Jonathan Muskat

Best Colleges for Orthodox Jews: The Forward’s List Misses the Point

This coming Sunday, my wife and I will be taking two of our children, a son and a daughter, to their Yeshiva University orientation as they will begin their collegiate experience at the school that my wife and I attended.  We hope that their experience will be as meaningful as our experience at YU over 20 years ago.  A few weeks ago, the Forward published an article listing the 23 best colleges for Orthodox Jews and I was interested to see how my old school ranked. Much to my surprise, Yeshiva was ranked seventh behind Penn, NYU, Washington University, Columbia, Harvard, and Queens.  It seems that the survey’s formula weighed whether each school has an active Hillel, OU-JLIC, Meor programming, and Jewish fraternities and sororities.  On these metrics, Yeshiva fails miserably. Of course, what this formula missed, is the fact that no other college offers such a rigorous Judaic studies program, access to top-notch Roshei Yeshiva and opportunities to service the broader community through programming with the Center for the Jewish Future, as YU. So while I found The Forward’s list rather humorous, it did raise the question of what atmosphere is conducive to strong Jewish life and what values are critical in selecting a Jewish school and a Jewish community.

There is only one explicit biblical commandment for every Jew to bless God. Not surprisingly, this commandment is connected to food — because after all, we are Jews and we love our food!  Even though the manna fell from the sky in the beginning of Bnei Yisrael’s sojourn in the desert, and according to the Gemara, Moshe composed the first blessing of Birkat Hamazon at that time, Moshe only commands Bnei Yisrael to bless God after eating food 40 years later, as they are about to enter the Promised Land. I believe the reason for this delay lies in the purpose of making a blessing; that is, to become conscious of God and connect with Him on a very deep level. In the desert, when manna was falling from the sky and clouds of glory protected us, Bnei Yisrael didn’t need a blessing to facilitate a connection with God on a day to day basis; they already sensed God’s Presence in an overt manner.

However, the life of the Jew is not to wait for food to fall from Heaven, because we are not Adam and Eve nor are we Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai. Instead, we work for a living so that we can eat and live, but there is a price to pay. Because the more we work, the more we may think that we are wholly responsible for our existence and our success. It is for that reason that we must recite a blessing to acknowledge God. We must make ourselves conscious of His involvement in our most basic needs, when there is otherwise a chance that we will forget Him. As Bnei Yisrael exited the desert and entered the Promised Land, a land where they would have to work for their survival, Moshe commanded them to acknowledge and thank God for the food that they would eat.

Initially, we were commanded to only recite this one blessing after eating food and on no other activity. Perhaps this was because, as Rav Kook suggests, it is better to develop this God consciousness internally, without being explicitly commanded to do so. However, this model was spiritually unsustainable. Unfortunately, even in Israel in biblical times, when our very lives depended on looking Heavenward for rain to nourish our crops to produce food, there wasn’t a consistent overarching sense of God’s presence. Therefore, in the times of the Second Temple, the Rabbis realized that we need to create more concrete opportunities to facilitate God consciousness. So they formulated a text for the Shemona Esrei, along with a whole host of brachot. And Rabbi Meir instructed us to recite 100 blessings daily, based on the verse that all that God wants is for us to revere Him and love Him. Because really, that is the goal of all of these blessings; to create a deeper awareness of God in our lives.

There was once an irreligious seaman who was in a boat fishing with some friends. A sudden storm broke out which threatened to sink the ship. His companions pleaded with him to offer a prayer, but he hesitated, saying it was years since he had prayed or entered a house of worship. When they continued to insist, he finally made this prayer: “O Lord, I have not asked You for anything for 15 years, and if You deliver us out of this storm, and bring us safely to land again, I promise that I will not bother You for another 15 years.”

That is not the conversation we want to have with God. God isn’t bothered by us. Every small, mundane blessing is an opportunity to sense God. Every prayer for something small is an opportunity to reinforce our dependence on Him. And every small, mundane mitzvah is an opportunity to connect. And that’s why, I would argue, in choosing a Jewish school, a Jewish community, a Jewish environment, we need to ask ourselves the exact thing that Rabbi Meir asked. That is, what do we need to do to achieve this state of reverence and love, this God consciousness? By surrounding ourselves with opportunities for connection, we create a space for God’s presence to be a consistent part of our awareness, always. And that, is how a Jew makes life decisions. And that is why, notwithstanding The Forward’s list of “Best Colleges for Orthodox Jews,” I’m so excited about our children’s next journey starting this coming Sunday.

About the Author
Jonathan Muskat is the Rabbi of the Young Israel of Oceanside.