At about 7:10 or so on the morning of March 4, 2020, Rabbi Dr. Ari Berman was at home in Teaneck when his phone rang.
It was Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York — not a phone buddy of Rabbi Berman’s, although the two had met once or twice. “You can guess that if I’m calling you this early, sadly, it’s not with good news,” Rabbi Berman remembers Mr. Cuomo telling him.
The news was that a student at Yeshiva University, the flagship modern Orthodox school that Rabbi Berman leads, had tested positive for covid. This was the very beginning of the pandemic — Purim, which marks the unofficial but evocative start of the still-ongoing crisis, wasn’t until March 9, and we didn’t even know what to call the virus and the illness yet.
“He asked if we could meet in Riverdale, with Dr. Zucker” — that’s Howard A. Zucker, New York State’s health commissioner — “and heads of the different institutions that were being affected by covid,” Rabbi Berman said. “He spoke about what we knew and he knew and what we didn’t know. So much was unknown at that time.
“That was the beginning of the covid response.”
Now, almost exactly a year later, as the country, the region, and the institution he leads are beginning to look toward change, Rabbi Berman looks both behind and ahead and he talks about the challenges the school has met and surmounted, how its values have guided its response, and how it has drawn lessons for the future.
First, meet Ari Berman.
He’s the 135-year-old school’s fifth president, which means that each of his predecessor’s terms has stretched for decades. As every president of every university knows, because running a huge educational and research institution is hard, he faced challenges when he took over in 2017.
But he knew what he was doing; Rabbi Berman has a lifetime of experience with YU. His parents, Rosalie and Teddy Berman, met there; his father was president of the Yeshiva College student body, and his mother was student body president at Stern College. Ari Berman grew up in Forest Hills and graduated from four of YU’s schools — MTA, the system’s high school for boys; Yeshiva College, its undergraduate men’s school; RIETS, its rabbinical school; and the Bernard Revel Graduate School, where he earned a master’s degree in medieval Jewish philosophy. He taught Talmud at the college, almost on the side; for most of a decade he also was the lead rabbi at one of the modern Orthodox world’s most prominent synagogues, the boldly named Jewish Center on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.
In 2008, Rabbi Berman, his wife, Anita, and their children moved to Israel, where they lived in Gush Etzion. “We lived in Israel for 10 years, and that gave me a whole new perspective on what is happening in Israel, politically and also in technology and innovation,” he said. “I also finished my Ph.D. at Hebrew University.”
His dissertation is on “how the medieval rabbis viewed the ideal non-Jewish other,” he said. “I argue that there is an evolution in the way the Jewish community conceptualized that ideal non-Jew, who is a good non-Jew. There is a category in the Talmud called ger toshav,” the stranger who lives among you. “I focus primarily on the 11th to the 13th centuries, and on how the medieval rabbis contemplated what it means that there are non-Jews in the Talmud who receive benefits and privileges that in some cases are like Jews’. What does that mean in terms of the way that we have porous borders?”
Although the realities of their lives could have been quite different from the theoretical and far more comfortable abstractions their scholars devised to further their arguments, “I found that especially through Maimonides there was a real appreciation of character,” Rabbi Berman said. “When they conceptualized, when they studied, they envisioned the possibility of being close to non-Jews who exhibited the kind of character that we admire. That is a profound break.
“They were talking about judging people by the content of their characters, to take that part of the quote” — he’s quoting Dr. Martin Luther King’s famous, soaring line — “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character” — “and you see that thinking develop, evolve, and grow. The Rambam” — Maimonides — “was a pivotal figure in highlighting those aspects of the tradition.”
This research, which Rabbi Berman discusses with pleasure, “is not well known,” he said. “Jew-versus-non-Jew issues have always been studied, especially in the social context, but this is a more theoretical approach that shows up in their writing.”
One of the many things he learned through his doctoral studies, Rabbi Berman said, is that you cannot make simple assumptions about people that tell you that, for example, if you live through hard times with bad neighbors you are more likely to be closed and unforgiving, and that only a life lived in the luxury of peace and ease can grant understanding and open-mindedness. “People are a combination of many factors, and it is hard to draw those kinds of basic equations,” he said. “It is not binary, both in terms of people’s own personalities and also their intellectual influences. It’s not just social influences — what’s on the bookshelf can be as important an influence as what’s outside the door. One needs a layered contextual thought process to get beyond that.”
Now, as president of Yeshiva University, Rabbi Berman has been able to take his background — as a student, a teacher, a pulpit rabbi; as a father, a son, a husband, a brother; as an academic and as an administrator — to the school that has nurtured him and his family throughout his life.
He loves it. “Being president of Yeshiva University gives me a number of opportunities to teach and to engage, and in fact in some senses it is even more enriching, because I have great scholarship and great intellectual resources all around me. I am speaking to the great minds of our generation. We have Jewish scholars; we also have mathematicians and scientists and teachers of humanities. I majored in philosophy, so I love talking to people about literature and poetry.
“It is a cornucopia of wonderful opportunities, and we all can grow and be enriched by the plethora of enormous, incredible intellectual, educational, and spiritual resources just at our fingertips. We are deeply rooted in our 3,000-year-old tradition of positive Jewish values and looking forward to realizing the enormous opportunities of this era.”
And all this gets Rabbi Berman to that March 4 morning, with Governor Cuomo on the phone.
“This is a very poignant moment for us,” Rabbi Berman said. “We were the first university in this part of the country — maybe in the country — and we were Ground Zero in our community.” The first patient to be diagnosed with covid-19 in the area was Lawrence Garbuz, a lawyer from New Rochelle who was active in his Orthodox community and who had children in various local day schools and in YU.
“What we faced was entirely unscripted,” Rabbi Berman said. There were no models to follow, no best practices to institute. It’s not exactly that they were on their own, more that no one knew any more than they did about how to keep their students and staff safe and sane.
But Rabbi Berman and his institution were rooted in a tradition that offered guidance and hope. “Even though no one knew exactly what the road ahead would be, we had confidence because at the very least, we had a compass that would help us get there. Our values are our compass. We knew that we would make decisions based on our core values.”
Those values, Rabbi Berman continued, are “truth, life, human dignity, compassion, and redemption — working to redeem the world.”
YU’s leaders found truth, which is to be followed where it may be, Rabbi Berman said, in science. “It is listening to the best medical guidance. We prioritize life in our tradition, so everything we do is for the health and safety of our students, faculty, staff, and all our constituents. Human dignity is the infinite worth of every person. We had to find a way to move forward in a way that would meet every individual’s needs and situation.
“Compassion means that we have to focus not only on ourselves but on others. We have to be thinking about others. Our students and faculty were role models, not just in the way that they kept the social protocols, like distancing and wearing masks, but also proactively reaching out and helping others.
“Finally, we work to redeem the world. That means that we have to be concerned not only about our own health and safety but about the health and safety of our neighbors and our society. We have a responsibility to the world around us.
“Those five values,” which intertwine and nourish each other, “guided all our decisions,” Rabbi Berman said.
That’s why “we shut down the school before anybody else did. We shut down as soon as we understood that there was a risk.”
So did many Orthodox shuls. The Rabbinical Council of Bergen County issued strict guidelines early in the pandemic, far before most other groups. “The RCBC is our alumni and our faculty,” Rabbi Berman said. “Our senior rabbis led the way, telling people that we prioritize life. Those are our values.”
As a result, “we closed down in-person learning and switched to online learning before anybody else did,” he said. Although other universities tried to reopen after spring break, YU did not. “We closed down, and 10 days later we reopened fully online,” he said.
“Our students went home, except for the ones in quarantine. Our student resident advisers were heroes. With all the best medical guidance, we cared for the students who were here in quarantine, and then they went home.
“We had thousands of classes online. It’s a credit to our faculty and their absolute commitment to our students and our missions. In all academic areas we switched to an online format. Some of the teachers had to learn how to do it; some of the rabbis didn’t have computers, so we had to give them computers.”
The school worked closely with the department of health, figuring out what to do. Were they guinea pigs? “I prefer to think that we were models,” Rabbi Berman said. And that’s true. Much of the messaging that came out of YU, as well as many of the actions they took, which they had to figure out because they had no models, ended up as models in other schools.
This year, however, the school’s leaders decided that it was necessary to be open for everyone who wanted to be on campus, in person, and also it was vital to keep developing as strong, robust, and creative an online presence as possible, Rabbi Berman said.
This time, the calendar worked for YU. “We started online at the end of August, but it was at the end of October” — after all the chaggim had ended — “that we brought the people who wanted to be in person back to the campus. That delay gave us the ability to learn from all the things that other schools did. It gave us the benefit of seeing what worked for other schools and what didn’t work, and it gave us the chance to do it even better.”
That included both technology and medicine.
“Testing was at a different place in August, when other schools opened, than it was at the end of October. We kept looking at what is the best way to do it, at what was emerging as best practices,” Rabbi Berman said. “When we reopened, our priority was to make the campus as safe as possible. The city’s guidelines, the state’s guidelines, and the CDC’s guidelines were the minimum for us. They said test 20 percent of your campus once a week. We said that’s not enough. We will test 100 percent of our students twice a week.
“These are our children. These are our values. We live our values — the safety of our students, faculty, and staff was our top priority.”
The tests keep changing, so the school has changed the way it has administered them, as well as which tests it uses, according to science and best practices, but it has not changed the demand for 100 percent testing twice every week.
The graduate schools mainly are online, “but the law school” — that’s Cardozo — “wanted to create an in-person option, and they did so.” Students now have the option to earn their JDs either way.
This all has been expensive. “We have been fortunate in that we have lay leadership that appreciates what we are doing, and has gotten behind our efforts,” Rabbi Berman said. “Our development is strong, and we are very proud of that.” An emergency scholarship campaign last spring “raised over $4 million. It is the entire community coming together — alumni, friends, students — it is the entire Yeshiva University coming together.
“We have been on a trajectory of growth before covid,” he continued. “We’ve been focusing on entrepreneurship and innovative science and technology, teaching people who will have great jobs and impactful careers; who are people with values who will become the leaders of tomorrow. We have moved up 21 places in the U. S. News and World Report rankings, and we’ve had an over 30 percent increase in our graduate enrollment.”
But covid has changed some things.
“It has created enormous challenges and revealed enormous opportunities,” Rabbi Berman said. “When this is over, we will emerge stronger.”
Some of it has to do with resilience and muscles that develop from nimble responses to emergency. “We are creating new efficiencies in how to run the university,” he said. “Location isn’t as important in how we work. The new efficiencies will lead us to decrease our expenses while increasing our offerings to our students.” Most of the undergraduate education will continue to be in person, but now the school understands how easy and educationally enriching it is to include teachers who are far away but have so much unique to offer.”
Some of the graduate programs will benefit from more online opportunities, even the ones for whom such work seems counterintuitive. “We see a lot of growth already in attracting online students in the sciences and technology, law, psychology, and social work,” Rabbi Berman said. That’s at least in part because enormous amounts of creativity and cutting-edge technology go into it.
The university will come out of this covid year stronger, and so will its students, Rabbi Berman said. “This is an extraordinarily important year, perhaps even more than any other year in our students’ lives. Education is always important — it is crucial — but character is shaped during times of adversity. This year, even more than ever, it was imperative for students to be in close conversation with their rabbis, their teachers, their peers, to think through the experience of going through this time of adversity, and to think about its meaning.”
At heart, Yeshiva University is a Jewish institution, Rabbi Berman said. “We have used our values as a compass, and we are positioning ourselves to emerge from it even stronger.
“To be clear, no one knows what the world will bring tomorrow. I speak with a great deal of humility, and with a sense of faith in God. I cannot emphasize this enough.
“I speak about it in all our team meetings” — the weekly meetings in which the university’s leaders consider the science and business and psychology of running a school in this uncharted time. “I talk about our values, about truth and faith and compassion, about how working together we position ourselves for the future, but ultimately this is all in God’s hands.
“Ultimately, our strength comes from our belief in a loving God, and throughout all the difficulties, throughout all the ups and downs, it is that faith that carries us through.
“Prayer is an important part of my messages. It is not a small matter. Prayer is a significant component. Everything that we are doing is in service of God. And for us, it is not just asking God to take us out of challenging times. It is bringing God into our challenging times. It is not just praying to God to save us from danger, but it is bringing God into it, so that God walks with us. So that God is part of us, and part of our lives.
“If our students learn this from this challenging, formative year — that God is a loving God, who cares about our lives, and that we should bring God into our lives — then that will shape the rest of their lives.”