David Teller

An Open Letter from a High School Principal about College Campuses

Dear High School Community,

We are living in extremely challenging times. Our minds, hearts and souls are with all of Am Yisrael in Eretz Yisrael. We are thinking about those defending the Jewish people around the world with their heroic actions; the captives who have still not returned home to their families, the over 1400 neshamot kedoshim who have lost their lives, and the thousands injured. And our thoughts are also, unfortunately, around the world, where we are confronted with rising anti-Semitism, and videos and images that we see on social media that display physical and verbal aggression towards our people. Within that scope, especially egregious, has been the rhetoric at colleges and universities, and the safety, security and well-being of Jews on secular campuses. What we are seeing is shocking and horrifying: 

  • Thousands of students from some of the most ‘elite universities’ shouting anti-Semitic tropes against the Jewish people and calling for the destruction of the Jewish state. 
  • Broad failures of University presidents: sending ambiguous and equivocating public statements; failing to immediately condemn Hamas and the massacre on October 7; failing to denounce pro-Hamas students groups; and failing to ensure that Jewish students feel safe on campus.
  • Over 140 professors at Columbia University signing a public letter expressing moral outrage at Jewish groups for ‘doxing’ pro-Hamas student clubs who blamed the October 7 massacre exclusively on Israel. 
  • Students at Cornell University, being warned to avoid the Kosher dining hall with messages on their public student text messaging system threatening violence against Jewish students on campus and compromising their safety.
  • College Professors giving out grade incentives for students to attend Pro-Hamas rallies, giving extra credit on assignments for those who show up. 
  • And the list goes on…

As a Jewish high school, we are uniquely situated in guiding our students as they think, reflect and process the college admissions journey and what they hope their post high school lives look like. And especially given what is happening these past few weeks, our students should grapple and struggle with how these current events should, to any extent, impact their choices about their futures. At the very least, these recent news headlines demands us to ask some important questions together with our children as we navigate the college landscape:

  • What are you and your child hoping to get out of the college experience?
  • What information do you need about each college to make an informed decision?
  • How has the college historically handled incidents of Anti-Semitism?
  • What was the immediate reaction/message of the college president to the atrocities of October 7 and the subsequent reaction to the pro-terror groups on campus?
  • What does it feel like to be Jewish on these campuses today?

I believe all of these questions need to be explored together with your children both at school and at home.

But I wanted to take a moment to go a step deeper and speak from my heart. I believe that this moment demands a response and I want to take a moment to share my own reactions and reflections.

What is happening on many college campuses, including the alleged ‘elite of academia,’ from Columbia to Harvard to Stanford is shameful and appalling. And I say this as someone who strongly believes in the importance and centrality of deep, intense and meaningful learning and receiving the best possible education. I am an alumnus of an Ivy League Graduate School, and both watching and reading what was coming from the leadership of this institution in the aftermath of October 7 was deplorable. I am genuinely ashamed and embarrassed to be associated with this university.  Over the last 3 weeks, many of the supposed top institutions of higher learning have shown where they really stand in regards to protecting their Jewish population on campus. And unfortunately, this is not a surprise or revelation. As a 35-year old graduate student at an Ivy League school I saw firsthand how I was marginalized on campus and was subjected to a wide range of beliefs- presented as truths– that directly went against my tradition and values. From how they viewed Israel to how they looked at core aspects of my Judaism, I was absolutely judged and dismissed.  But even suggesting an alternative approach or way of thinking was shamed. The lie of these institutions is that the ultimate goal and path is “freedom of speech and pursuit of truth.” What they don’t tell you is that this is only true if you subscribe to an extremely narrow way of seeing and thinking about the world. Everything else is shamed, if not worse. 

For decades, in Modern Orthodox Jewish education we have strived, idealistically, to straddle multiple universes. In being values driven organizations we both want to instill and embed our unique Torah message to our children, while embracing the importance of the best of secular wisdom and education. But even these lishma and noble aspirations sometimes go too far, and certain ‘ends’ become goals in and of themselves. An acceptance, for example, into an Ivy League or top school, for some parents is a trophy- regardless of whether their children end up attending- and a metric of success for that high school. We flaunt the number of diverse colleges to which our students have been accepted – happily sharing this list of schools in our annual reports, touting the excellence of our general studies education by proving how many of our students gained admission into a top college.  I have personally had conversations with parents in my role as a high school administrator who have directly asked me to prove the value of our educational experience through the litmus test of whether their child will be able to succeed at _____(name your ‘prestigious’ college here). And many of us school administrators have unfortunately bought into this system as simply a way of life and how it needs to be.

And I’m sorry to say this: but shame on us. I believe that this is a watershed moment where we have to collectively wake up and realign our actions with our core values. For years, for example, I have felt that we have to tread carefully in espousing the value and importance of Yeshiva University, and to not pigeon-hole ourselves as a one-size fits all high school institution; that we should be meeting all students ba’asher hu sham, where they are at, and not be driven or blinded by a certain ‘religious agenda.’ And my answer to that today is still overall ‘yes:’ we need to help our young people find the right campus for them that will allow them to thrive. There are of course secular college campuses that overall stand for good. If that is your child’s path- we will definitely support them. I am not condemning every single college. But I believe now is the time to stand strong and stand unequivocally with those colleges that do align with our values. Our ‘agenda’ should be and should always be driven by our Torah and Jewish values.

We should PROUDLY shout out and continue to advocate for aliyah, for our children to consider staying in Israel after their shanna ba’aretz, returning to their true Home, living with our people in our own sovereign land.

We should PROUDLY shout out that we stand with Yeshiva University, a school that stands proudly on a foundation of Torah, Jewish values, Eretz and Medinat Yisrael. A a school that believes in a strong and vital general education and exposure to wisdom that we all believe in. These are values that we have all invested years in teaching and guiding our children to pursue and live. 

We should PROUDLY shout out that we are not staking our educational reputation on the standards of top college and university institutions that make our children feel unwelcome and unsafe. We will absolutely continue to support universities that actively stand up and protect the rights and safety of their Jewish student population. But we will no longer feel pressured to base our definition of educational excellence on the basis of wayward, morally confused institutions of higher learning that turn a blind eye to anti-Semitism and the vitriol on their campuses.

I will take this opportunity, to shout from the rooftops if I need to, that our children need and deserve to be in a place, in a college or university where first and foremost they can live proud, authentic, meaningful, and safe Jewish and Torah lives. That should always be the ikar (foundation) and every college and university option should be seen first and foremost through that prism. Enough is enough. Let us regain our perspective and our pride. And may we see better days for our children and students, as we continue to educate them on the values of Torah, Avodah, Gemillut Chasadim and of the centrality of both Eretz Yisrael and Medinat Yisrael. 

David Teller

Yeshiva University, BA Psychology

Yeshiva University, Semicha, RIETS

Yeshiva University Masters in Education, Azrieli

John Carroll University, Masters in Clinical Mental Health Counseling

Anonymous Ivy League College X, Masters

About the Author
Rabbi David Teller is currently the principal of the Stark High School at the Fuchs Mizrachi School in Cleveland. He has been involved in formal Jewish education and administration for over 14 years. After completing his semicha and master's in education at Yeshiva University, he received his master's degree in clinical mental health counseling at John Carroll University and a master's in independent school leadership. He is passionate about blending the rich world of Torah with best practices in psychology and education to help all children thrive.