Rabbi Menachem Penner
Rabbi Menachem PennerYeshiva University

In a few days New York's Yeshiva University (YU) will be celebrating its annual Chag Hasemikha - a graduation ceremony and celebration for those students who successfully completed their rabbinic ordination (semikha in Hebrew), and a celebration of the Torah values which underlines YU's ethos.

Founded in 1886, YU is American Modern Orthodoxy's flagship institution, embodying the call of its former leader by Rabbi Yoseph Dov Soloveichik to combine a high level secular academic education with serious Torah study not simply out of a necessity to gain a qualification, but as the Jewish ideal.

Four days before the event on Sunday 23rd March, Arutz Sheva spoke to the Acting Dean of YU's Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary (RIETS), Rabbi Menachem Penner, to gain an insight into what he described as a display of the future of American Jewry.

"It's an opportunity to really focus on what's most important," said Rabbi Penner. 

Out of some 1,300 students at YU, 2014's Chag Hasemikha will see a record 230 students receive their semikha.

Many of the aspiring new rabbis will be taking up communal and educational positions throughout North America, and 11 are already working with students on campuses throughout the US - an outward-looking attitude that's "something we're especially proud of."

Rabbi Penner is careful to stress that - true to YU's ethos - becoming a rabbi is not the only "ideal path" for students.

"As far as I'm concerned, the ideal graduate is the one who takes the gifts and strengths which God gave them and figures out the best way to use it" for the greater good of the community, he explains.  

"I always tell the students: before you decide on a secular career, just give a few moments to consider whether this [the rabbinate] is the way you could help the community. But it just isn't for everyone, and the doctor or lawyer or accountant who maintains a Torah lifestyle is as much the ideal as a rabbi."

The Chag Hasemikha was is simply a way of giving at least equal weight to those who do indeed choose to serve as rabbis.

"The reality is that sometimes we give more kavod (respect) to the boys who become doctors and lawyers," he explained. "It's a day when the rabbis are put on a pedestal... at YU the Chag Hasemikha is a graduation ceremony like no other."

And the fact that the number of students choosing to become rabbis is actually growing - at a time when trends show an increase in assimilation and deterioration in Jewish identity among US Jews as a whole - "reflects just how much idealism and optimism there is" among YU's student body. 

Rabbi Penner also noted a steady growth in the number of Sephardic semikha graduates, in an institution which has traditionally been more aligned with Ashkenazic traditions.

It is still a relatively modest number - 17 in all - but marks a "growing segment" of Sephardic students opting into the program, under the tutelage of YU's Sephardic Rosh Yeshiva (dean) Rabbi Eliyahu Hayyim, a student of former Israeli Sephardic Chief Rabbi Ovadia Yoseph.

Almost all of them are going to be working specifically within the Sephardic Jewish community, and Rabbi Penner described the phenomenon of as "a real shot in the arm" for US Sephardic Jewry.

"There is a real thirst within the Sephardic community for rabbis who have the YU ideology," he claimed.

At the same time, the growing demand for Modern Orthodox rabbis in North America illustrates the "hunger" American Jewry has specifically for the Modern Orthodox ethos, he said.

"We're not interested in saying 'how many people can we make religious?'"

As far as he is concerned, the task of his new graduates is to provide for the spiritual needs of communities and individuals throughout the country, from a solely halakhic (Torah law) perspective, yet without passing judgement.

Jews throughout North America are looking for "young, modern Jewish leaders who can actually engage with them. That's what we're providing."