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January 28, 2013 12:19 am

Does Yeshiva University Answer to a Higher Authority?

avatar by Ronn Torossian

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A Yeshiva University campus. Photo: Jim.henderson.

Wearing a yarmulke or sporting a beard doesn’t make one “religious,” and it is high-time for the Jewish community to question the pervasive sha-shtil (hush-hush) mentality which is applied when it comes time to speak out on difficult issues. Yeshiva University is undoubtedly the most prestigious school of higher learning combining Jewish and secular studies, an important institution that is responsible for many wonderful things. But in the past five years, their handling of sexual, financial and academic scandals has shown a lack of ethics, and an acceptance of cover-up.

Incidents that have occurred, have each been viewed as independent situations which have been quickly and quietly swept under the rug. Slick press statements have allowed YU to evade major damage, when these incidents should have been examined under a microscope looking for culprits that allowed moral bankruptcy to exist at the institution.

Most recently, there have been at least 20 former students of Yeshiva University’s high school who have accused former staff members of sexual or physical abuse. Many weeks after the revelation, there is still no commitment from the university that a probe, the findings of which will be made public, will be carried out, as was the Freeh Report probe into sexual abuse at Penn State.

While there are many differences between the two situations, at Penn State the “leader” Joe Paterno was fired, while Norman Lamm, who was president of YU from 1976 to 2003 and is now chancellor has not been fired nor disciplined in any manner whatsoever. Lamm has said, no law enforcement officials were ever notified of the abuse, despite “charges of improper sexual activity” made against staff “not only at [YU’s] high school and college, but also in [the] graduate school.” Lamm also said: “My question was not whether to report to police, but to ask the person to leave the job.”

Let us not forget that Bernie Madoff served on YU’s board since 1996, and his donations earned him an honorary degree in 2001. While undoubtedly YU wasn’t alone in being fooled, they did remove the names of Madoff and his cohort Ezra Merkin from their websites in the wee of the night, without any public comment. Reports have also been published – although neither confirmed nor acknowledged – that YU may have profited from their investment with Madoff. There was no sufficient corporate governance in place to protect the university as one would expect – nor any explanation of why a wealthy “non-religious” donor was granted an honorary doctorate from a “religious” Jewish institution.

Following the Madoff affair, the president of YU wrote “We all should use these times to reflect on our blessings, but also to reflect on our responsibilities…. The times are appropriate for us to focus on our core values, to practice and refine them, and to share them with the world.” Great press statement, and one they should have followed through on.

I’d venture that if these are the incidents which have been made public, one can only wonder how many other stories haven’t made it to the media. Rabbi Benjamin Blech of Yeshiva University said: “…. Ritual alone is not the sole determinant of our Judaism, that it must be combined with humanity, with ethical behavior, with proper values, and most important of all, with regard to our relationship with other human beings… We need a total rethinking of who the heroes are, who the role models are, who we should be honoring… Just because you eat kosher and observe the Sabbath does not make you good – If you cheat and steal, you cannot claim you are a good Jew.”

Rabbi Blech is right, and Yeshiva University must immediately undertake an independent investigation which examines moral issues at the institution and the recent apparent acceptance of cover-ups. If Yeshiva University wants to remain worthy of its standing as a fine institution, public relations campaigns alone aren’t enough.

Does YU not “answer to a higher authority?”

Ronn Torossian is a philanthropist, entrepreneur and author.

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