he attended from the time he began school in Queens as a young child.
If I had to name the primary focus of the Berman presidency at YU, I would have to encapsulate it as: “connecting with the students.” And that is also the primary objective of The Final Exam.
At the same time one has to appreciate the wordplay of the book title. There are probably no two words more apropos in the global scope of what it means to be a student these days than “final exams.” The very thought often sends shivers down the spines of students, so to speak. But this is where the idea of the multiple meanings of Final Exam crystallizes. Rabbi Berman’s message to his students past and present is that the great privilege of being alive and being a Jew attached to Torah is one (hopefully long) test on which someday there will indeed be a final exam.
The book outlines a prescription that is applied by Yeshiva leadership, something that is important for all students to internalize, at YU as well as in the rest of the vast yeshiva world. That guideline, as related in the book, is a matter of five vital points. They are: (1) Torat Emet (2) Torat Adam (3) Torat Chaim (4) Torat Chesed and (5) Torat Tzion.
Rabbi Berman goes into detail on the proper way to internalize this prescription for a good, successful, and rewarding life as a Torah Jew. Here is his outline of these five important points.
Torat Emet (Seek Truth): We believe in the pursuit of truth and humanity’s ability to discover it. At Yeshiva University, Torah study is part of every day for every student. We can answer Rava confidently that we do make a lot of time for Torah study. In our general studies, we engage in the dialectics of wisdom. With our minds, we plumb the depths of knowledge in the pursuit of truth in every subject to help you become critical thinkers who are able to analyze, synthesize, and integrate your learning into your lives.
Torat Adam (Discover Your Potential): We believe in the infinite worth of every human being. It’s reflected in the way we treat strangers and friends, professors and security guards, those we love and those we struggle to understand. It’s the way Hashem created us. Our job is to find the tzelem Elokim, the G-dliness, in everyone. At Yeshiva University, we believe in the importance of healthy relationships and the gift of family life and continuity. Every child is a bet on our future, a symbol of hope in tomorrow. This, too, is an expression of Torat Adam. It all begins with the dignity and respect we accord every single person.
Torat Chaim (Live Your Values): We believe in bringing our values to life. Yeshiva University prepares and expects its graduates to behave ethically in life and at work. We make sure, for instance, that all our business students study ethics, with the expectation that they will apply what they know of Jewish law to conduct themselves with the highest moral standards. We try hard to answer to a higher authority.
Torat Chesed (Act with Compassion): We believe in the responsibility to reach out to others with compassion. Be kind, and kindness will shape you. Share your heart and your smile with others to alleviate their suffering. You will see examples of a Torat Chesed ethos everywhere and on every campus. You will see it in chesed opportunities, in the work of our Student Council, in club activities, and through the work of our extraordinary counseling services. You will feel it through the individualized care of our staff and faculty and through the work of our Office of Student Life. A life of meaning is a life of mercy.
Torat Tzion (Bring Redemption): We believe that humanity’s purpose is to transform our world for the better and to move history forward. Hashem will not ask us, according to Rava, if we waited for redemption. He asks each of us if we anticipated it. Anticipation is much stronger than simply waiting. A tzofeh in Tanach is a sentinel who is not just sitting back and waiting to see if something happens; rather, he is actively and vigilantly seeking out ways to help. We must play a participatory role in bringing about redemption.
Rabbi Berman explains that despite the extraordinary amount of time the job as president demands, he still makes time to meet with students and considers that task his most central and important one.
“I tell students that here at Yeshiva I do not necessarily have a road map of where life is going to take them, but I have a compass that can hopefully lead them in the right direction.”
The Final Exam is that compass, the Rabbi adds.
The Rabbi says that unlike eras of the past, he thinks that in these modern times young people, and in fact all people, are dealing with instability in their lives. This, he explains, is where Torah can guide them.
Rabbi Berman says that he is not just the new president of YU (since 2017), but, as he states, “I’m a son of YU; I’ve lived the YU experience,” explaining that he has been attached on one level or another to YU for over 40 years. About the history of YU, he says that YU began at Sinai with the giving of the Torah to Am Yisrael and that there has been an unbroken chain for more than 3,000 years.
We had a wide-ranging discussion above and beyond the new book and his future vision for YU. He adds that he sees our community as leaders of the future. This, he says, despite the relatively small numbers of the percentage of Orthodox Jews in the overall American Jewish community.
“Our graduates are visible in all walks and levels of American life. They are ambassadors of Torah, ethics, and honesty, which people observe and come to admire.”
Leading an institution with 70,000 graduates and many professionals and educational leaders is no small matter. Obviously, despite the small numbers of Orthodox Jews nationally, our presence makes a big impression.
Rabbi Berman is a graduate of YU High School, attended Yeshiva Har Etzion, and he credits the inspiration of his rosh yeshiva and mentor, Rav Ahron Lichtenstein, zt’l, with guiding him in the direction of rabbanus and education.
Rabbi Berman was a rabbi at The Jewish Center in Manhattan until he and his family made aliyah in 2008. He says that life in Israel was a dream come true and that most of his children still reside there. “There is nothing other than this opportunity at YU that could have convinced us to return to the U.S.,” he says.
Rabbi Ari Berman is evidently the right man at the right place and the right time. He is leading an important segment of Klal Yisrael. In terms of his personal final exam, he gets an A+.
At an exclusive reception and dinner for former Vice President Mike Pence hosted by the Israel Heritage Foundation, the former VP spoke glowingly about his close connection to the State of Israel and his sterling voting record when he was in Congress in support of the U.S.–Israel relationship.
Pence personally signed his new book, So Help Me God, which was distributed to event participants. The evening was chaired by Israel Heritage Foundation Vice President Dr. Joe Frager. Earlier this year the Foundation hosted similar events featuring former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, former governor of Arkansas and presidential candidate Mike Huckabee, and also the current governor of Arkansas and former White House press secretary, Sarah Huckabee.
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