The name Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm evokes an array of memories stemming from his brilliant mind and wellspring of writings, including addresses that have left an indelible mark on listeners. The rabbi’s intellectual humor made those engaged in friendly conversation think, and his humility is quite notable. Nonetheless, no discussion can be had without the mention of his wife, Mindy a”h, who passed at the end of April of this year. Rabbi Lamm is best remembered for supporting Yeshiva University’s philosophy of Torah U’madda, that Orthodox Jews can thrive in both Torah learning and having a productive role in modern society.
Rabbi Lamm assumed the role of Yeshiva University’s third (and first American-born) president in 1976, succeeding Dr. Samuel Belkin, serving also as its Rosh HaYeshiva for a decade from 2003, and taking on the responsibility of the institution’s development. By seeking significant donations from non-Orthodox sponsors, Yeshiva emerged from a time of economic uncertainty.
Rabbi Lamm, born on December 19, 1927, in the densely immigrant neighborhood of Williamsburg, had the unique ability to reach into the depth of both business layman and Torah scholar. Mr. Fred Ehrman, a confidant of Rabbi Lamm’s, recollected a nearly 30-year-old incident shining light onto the leader. “I was speaking with a friend, Marcel Lindenbaum z”l, and we were decrying tough issues in the Orthodox community requiring rabbinic intervention. We, as laymen and businessmen involved in Jewish affairs, opted to take the bull by the horns and form a group to address the problems of the day. As a well-known respected leader, we approached Rabbi Lamm for his blessing, hoping to achieve credibility for our cause. Rabbi Lamm enthusiastically endorsed The Orthodox Caucus, as the project was known, and became an active participant, despite his full plate,” recalled Ehrman. Among the many achievements of this group, which consisted of leaders in the rabbinate, academia, yeshivos, and lay people in all professions, was dealing with the agunah problem. The Caucus formulated a pre-nuptial agreement, which now is supervised by the Rabbinical Council of America.
As a respected community leader, Dr. Lamm was asked to endorse the Yeshiva Seminar initiative organized by Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald, a student of YU from high school through s’michah, now director of National Jewish Outreach Project (NJOP). Rabbi Lamm’s eventual blessing gave the program immense credibility, allowing the project to flourish and eventually be incorporated into the NCSY youth program of the Orthodox Union. “Rabbi Lamm’s enthusiasm and active participation in a program designed to give Jewish children with nominal Jewish education a chance at an engaging conversation was commendable,” said Buchwald. The legacy of bringing positive joyous Jewish experiences and keeping children committed to a life of Torah while involved in families continues today. “Richard Joel, YU’s president [who succeeded Dr. Lamm], was once a youth leader and the head advisor for Yeshiva Seminar, and today a 61-year-old man from Texas reached out via email explaining that he was inspired by one of my lectures at Seminar and was about to receive s’michah,” noted Buchwald.
In his lectures, Dr. Lamm often noted the importance of Torah and Halachah, alongside the significance of the State of Israel, and was a spokesman for Religious Zionism. Rabbi Lamm’s messages for Jewish education reverberated with the Orthodox Union’s publishing division, OU Press, which was privileged to have published several of Rabbi Lamm’s books commonly derived from his many talks. Rabbi Menachem Genack, Rabbinic Administrator of the OU’s Kashrus Division, related that OU Press recently published Rabbi Lamm’s most recent work, Torah Beloved. “If one spends time reading over the teachings of Rabbi Lamm, he will find his grasp on the topics to be fresh and relevant for our time, attesting to Rabbi Lamm’s deep understanding into the human condition. Rabbi Lamm’s doctorate thesis was on Reb Chaim of Volozhin. This encompassed Rabbi Lamm’s ability to both deliver on Torah lishmah and chasidus.”
Rabbi Lamm began his yeshivah education in Yeshiva Torah Vodaath. Rabbi Genack noted that Rabbi Samuel Belkin of YU was a dominating force who encouraged Rabbi Lamm to continue in the rabbinical field.
Mr. Richard Joel, who succeeded Dr. Lamm as YU’s fourth president until November 2016, explained Rabbi Lamm to both be a private and public figure. “The center of Rabbi Lamm’s life was always Hashem, and his family was able to benefit from this each day. As a senior philosopher, Rabbi Lamm [who earned his PhD in Jewish Philosophy from YU] was able to build Torah at YU for 27 years. Once I was appointed as president, Rabbi Lamm and I would meet every other week where he was always gracious and supportive,” said Joel. “Rabbi Lamm welcomed the pursuit of Torah and was a light unto other nations. When I first asked for advice, Rabbi Lamm delivered it, first saying, ‘Feel no obligation to listen because it is your turn now.’ I work in the hope of advancing his notions and principles of Orthodoxy,” concluded Joel.
Upon Dr. Lamm’s retirement as president in 2003, he assumed the role of Chancellor until his retirement from that position in 2013. Rabbi Ashie Schreier, a graduate of YU’s RIETS Semichah Program and Rabbi of the Young Israel of Forest Hills, remembered the legendary chancellor: “Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm was a premier scholar and visionary leader. With his many works and brilliant words, Rabbi Lamm promoted the concept of Torah U’madda, the pursuit and integration of Jewish and secular knowledge. Rabbi Lamm truly lived a life of depth and meaning. Our community is blessed to be filled with so many educators, community leaders, and rabbis who have been trained and shaped by the educational excellence and Torah values that Yeshiva University represents. Our community extends our deepest condolences to the entire Lamm family,” said Schreier.
Rabbi Martin Katz, a member of the Vaad Harabonim of Queens, director of Just One Life, and a student of YU, echoed these sentiments, remembering Rabbi Lamm as an amazing speaker, educator, and overall ben Torah. “I was zocheh to have my s’michah signed by Rabbi Lamm, and I cherish this every day,” remarked Katz.
Rabbi Dan Cohen, Edmond J. Safra Sephardic S’gan Mashgiach at RIETS, was able to view Rabbi Lamm from a different perspective. “Rabbi Lamm’s aura demanded the respect of an entire room. He had a tremendous hand in the world as a leader and talmid chacham who would enter the walls of a beis midrash to both learn with a chavrusa or give a vibrant shiur.” His brother, Rabbi Yossi Cohen, Deputy to the Senior Vice President, explained Rabbi Lamm’s compassion in a new manner: “We cannot phantom Rabbi Lamm’s sensitivity to the land of Israel,” said Cohen. In the late 1970s, Rabbi Lamm gave a town hall where a student posed a question regarding Yeshiva’s love of Israel. Rabbi Lamm went on to reveal a 1948 accomplishment that the rabbi called the most remarkable of his lifetime. When he was a Chemistry major at Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn, the battle for the State of Israel was underway, and Rabbi Lamm desired to make an impact during his off time. Together with friends, he contacted the Jewish Agency and was tasked with developing ammunition weaponry for Israel with materials then available in the land. The program went well enough that the Israeli military used the technology for development. The testing in New York was risky and an alerted FBI would once pay a visit to Rabbi Lamm’s laboratory. Quick maneuvering allowed the boys to swap the paperwork on their desks for fertilizer testing pages, throwing off the agents, although Rabbi Lamm believed the American government ultimately looked the other way.
Rabbi Fabian Schonfeld, rabbi emeritus of the Young Israel of Kew Gardens Hills, fondly remembers Rabbi Lamm’s visits to his k’hilah. “Rabbi Lamm was a talmid of Rabbi Dr. Joseph Ber Soloveitchik, an outstanding talmid chacham and a Jewish lecturer that we do not come by often. His knowledge of Torah and the secular world was each just as vital. Rabbi Lamm always showed derech eretz to all whom he encountered, and his outstanding lectures will remain his heritage and statement of what can be accomplished in America with Torah lishmah – a direction for how to live one’s life.”
Rabbi Hershel Billet, Rabbi of the Young Israel of Woodmere, gave further insights into the depth of the Rosh HaYeshiva. “Rabbi Lamm cared deeply about the rabbinate and spoke at my s’michah installation on the topic of family purity – Taharas HaMishpachah. This talk and his book on the topic, Hedge of Roses, played an important role at the time and set a model for other Orthodox rabbis on the theme of marriage in the home,” said Billet. Rabbi Billet’s wife, Rebbetzin Rookie Billet, was reminded of the Friday evenings at Camp Morasha whenever they rose, despite their fatigue, in a sign of respect to hear the rabbi deliver his words of eloquence.
Rabbi Dr. Richard Weiss, Rabbi of the Young Israel of Hillcrest, remembered Rabbi Lamm during his time at YU in the prime of his presidency, just before 1979. “I recall the Rosh Yeshiva Rabbi Hershel Schachter saying that Rabbi Lamm returned the honor to Yeshiva by obtaining the financial security it so desperately needed. It was related that Rabbi Soloveitchik called Rabbi Lamm’s oratory skills that of a golden tongue. What stood out most for me were his interactions with his rebbetzin. I was a gabbai at the Shabbos student minyan where Rabbi Lamm attended a couple of times a year. Rebbetzin Mindy a”h always spoke so wonderfully to me and recalled me each time we met. The Rav and Rebbetzin complimented one another, and their successes are testament to their respect of each other.”
Rabbi Yaacov Lerner has been at the helm of the Young Israel of Great Neck for 45 years and is set to make aliyah this year. “The magnificent speech of Rabbi Lamm’s that still rings in my ears today was the one he delivered at my Chag HaS’michah. When Eliyahu HaNavi approached Hashem and complained of the Jewish people, the reply was given that there was a way for it all to work out. Moshe Rabbeinu explained that there was nobody better to be a Jewish leader. As individuals, we must all find a way to get over our issues in life and accept this as our responsibility to find the best way to maneuver through its travails.”
Rabbi Lamm was the distinguished rav of The Jewish Center in Manhattan, prior to being a rabbi in Springfield, Massachusetts, and the founding editor of the journal Tradition of the RCA, before his 37-year tenure as President, Rosh HaYeshiva, and Chancellor of Yeshiva University, where he graduated summa cum laude and as valedictorian in 1949 and received s’michah in 1951.
Rabbi Dr. Lamm is survived by his children, Dr. Chaye Lamm (and David) Warburg, Dr. Joshua (and Rivkie) Lamm, and Shalom (and Tina) Lamm; son-in-law Rabbi Mark Dratch, husband of Sara Lamm Dratch a”h, who passed away on February 28, 2013; and his many grandchildren and great-grandchildren. He is survived by his sisters, Tzivia Sittner and Miriam Auslander, and was the brother of Rabbi Dr. Maurice Lamm z”l. His wife of 66 years, Mindella (Mindy) Lamm a”h, passed away on April 16, 2020, of COVID-19.
By Shabsie Saphirstein