April 13, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

An In-Depth Conversation With YU’s Student Body

Reviewing: “The Final Exam,” by Rabbi Dr. Ari Berman. Maggid Books. 2023. Hardcover. 168 pages. ISBN-13: 978-1592646234.

A great deal of responsibility rests on the shoulders of Yeshiva University President and Rosh Yeshiva Rabbi Dr. Ari Berman. Berman is charged with the spiritual and intellectual growth of some 5,000 undergraduate and graduate students who are spending some of the most formative years of their life at what he calls “the flagship Jewish university.” It is his deep commitment to the development of his students that inspired his latest work “The Final Exam,” which he hopes will help guide each one along their individual journeys, and help them to find purpose and reach their full potential in the world.

Berman’s Yeshiva University roots date back to before his birth. His parents Tobias and Rosalie met in the early 1960s as student leaders at Yeshiva and Stern colleges, respectively. Berman grew up in the Yeshiva University milieu and graduated with distinction from four of its schools. After serving as an instructor of Talmud at Yeshiva College and as the spiritual leader of the Jewish Center in Manhattan, he and his wife Anita realized their dreams of aliyah and immigrated to a Jerusalem suburb, where he continued his path as an educator and scholar. It was a phone call close to a decade later that would redirect his journey and bring him back to the United States.

Berman vividly describes the moment he received a phone call with an offer to take on the role of the next president of Yeshiva University. His initial reaction was a flat-out “no” — he had relocated with his family to Israel and was building his life there. But offers from multiple directions continued to come his way and he began to seriously consider the enormous opportunity this role would bring, along with the impact he could have not just on Yeshiva University but on the American Jewish community and the broader world. According to Berman this was “a real decision moment” for him. He accepted the offer and in 2017 began his tenure as the university’s fifth president.

It is this feeling of the enormity of opportunity and the ability to make a transformative impact that still motivates Berman today in his leadership position. In 2020, when the COVID-19 virus began to wreak havoc on much of the globe, Yeshiva University was hard hit early on with closure and forced isolation. Berman felt a deep desire to connect with his students and offer them guidance during a time when the world felt like it was caving in and his students were dealing with uncertainties and loss. He described these as “raw moments” that gave him an opportunity to pour out his heart in words.

The result is a series of 19 letters that describe his own journey, the difficult situations he has been faced with and the challenging decisions he has had to make, along with life lessons and teachings of Torah that reflect the educational philosophy and core values of Yeshiva University. In the introduction to the work, Berman explained that letters “communicate ideas in a more intimate and personal way.”

This timely work has fallen into the laps of young Jewish adults when the United States is witnessing rising antisemitism and anti-Zionism, increased polarization and a collapse of identity, particularly among the young generation. Yet despite the challenges that young observant Jews in the United States face today, Berman believes that they have opportunities for leadership and growth that previous generations could never have experienced. At the same time, many outside influences exist that can easily lead them to question their own values and place as observant Jews. Their greatest challenge, Berman explained, is to “fully grasp their opportunity today” and “to maximize their impact.” One of the core messages Berman tasks his readers with is to envision their own responsibility for themselves, their community, the next generation and the broader Jewish people.

This responsibility is deeply rooted in thousands of years of history and tradition. The great- grandchild of Holocaust survivors from Eastern Europe who is the proud parent of children who are the first in his family line to don the uniform of the Israeli army, Berman’s own family story is a microcosm of the unfolding of Jewish history and the triumphs of the Jewish nation in the modern era. It is this intersection of past, present and future that Berman echoes in his writings, charging his students to see themselves as part of a much greater story than they have witnessed in their own lives, and with a mission to move Jewish history forward.

Publisher Matthew Miller of Koren Publishers Jerusalem said, “Those who have been fortunate to spend time at Yeshiva University or to have been inspired by their wonderful alumni, will be familiar with the principles of Torah U’Mada, but may at times have felt a tension between the two. Anyone who wants to understand what Yeshiva University stands for and who wants to be inspired by its vision for the future should read Rabbi Dr. Berman’s fascinating new book.”

A role model to many of his students, Berman insists that Yeshiva University students are his inspiration. “We have an opportunity to spread positivity and goodness and to sanctify G-d’s name in the public sphere,” he said with tremendous optimism.


Alisa Bodner is a Fair Lawn native who immigrated to Israel a decade ago. She is a nonprofit management professional who enjoys writing in her free time.

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