The Making of a President for Yeshiva University
Rabbi Joseph H. Lookstein
Editorial Note: The following is an undated and unpublished memoir of a brief but crucial moment, authored by Rabbi Joseph H. Lookstein (1902-1979). For decades, the manuscript remained filed away in the archives of Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, where Rabbi Lookstein served as its longtime religious leader. For unknown reasons and despite his stated intentions, Rabbi Lookstein never printed this important chapter. The episode concerns the appointment of Dr. Samuel Belkin (1911-1976) as Yeshiva University’s second president. The revealing memoir throws light on a heated politic and the struggle to steer a course for Orthodox Judaism in the United States. The Lehrhaus editors happily offer this essay, especially for its timely implications for the past, present, and future. To help our readers, we have annotated Rabbi Lookstein’s work to provide historical context. Finally, we thank Rabbi Haskel Lookstein for permission to share his father’s insightful recollections.
There is a story that has never been told and it is time that it should be. From the death of Dr. Bernard Revel in December 1940 to the election of Dr. Samuel Belkin in June 1943 as President of what was then the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary and Yeshiva College, I served as the de facto acting president of the total institution.
The information could easily have been found in the minutes of the meetings of the Board of Directors covering that period. Why it was not found and used in any of the official documents of the institution is a mystery the explanation for which must be sought in the strange behavior of personalities and in their hidden insecurities.
Had I and several faithful colleagues not been where we were during those crucial years following Dr. Revel’s death the story which follows would not have occurred. Dr. Belkin might never have reached the presidency of the Yeshiva and the fate of the institution might have been very much different. But let us to the story!
On December 1, 1940 Dr. Bernard Revel, founder and first president of Yeshiva College (est. 1928), and head of the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, passed away. He gave twenty-five years of sacrificial leadership to the institution and developed it into an impressive Torah fortress and as the first college in America under Jewish auspices. But unfortunately he prepared no successor although several of us who had been close to him knew that he had specific ideas on the subject. He died too soon and too young to act upon those ideas.
Dr. Revel’s death precipitated a serious crisis. So many things were left undone because of his long and disabling illness. The Board of Directors, as it was then known, was a small and feeble body, although it subsequently developed in strength and importance. The financial situation was desperate. Annual deficits had been accumulating. Salary arrears were mounting. A huge mortgage hung menacingly over the institution.
Internally, especially in the Yeshiva proper, the academic and administrative conditions had been greatly neglected. Classes were large and required reorganization. Senior students, ready for ordination, were uncertain as to when and by whom their final oral examinations would be given. The condition became more aggravated when but two months after the passing of Dr. Revel the head of the Talmud Department, the renowned gaon Rabbi Moshe Soloveitchik, died. The impact of two successive blows shook the institution to its very foundations.
Wild rumors began to fly. Who would succeed to Dr. Revel’s position? Who would occupy the chair left vacant by Reb Moshe Soloveitchik? Gossip was rampant. Individuals motivated by personal ambition sought to inherit posts for which they were totally unqualified. “Wise is he who recognizes his place” (Avot 6:6). If this rabbinic maxim is at all true, then many indeed displayed marked lack of wisdom.
The real threat, however, was not the unbridled avidity of individuals but the unbecoming opportunism of a particular rabbinic organization. I refer to the Agudat ha-Rabbonim. Rabbi Eliezer Silver, a truly remarkable rabbinic personality, was then the president of that organization. He sent a telegram to the Board of Directors shortly after the death of Dr. Revel informing that body that he had appointed a committee of seven to take over the management of the institution. The Directors were shocked. I vividly recall the angry and resentful sentiments that were expressed. The response to Rabbi Silver, however, was courteous but his offer was diplomatically refused.
Even the students, unbecomingly activistic, campaigned for or against certain candidates. Such student involvement was happily unknown in those days and at Yeshiva it should have remained unknown.
On December 2nd, one day after Dr. Revel’s death, the Board of Directors met in the library of my synagogue. Mr. Samuel Levy who several months earlier had resigned as Chairman, was prevailed upon to resume the chairmanship in that hour of crisis. I had much to do with influencing his decision. He asked me to compose a resolution which I read before that sad and serious gathering. The substance of the resolution was:
With hearts laden with grief and heads bowed in sorrow, we record the untimely passing of our revered and beloved president of the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary and Yeshiva College.
For twenty-five years he stood at the helm. This year marks a quarter century of his service.
He was the first to see the vision of higher Jewish learning in this land. He was the first to plan for the integration of such learning with worldly knowledge. He was the first to conceive a college of liberal arts and sciences under Jewish auspices; in which science and religion would be blended and the word of God would be harmonized with the genius of man.
He was sage and prophet. In his own person he was a superb example of the fusion of profound Jewish learning and deep secular wisdom.
Under his leadership Yeshiva College became a symbol of the Jewish passion for learning. Simultaneously, it was the richest contribution of American Israel to American Democracy.
In this hour of sorrow we pledge ourselves to continue his program and to preserve his ideals. His spirit will live within the sacred walls of this sanctuary; within the hearts of every student and graduate and in the memory of all Israel the world over.
The Board stood in reverent silence and from many an eye rolled tears of grief.
The institution began to show signs of floundering and immediate and decisive action was necessary. I, therefore, proposed at that very meeting that a committee be appointed to meet with a similar committee representing the faculties of the Yeshiva to deal with problems that may arise as a result of Dr. Revel’s passing. Such a committee was appointed and it became known as the Committee of Nine. It consisted of the following:
Samuel Levy, Chairman
Rabbi Herbert S. Goldstein
Rabbi Leo Jung
Rabbi Joseph H. Lookstein
Judge Samuel Mellitz
This committee performed useful service for several crucial months when the problems were numerous and leadership was scarce. The Committee of Nine arranged for a Board of Examiners to administer examinations to the students awaiting ordination. The names suggested were Rabbi Binyamin Aronowitz, the sole survivor of the original Board of Examiners; Rabbi B.L. Levinthal of Philadelphia, one of the most respected rabbis of the country; Chief Rabbi Isaac Herzog of Palestine, and should he prove unavailable, then Rabbi Yechiel Mordechai Gordon, head of the Yeshiva of Lomza who was then in America, should take his place. It was obvious that Rabbi Herzog and Rabbi Gordon would not probably serve and the problem of ordination was therefore left unsolved.
The next problem awaiting solution was the successor to Rabbi Moshe Soloveitchik. The name of Reb Chaim Heller, a world renowned talmudic and biblical scholar was suggested. For a variety of reasons that suggestion was impractical and even futile and those who made it should have known better. Great in learning though the candidate was, he was not suited for the position.
A memorandum signed by 58 students requested that Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik be appointed to succeed his father Rabbi Moshe Soloveitchik. Several rabbinic organizations made the same request. Even the then Lubavitcher Rebbe, of blessed memory, pleaded for the appointment of Rabbi Soloveitchik on the basis of a Jewish tradition that a son, if qualified, generally succeeds his father.
The Committee of Nine helped to resolve the issue and but two months after the death of the father, the son was appointed to succeed him. Several Board members voted against the appointment or sought to impose embarrassing conditions on the appointee. Their motives were highly suspect at the time and with the passage of time appear utterly ridiculous. One member of the Board proposed that Rabbi Soloveitchik be elected for only one year and subsequent reelection should be conditional on his making good. Even wise businessmen can be awfully naïve when dealing with matters that are beyond their scope.
As one seeks to understand in retrospect what the contention was all about it becomes apparent that it was a power struggle for control of the institution. At issue was not Rabbi Soloveitchik but the presidency of Yeshiva. A small group clustered about a particular candidate for that office. They feared that Rabbi Soloveitchik on the faculty might prove too formidable an opponent to any untoward action on their part and they therefore sought to keep him off.
An interesting by-play of all the maneuvering was the attempt to drive a wedge between me and Rabbi Soloveitchik by circulating a rumor that I was opposed to his succeeding to his father’s position. I knew what harm this rumor could cause and I therefore wanted to scotch it without delay.
I therefore went up [to Boston] to see Rabbi Soloveitchik together with my friend Dean [Samuel] Sar and apprised him of the malicious falsehoods that were being spread. I assured him that the Executive Board and I personally were totally committed to him as successor to his father.
Rabbi Soloveitchik knew what an admiring and adoring friend I had been to him over the years. I worked to bring him to America. I was at the dock to meet him. I was at the first shiur that he delivered at the Yeshiva immediately upon his arrival. I saw with him at Mount Sinai Hospital by the bedside of his dying father. At three in the morning when his father expired I sent him home with the assurance that I would stay behind to make sure that all the religious proprieties for the deceased would be observed. Our friendship continued to this very day. I regard him as the foremost religious intellect of our day. He, and he primarily, is the central magnetic personality of Yeshiva. He indeed is the Yeshiva.
To the credit of all concerned let it be recorded that Rabbi Soloveitchik became the supreme asset of the institution and the most revered personality in American Judaism. Today, even those who once were opposed have joined the legion of Rabbi Soloveitchik admirers and some have even become his most loyal disciples.
It was at that point in time that Dr. Samuel Belkin began to emerge as an important factor in the life of the Yeshiva. He was made the director and administrative head of the Yeshiva proper and he performed most creditably in that position. This was the first step in his gradual rise to the headship of the entire institution.
In June 1941 at the last Board meeting of the academic year it was voted to appoint an Executive Board of seven members “who should collectively act as a presidium, or as President of the Institution.” With all the rights, obligations and responsibilities associated with the office of president.
The Executive Board consisted of seven men—Dean Pinchos Churgin of the Teachers Institute; Dean Moses L. Isaacs of the College; Dean Samuel L. Sar, Dean of Men; and Dean Samuel Belkin of the Yeshiva proper. Three appointees were to represent the Board of Trustees. They were Rabbi Leo Jung, myself and Samuel Levy, Chairman of the Board of Trustees who was to act as Chairman of the Executive Board. Before assuming the chairmanship, he designated me as Vice Chairman and made me promise that I would preside at every meeting and function as the actual chairman. This made me virtually the acting president of the institution though I guarded this fact as a well-kept secret. I wanted to serve, not to rouse jealousies; to direct and not to generate ugly reactions.
Samuel Levy, sometime later, gave an excellent [report] of the Executive Board:
I want to state candidly that your action in calling the Executive Board into being probably saved the institution entanglements, embarrassments and hardships that might have threatened our very existence. The establishment of this Board gave the institution recognized and official leadership … The institution was able thereby to take over from where our sainted Dr. Revel left off and to carry on in his spirit and according to his plan.
As the de facto “collective” president of the institution the Executive Board under my direction as its vice-chairman reorganized and strengthened the rabbinic department of the institution. Dr. Belkin under the title of Dean functioned effectively as the head of that department.
The renowned Rabbi Moshe Shatzkes of Lomza was appointed as professor of Talmud and Codes. Together with Rabbi Soloveitchik these two talmudic giants formed a team of illustrious masters who gave our students the kind of rabbinic training nowhere obtainable. Their signatures on the rabbinic diploma of a graduate together with that of Dr. Belkin was a symbol of rabbinic competence and status.
The Bernard Revel Graduate School began to flourish and within a short time degrees of Doctor of Hebrew Literature began to be awarded and learned dissertations began to enrich the field of Jewish scholarship. Dr. Belkin somehow found time and energy to direct the fortunes of that school in addition to his other labors.
The Teachers Institute under the deanship of Dr. Pinchos Churgin and the College proper under the deanship of Dr. Moses L. Isaacs continued to grow in numbers and in quality. The student body grew to an enrollment of seven hundred within less than two years. Samuel L. Sar as Dean of Men was relieved of his former duties as financial administrator and gave himself completely to the needs and welfare of the students. He became father, big brother, confidant and counsellor to every young man who sought his help.
The finances of the institution were a major concern of the Executive Board. New personnel was appointed and fresh enthusiasm was infused into existing functionaries. In one year after the Executive Board came into being I was able to report that the budget of the institution was in balance. Actually the income exceeded the expenses. The Executive Board proved its worth and justified all the expectations anticipated of it. As the functioning chairman I feel proud that I was privileged to direct labors and to share in her achievements.
But there was still one responsibility that the Executive Board had to discharge—to find a president for Yeshiva and to promote his election. It took two and a half years to find the person and it took two months to “sell” him to the Board. And it was not an easy matter.
A majority of the Executive Board agreed among themselves that Dr. Samuel Belkin was the most suited and best qualified candidate for the office. One member held out but after long interpersonal debate and persuasion he reluctantly agreed.
Then began a virtual election campaign. We knew who among the Board members were in opposition and we understood why. We therefore met with the opponents one by one to solicit their agreement in order to make the election unanimous. At one point an important member of the opposition was ready for a compromise and promised to convince his friends to go along. The compromise was the election of Dr. Belkin as Acting President. We were ready to agree, so uncertain were we of the outcome.
We decided to put it to Dr. Belkin for him to decide. We explained to him the uncertainty of the outcome if put to the test. His reaction was brave and unequivocal. “I will take the risk. Defeat in this case is not an insult. An acting president is a lame duck. I want to serve, not to limp.”
To me personally Dr. Belkin by that attitude proved his competence, his courage and his ability for leadership. “Let us proceed to the meeting,” we all decided.
The meeting was held at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel on Thursday evening, June 24, 1943. It began at seven in the evening and was not over until eleven thirty. Mr. Samuel Levy, Chairman of the Board, called on me to make the report for the Executive Board and present its recommendation. After reporting on the accomplishments of the Executive Board during the period of its operation, I proceeded to the subject at hand, the presidency. I first outlined what we considered to be the qualifications of the office:
- First and foremost, the president must be a confirmed and widely recognized Talmud Chacham in the most traditional sense of that word.
- Secondly, he must possess secular knowledge.
- Thirdly, he must not be a cloistered scholar, but one who is able to utilize his scholarship so that students and teachers under him will benefit.
- Finally, he must typify the philosophy of integration that is the soul of our Yeshiva. That philosophy is best reflected when piety, Torah and secular learning are fused in one talented and gifted personality.
I proceeded to tell the Board that Dr. Belkin possessed these qualities to a high degree. I spoke of the talmudic education that he received in the great Yeshivoth of Radin and Mir in Lithuania; of his ordination by the foremost rabbinic authorities; of his mastery of the English language in a short time after his arrival in America; of his studies in Brown and Harvard and of the Doctor of Philosophy Degree that he earned from the former:
He is guilty of but one sin. He is a young man, in his early thirties. So was his sainted predecessor, Dr. Revel, when he came to us. So are many distinguished presidents of leading universities … Therefore, Mr. Chairman and gentlemen of the Board, with pride and reverence, with joy and humility, we have the honor to present to you the name of Rabbi Dr. Samuel Belkin as our nominee for second president of the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary and Yeshiva College.
As we do so, we pray that he may have the fullest support of this distinguished body and blessing and guidance of his immortal predecessor.
The other members of the Executive Board were called upon for their opinions. Deans Isaac, Churgin and Sar spoke in warm praise of the candidate. Only one member of the Executive Board remained pointedly silent.
After the nomination was seconded the parliamentary storm broke loose. The eye of the storm was a small but important group of Directors, almost all of whom were members of the Jewish Center on West Eighty-Sixth Street. There was first a motion to postpone the election for “two or three months, so that every member of the Board would have an opportunity to study the qualifications of the candidate.”
An argument was advanced that the Board should have been informed that the election of a president would be considered at this meeting. It would, therefore, be improper to vote on such an important matter without prior notification. Mr. Samuel Levy, the chairman, read from the minutes of a previous meeting that the name of a candidate for the presidency would be presented by the Executive Board at this meeting.
An amendment was then made to postpone the election for one month. It was obvious that the opponents of Dr. Belkin’s candidacy were engaged in parliamentary maneuvers designed to block his election.
A further technicality was injected—to vote on the motion of postponement by secret ballot. Mr. Samuel Levy appealed to the Board to vote down any effort to postpone the election. He explained that a letter over the signature of the president of the College Alumni had been circulated urging the postponement of the election of a president. Such outside pressure must be resisted, Mr. Levy said.
The motion for a secret ballot was lost 15 to 8 with 3 directors not voting. The motion to postpone the election was lost 14 to 10 with two not voting. The chairman then appealed for a unanimous vote to elect Dr. Belkin. There was an objection and the matter was put to a vote. Twenty were in favor of electing Dr. Belkin, none were against and six abstained. Repeated attempts to make the election unanimous failed but ultimately a final vote was taken and Dr. Samuel Belkin was elected unanimously as the second President of the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary and Yeshiva College.
I immediately telephoned Dr. Belkin and tearfully gave him the happy news of his election. Tearfully—because together with faithful colleagues I was privileged to be an instrument for the achievement of a historic service to our people.
 In 1945, the New York State Board of Regents granted a change of name request and elevated the school to “Yeshiva University.” See “Pres. Samuel Belkin Announces that Yeshiva Attains Rank of University,” The Commentator (December 12, 1945): 1.
 On Revel’s (1885-1940) final days, see Aaron Rothkoff, Bernard Revel: Builder of American Jewish Orthodoxy (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society of America, 1972), 219-24.
 For a contemporaneous account of this “double blow,” see Morris Besdin, “Rabbi Moshe Soloveitchik: True Scholar of Torah,” Orthodox Union (Passover 1941): 9.
 Founded in 1902, the Agudath Ha-Rabbonim was the major Orthodox rabbinical organization for European-trained immigrants in the United States and Canada. The group did not permit American-trained rabbis to enter its ranks but nevertheless served as an authorizing body for the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary.
 Rabbi Eliezer Silver (1882-1968), was the longtime president of the Agudath Ha-Rabbonim and the leading Orthodox rabbinic figure in Cincinnati, OH.
 On December 4, 1940, Silver, together with Rabbis Israel Rosenberg (d. 1955) and Bernard Levinthal (1865-1952) sent a telegram to Yeshiva’s chairman which read: “At a special meeting of administrative committee of Agudath Harabonim at which all officers participated we the presidium and the permanent Yeshiva Advisory Board of the Agudath Harabonim were instructed to supervise and conduct the affairs of the Yeshiva until such time that a worthy successor to the late Doctor Revel is chosen with the approval of the Agudath Harabonim.” See Bernard Revel Papers, Box 5, Folder 1–60, Yeshiva University Archives, New York. The other bereavement letter is also held in the same collection, and includes Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik (1903-1993) among the signatories. Later, Soloveitchik was accused of sabotaging Yeshiva’s affairs on behalf of the Agudath Ha-Rabbonim. See “Agudath Horabonim Attempting ‘Smear’ Campaign Against Yeshiva,” The Commentator (March 19, 1941): 1. The article was principally authored by recent alumnus and scion of an important Boston family, Moses I. Feuerstein (1916-2009). The article alleged that Soloveitchik had vied to become both president and senior rosh yeshiva of RIETS.
 On December 4, 1940, Samuel Levy (1876-1953), Yeshiva’s chairman of the board, sent a cable in response: “Received your two telegrams. Thanks for the first which extends sympathy and proffers cooperation. As for the second telegram may I express my amazement. It has always been my opinion that the affairs of the institution were managed by its board of directors and not by any outside agency. Arrangements for temporary supervision of Talmud Department being made by board of directors. Our sense of grief and loss and our reverence for Doctor Revel forbid any immediate consideration for successor. When a successor will be contemplated we shall be glad to consult with you.” This letter is also held in the same collection in the Yeshiva University Archives.
 On this, see Zev Eleff, “Freedom and Responsibility: The First Orthodox College Journalists and Early Yeshiva College Politics, 1935–1941,” American Jewish Archives Journal 62 (December 2010): 55-88.
 For the fullest treatment of this entire episode, see Jeffrey S. Gurock, The Men and Women of Yeshiva: Higher Education, Orthodoxy, and American Judaism (New York: Columbia University Press, 1988), 121-41. Many of the details of the final meeting to elect Dr. Samuel Belkin as president of Yeshiva in these annotations were gleaned from this important work.
 For biographical notes on the members of this committee, see Gilbert Klaperman, The Story of Yeshiva University: The First Jewish University in America (New York: Macmillan, 1969), 172-77.
 Rabbi Aronowitz (1864-1945) was a Volozhin-trained Talmud scholar who migrated to the United States in 1906. He lived in Massachusetts for a short while before settling in New York. Though very different in personality, Rabbis Gordon (1882-1964) and Herzog (1882-1959) were leading rabbinical scholars in this prewar period.
 Rabbi Leo Jung (1892-1987) recommended Rabbi Heller (1880-1960), a fellow devotee of Berlin Orthodoxy and Rabbi Esriel Hildesheimer, for the post. However, Heller’s enlightened scholarship and embrace of academic scholarship did not sit well with those seeking to replace the more traditionalist-leaning Soloveitchik.
 See Seth Farber, “Immigrant Orthodoxy’s Last Stand: The Rise of Rabbi Soloveitchik to Rosh Yeshiva,” in Yeshivot and Battei Midrash, ed. Immanuel Etkes (Jerusalem: Mercaz Zalman Shazar, 2006), 417–430. In the end, Yeshiva’s leadership pushed off the appointment on the grounds that according to the specifics of his position, Rabbi Moshe Soloveitchik was not a “senior” rosh yeshiva and did not hold any greater authority than the other rabbinical scholars at the school. In reality, Yeshiva and its students perceived Soloveitchik as the institution’s most important and leading scholar. See, for example, “Thousands Pay Last Tribute to Rabbi Moses Soloveitchik,” The Commentator (February 7, 1941): 1.
 Actually, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik received a one-year contract for the first years of his tenure at Yeshiva. In the mid-1940s, Yeshiva offered him a more stable contract and employment situation. See Paul Orentlicher, “The Case of Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik,” The Commentator (November 4, 1943): 2.
 See “We Speak Our Peace,” The Commentator (March 19, 1941): 2.
 Samuel L. Sar (1893-1962) was a longtime administrator at Yeshiva, serving in a number of high-level capacities.
 Interestingly, it was the Hebrew Theological College in Chicago that had arranged to support Rabbi Soloveitchik’s migration to the United States. However, in the midst of the Great Depression, the school lacked the funds to bring him to the Midwest. See Oscar Z. Fasman, “After Fifty Years, an Optimist,” American Jewish History 69 (December 1979): 160.
 On Soloveitchik’s warm feelings for Lookstein, see Aaron Rakeffet-Rothkoff, ed., The Rav: The World of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, vol. II (Hoboken: Ktav, 1999), 65-67.
 On Belkin, see Victor B. Geller, Orthodoxy Awakens: The Belkin Era and Yeshiva University (Jerusalem: Urim, 2003).
 Rabbi Shatzkes (1881-1958), Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, and President Belkin were the three primary signatories on the RIETS rabbinical certificates (semikhah) for almost two decades.
 Churgin (1894-1957) was a major Judaica and Hebraic scholar and head of Yeshiva’s Teachers Institute. Later, he became the founding president of Bar Ilan University in Israel. In New York, Churgin was unpopular among the traditional-leaning leaders and students at Yeshiva. Isaacs (1899-1970), was a member of a leading American Jewish family and a respected academic and administrator.
 This motion was put forth by Max Stern (1898-1982). Stern was a major Orthodox philanthropist and leading member of the Jewish Center on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. He was in favor of electing The Jewish Center’s Rabbi Leo Jung as president.
 The Jewish Center philanthropist, Abraham Mazer (1876-1953) was responsible for this motion.
 The alumni leader was Joseph Kaminetsky (1911-1999), later a pivotal figure in the Torah Umesorah organization and day school movement. He and another recent Yeshiva College graduate, Moses I. Feuerstein, vigorously supported Jung’s candidacy. In 1941, their actions led to a major smear campaign of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik. See “Agudath Horabonim Attempting ‘Smear’ Campaign Against Yeshiva,” The Commentator (March 19, 1941): 1. See also Joseph Kaminetsky, Memorable Encounters: A Torah Pioneer's Glimpses of Great Men and Years of Challenge (Brooklyn: Shaar Press, 1995), 51–53.