Friday, December 22, 2000

Ner Israel Searches For New Head

Ner Israel Searches For New Head

By Rona S. Hirsch
Baltimore Jewish Times - December 22, 2000

But the role of rosh yeshiva, which literally means head of the yeshiva, goes beyond holding an academic post. Thus, finding Rabbi Kulefsky's successor requires more than simply placing a notice in the want ads.Since the recent death of Rabbi Yaakov Moshe Kulefsky, dean of Ner Israel Rabbinical College, speculation abounds as to who will succeed the revered scholar and educator as leader of the internationally renowned Pikesville institution.

Rabbi Herman Neuberger, president of Ner Israel, lists a slew of extraordinary qualities that an effective rosh yeshiva must embody: renowned talmudic scholar; expert in Halachah, or Jewish law; strong leader; concern for students; and ability to forge long-term relationships with students and community members.

"A rosh yeshiva has to be a very great scholar who is responsible for the community and mainly, understands the students and their needs," Rabbi Neuberger said. "He gives direction to the yeshiva, and eventually has an influence in the community because many [students] settle there and are influential."

The 67-year-old Ner Israel has about 250 students in its high school, 350 students in the undergraduate school and 200 in the kollel, or graduate program for married students.

Although Rabbi Neuberger would not disclose possible successors, he said that an announcement will be made "as early as possible."

He refused to comment on the possibility of more than one rosh yeshiva at the helm, but rejected suggestions that Ner Israel is in a crisis. "We had three roshei yeshiva who left an imprint," he said.

Rabbi Neuberger served alongside his late brother-in-law, Rabbi Yaakov Yitzchok Ruderman, Ner Israel's founder and first rosh yeshiva who died in 1987, and with Rabbi Ruderman's successor, Rabbi Yaakov S. Weinberg, who was rosh yeshiva for 12 years until his death in July 1999. Rabbi Kulefsky, who joined the yeshiva in 1954, taught talmudic studies for 45 years to students in their second year out of high school until his death Nov. 30.

Renowned as a master teacher with an insatiable love of learning, Rabbi Kulefsky was required as rosh yeshiva to deliver a weekly general lecture to the entire student body. Nonetheless, he insisted on continuing his daily class.

Rabbi Kulefsky also continued his Wednesday evening community lecture that he led for four decades. "It was the event of the scholarly world in Baltimore," said Rabbi Dr. Tzvi Hersh Weinreb of Shomrei Emunah Synagogue in Greenspring. "There are people who moved to Baltimore to attend the shiur [lecture]."

In addition, Rabbi Kulefsky was the posek, or decisor of Jewish law, for the yeshiva and many local Orthodox congregational rabbis. "Whenever there was a halachic issue that needed an authority, he was the authority," Rabbi Weinreb said.

The process for selecting a rosh yeshiva is determined by an institution's leadership, said Rabbi Neuberger.

Family-founded institutions are generally led in successive years by relatives if they are competent, a principle rooted in Halachah as a concept of heritage. Some yeshivot, such as Yeshiva Beth Govoha in Lakewood, N.J., are run by multiple roshei yeshiva related to the school's founder.

Although Ner Israel is a family-founded institution, the position went outside when Rabbi Kulefsky was announced to the post 17 months ago.

"The yeshiva is altruistic," said Rabbi Simcha Cook, a Ner Israel faculty member since 1972. "Its main purpose is to serve the student body and the community. If the person who is best equipped is out of the family, that's what they will do."

Although there are institutions where the rosh yeshiva is actually an administrator and does not serve as the halachic authority, more common are institutions that bestow the title of rosh yeshiva to all of their upper level faculty.

At New York's Yeshiva University, its president, Dr. Norman Lamm, serves as head of the institution in an administrative position. But there is no one rosh yeshiva.

In fact, the late Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, a renowned scholar and halachic authority who served as a Talmud professor there for 44 years, was not rosh yeshiva and could not set school policy. But students considered him rosh yeshiva because of his scholarship and leadership.

The position of rosh yeshiva is two-fold, said Rabbi Cook. It requires scholarship and the capability to deliver challenging and stimulating lectures that earn students' respect, plus leadership.

"That's the definition of a rosh yeshiva — he has the highest level of learning that exists in the yeshiva," Rabbi Cook said. "His leadership also shapes the policy of the yeshiva as new questions arise, such as standards of behavior for the yeshiva or how it reacts to community issues. He consults with other faculty members, but he is the leader."

There are times, said Rabbi Cook, when the rosh yeshiva must make decisions that are "sometimes lonely ones because he assumes responsibility as leader."

A rosh yeshiva can also affect Orthodoxy worldwide. For example, Agudath Israel of America, a nationalHaredi, or fervently Orthodox group, is led by the Council of Torah Sages, currently an eight-member body of roshei yeshivot that sets policy for the Orthodox community. (Rabbi Ruderman had served on the council.)

At Agudath's annual convention, council members pronounce stern directives on matters ranging from ethical business conduct to societal problems affecting Israel.

"Their influence extends around the world," said Rabbi Avi Shafran, spokesman for Agudath Israel. "It boils down to the concept of da'as Torah, the essential wisdom borne of immersion in Torah study."

Rabbi Shafran explained the talmudic concept, which maintains that after intense study, society's greatest Torah scholars emerge whose opinions and insights are respected.

"So if you have a rosh yeshiva on a high moral ethical level who is immersed in Torah study and tradition, he can also survey the geo-political scene and assess the Jewish mandate," he said.

But the level of involvement depends on the individual. "There are some communities where the rosh yeshiva has no relationship with them, but Rabbi Ruderman chose a model of being involved," Rabbi Weinreb said. "That was passed down to Rabbi Weinberg and Rabbi Kulefsky. Of course, Rabbi Kulefsky's main interest was the bais medrash [study hall]. He wasn't a political animal."

Rabbi Cook, a former student of all three roshei yeshiva, said their influence extended nationally. "Every major Jewish hub has people in leadership who are Ner Israel alumni," he said. "And they all sought guidance from [them]."

Whether there is one or many roshei yeshiva, all agree that students eventually seek out those teachers whose path they wish to follow.

"A person's authority is his personal aura," said a New York rosh yeshiva who requested anonymity. "[Students] gravitate to you for who you are and what you teach. If a rosh yeshiva doesn't command respect, students may feel that the institution is second-rate and leave. But an institution is much more than an individual if the yeshiva had an impact. Each student may be close to his own rebbe."

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