The History & Mission of Yeshiva University

Commentary by Dr. Gerhard Falk


Yeshiva University


Yeshiva University may be described as a jewel in the crown of American Judaism. The word “Yeshiva” is Hebrew and means community. We speak of Israel as “the yishuv” for the same reason. European “yeshivas” were not only rabbinical schools, they were the center of Jewish interest and learning for everyone.

Founded in 1896 as a rabbinical school, it was named for Rabbi Isaac Elchanan, the famous rabbi of Kovno, Lithuania. Rabbi Elchanan also added the name Spector. He was born in 1817 and died in 1896, the very year of the founding of the school named after him. When he was only thirteen years old his father arranged for him to be married to Sara, the daughter of Leizer Yzarsky, the richest man in a small town called Rosh. Rabbi Elchanan spent his entire life studying Torah and Talmud and utterly neglected his income and even the dowry deposited in a bank for him by his father–in-law. Facing utter destitution, he accepted the position of rabbi at Zablin and later in Bereza in 1839, where he earned the negligible amount of one ruble weekly. His situation improved as he became famous for his scholarship and earned a great deal from deciding litigation and giving advice. Two more moves to small town appointments finally led to Rabbi Isaac Elchanan’s appointment as rabbi of Kovno. He is so famous among Jews that there is a town in Israel named Nachalat Yitzchak to remember him.

Now I believe that at this point almost all who read about Isaac Elchanan will say that “I never heard of him.” That is not surprising since the 19th century European rabbis do not fit into our mode of thinking and living at all. With few exceptions we do not know or cannot know Talmud. We respect diploma chasers, not learned Talmudists (except for such Kabbalists as Madonna and Demi Moore, of course).

It is certainly a necessity that we are interested in secular education. Secular education is an American elevator which has lifted the American Jewish community from utter poverty one hundred years ago to the wealthiest denomination in the U.S.A., even exceeding the Episcopalians. We have more college graduates per capita than any other ethnic group in America and we also lead everyone in the abandonment of our traditions and our religion.

Now this is where Yeshiva University comes in and tells all of us: “You can have both; you can have three degrees (or more if you like) and still be a Jew.” This is a great achievement and this is how it was done.

First, the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary was authorized by the State of New York to confer the degrees of Rabbi and Doctor of Hebrew Literature. Then the seminary opened a teacher training college, leading to a four year degree in that area.

In 1915 Dr. Bernard Revel became the president of RIETS.  He was also a rabbi. Under his leadership RIETS absorbed another talmudic academy and organized an academic high school which was recognized by New York State in 1919. In that same year Yeshiva integrated the Teacher’s Institute established by Mizrachi. In 1928 Yeshiva first granted the degrees of Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Science and then moved its campus from lower Manhattan to the area around the George Washington Bridge in upper Manhattan.

Today Yeshiva University has several campuses. It now includes the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, founded in 1953. Professor Einstein formally agreed to have his name attached to that college. The college of medicine has also grown over the years. Today it includes a research center for Health Sciences, a center for the study of mental retardation, and an educational center for health sciences. As is true in other medical schools, about one half of all entering medical students are women.

There is also a center for advanced medical studies which grants the Ph.D. in ten areas.

Very well known among schools of law is the Benjamin Cardozo School of Law of Yeshiva University. There is also the Wurzweiler School of Social Work and a fully accredited graduate school.

All this in the name of Judaism and Jewish values. Like all universities, Yeshiva is very expensive and seeks funds for its continued existence all the time. Also like all colleges and universities, it has a huge administration which, of course, absorbs far more money than can be justified. That, however, is not unique to Yeshiva U. It is a plague in all of American higher education.

Therefore, let us be proud of that great institution. May Yeshiva grow from strength to strength. Bimhayro v’yomaynoo,

Shalom u’vracha.

Dr. Gerhard Falk is the author of numerous publications, including Man's Ascent to Reason (2003) & the forthcoming Football & American Identity.

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