YESHIVA UNIVERSITY PRESIDENT Ari Berman speaks with students on campus in New York.
(photo credit: YESHIVA UNIVERSITY)
Rabbi Dr. Ari Berman’s roots lie deep within New York’s Yeshiva University. His parents met at the university, he’s a four-time alumnus, and in June he returned as its fifth president.
“I am literally a product of Yeshiva University,” he told The Jerusalem Post during an interview in Tel Aviv ahead of Sukkot. “My deep understanding of it gives me a huge advantage. I walk in with awareness of the people. Yeshiva University is in my heart and soul – I know what it stands for and what it means and what it strives to do.”
Berman, who had been living in the West Bank settlement of Neveh Daniel since 2008, commuted between Israel and the US in the months leading up to the beginning of his tenure at YU in order to get a sense of student life there today. “I just walked around and met people and it was insightful and incredible, so when I started I could hit the ground running.
“Our trajectory now is growth and expansion,” Berman said, talking of new markets of students and new educational pathways.
“We’re thinking about global impact,” he continued naming China and India as examples of countries the university seeks to attract more students from. Students from 22 countries currently study at the university.
Meet Rabbi Ari Berman, Yeshiva University's fifth president. (YouTube/YeshivaUniversity)
“Our broad mission is to spread Jewish values – that’s what Yeshiva University is about. We believe in our values – we want to spread them to world and engaging a greater student population is a way of doing that,” he said. He pointed to the fields of science and technology as areas that could be expanded to bring more undergraduate students in.
Through a diverse student body, Berman explained, the university creates a diversity of connections to the global world. Berman sees YU as a bridge in a number ways.
“I think we play a great role in serving as bridge between the Diaspora and Israel – we always have and we aspire to strengthen and deepen that.”
YU offers a year study-abroad program in Israel, through which some 600 students every Torah in more than 45 yeshivot and seminaries in Israel every year. Some YU alumni also participate in summer programs in Israel.
As the first YU president who has Israeli as well as American citizenship, Berman brings with him a different perspective of the Jewish state.
“I think of Israel as an opportunity,” he said contrasting that with the prevailing former image of Israel as a country that needs help from the Diaspora. “I’ve seen first hand that it’s the opposite and that Israel is a powerhouse in so many ways,” he said, talking of a two-way relationship of mutual partnerships, from which each side can grow.
Berman is exploring ways to increase connections between YU and Israel, looking into partnerships with various Israeli universities. YU recently signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Bar-Ilan University to send YU students to study at its Computer Science faculty. “We are actively looking for pipelines to Israel in areas that Israel is outstanding in,” he explained.
“Israel to us in not just a place for Jewish people but a vehicle of prosperity for the world and its image to the world should be as a place where people can flourish.
“We are religious Zionists who encourage aliya... so we have thousands of alumni moving to Israel,” Berman stressed. “Our students are educated and productive citizens of society. They are taught to spread our Jewish values to the world and to be contributing members. In every area of Israel you will find YU alumni.”
Whether YU alumni move to Israel or elsewhere, or stay in the US, Berman sees them as crucial players in the Jewish world. “Our graduates are the leaders of the Jewish community and will increasingly become more important... especially with the changing demographics in the US,” he said, referring to assimilation of the Jewish community.
“YU students have [a] strong Jewish identity [and] therefore will be important agents of growth. They are an army of students ready to come out into world as models of positive Jewish identity,” he continued.
In an increasingly divided America, Berman also sees YU as an important part of the civic and civil discourse.
“We are moral thought leaders and it’s important for us to enlighten rather than to inflame,” he said.
After the violent events in Charlottesville in August, for instance, distinguished members of the YU faculty published reflections on the issues that emerged from various perspectives including halachic, legal, philosophical, psychological and historical.
“That’s what we can do best because we have a wide array of intellectual resources who can contribute in thoughtful, contemplative ways and I think that’s crucial – it’s a place for us to be positive contributors to broader society,” Berman said.