Students affiliated with the Joseph Slifka Center for Jewish Life at Yale expressed concerns on Monday night about the transparency of the center’s search for a new executive director and Jewish chaplain, at a town hall designed to solicit feedback on the search.
During the town hall, which was open to the public and took place at the Slifka Center, members of the search committee, chaired by Evan Farber ’99, addressed questions about the hiring process. A recurring theme at the event was transparency — audience members voiced concerns about a lack of communication between the board and students affiliated with the center, claiming that they were not adequately informed about the creation of the search committee or its makeup.
“When I think of the board, I think of secrecy,” Avigayil Halpern ’19, an attendee and staff columnist for the News said during the event. “I did not know who was on the search community. I’ve also never seen board members in the dining hall or approaching students about concerns they may have.”
Audience members questioned what the search committee has been doing for the past couple of months. The committee officially posted the job applications for both the executive director and Jewish chaplain positions Monday morning, despite knowing about the need for new leadership since June of last year when the Slifka Center’s previous executive director, Rabbi Leah Cohen, abruptly left Yale amid a cloud of controversy.
Farber responded to concerns by reassuring audience members that the board will solicit as much input as possible from students in the future.
“I look forward to talking and hearing from everyone,” he said as he opened the town hall. “It was with a lot of humility that I took on the role as search committee chair. This meeting is critical to the future of the community here, and I look forward to listening to everyone’s contributions.”
Farber began the event by asking all members of the search committee in the room to stand and introduce themselves. He then explained the role of the search committee before opening the floor to what he called a “factual question and answer.”
Audience members questioned how they can be sure their feedback will be considered, given that the Slifka Cener’s board has not always maintained an open channel of communication with students.
When head Rabbi James Ponet departed the center in 2013 after three decades of service, Leah Cohen, a rabbi with a master’s degree in international management, was appointed as executive director and senior chaplain. She arrived with the aim of bringing financial stability to a struggling Slifka Center, which had been especially hard-hit by the 2008 recession. During her tenure, the Slifka Center’s balance sheet appears to have rebounded, with the endowment rising from $20 million in 2013 to over $28 million today.
But the Slifka Center’s drive toward financial stability has at times frustrated students. Large numbers of the center’s dining staff departed in the summer of 2016, leading to widespread student discontent. And Cohen’s abrupt departure at the end of the last school year was driven partly by negative student feedback on a survey about her leadership.
At the town hall, attendee Aaron Greenberg ’18 suggested that the Slifka Center seems to have been treated more as a business than a religious center. “There were four rabbis when I first got here,” he said. “Now there is one.”
After Cohen’s departure last summer, Peggy Wager ’82, took over from her as interim executive director. Slifka members emphasized that despite Wager’s best efforts, they remain frustrated by the lack of transparency surrounding the current search process.
Farber and other members of the committee maintained they are committed to hearing and addressing student concerns.
“I want everyone to know that tonight is not the only opportunity for community feedback,” Farber explained. “We did set up an email account, and you should feel free to send us an email. I will make sure that your thoughts are heard.”
Farber also noted that a survey seeking student input on the kinds of traits potential candidates should exhibit will go live later this week.
The new executive director and Jewish chaplain will start work at the Slifka Center this summer.
Lorenzo Arvanitis | firstname.lastname@example.org