Don’t Settle for Okay: In Praise of the Jewish College Experience
As a recent graduate who attended both secular and religious colleges, having transferred from Binghamton University to Yeshiva University, I read the recent piece by high school senior Sruli Fruchter, “Attending a Secular College Is Okay,” with great interest. While I agree with Fruchter’s initial premise — that one will not necessarily go “off the derech (path)” by attending a secular college — I would like to respond to some of his other points.
Secular colleges offer wonderful opportunities for spiritual growth and can be a platform for meaningful connections and true community-building. On a few occasions, I have personally been inspired as I witnessed how some people do flourish and become Jewish leaders on secular campuses. However, this is far from the norm. If it was, I may not have transferred, and I surely would not be writing this article.
I am proud to say that being an Orthodox Jew on a secular campus did solidify much of my beliefs and helped me realized the values that I wanted to live my life by. The reason why I transferred was not (as you might expect) because I was losing my yiddishkeit and felt that I needed to be in a more Jewish environment (though I commend anyone who is honest enough to make such a decision). I transferred because I was thirsty for Torah, and Yeshiva University had the Jewish scholars, educators and leaders, as well as unparalleled resources to foster my spiritual growth.
At Binghamton, I had a chavrusa (learning partner) with whom I learned an hour of Koheles (Ecclestiastes) each week, but I knew my Gemara skills were weak and that, both quantitatively and qualitatively, I could achieve greater heights. I withstood the pressure to join a fraternity, and I had made a really phenomenal group of friends, many of whom I am still close with today. I was surviving as well as I could under the circumstances, but I wanted more than that. I felt as though I had overcome whatever challenges and struggles one must endure to be an Orthodox Jew on a secular campus but, like Truman during his tragic epiphany, I felt like I had hit a wall.
Despite secular college being (Fruchter’s word) “okay,” I would not let myself be so complacent. Yeshiva University granted me the invaluable opportunity to learn Torah from an array of world-renowned rabbis and teachers without, for a second, sacrificing my dreams to become a doctor (note: I currently attend SUNY Downstate College of Medicine).
While Fruchter abhors the contention that attending secular schools has a causative relationship with negatively affected religious and spiritual growth, there is a correlation to be observed nonetheless. Because each individual experience is unique, I can only speak to my own. I felt that secular college entailed more dodging bullets to my spirituality and observance than a path towards greater and greater milestones. Even though I was participating in a full gamut of Jewish observance, mine was an experience predominantly driven by lo ta’aseh’s (negative commandments). It is hard to look up at the sky when you are constantly worried that you are going to fall. Likewise, it is hard to aspire when you are attempting to maintain, hard to grow when sustenance is far. Living a life of loving G-d became a luxury I could not afford when fear was my inevitable reaction to incessant adversity. I was happy, yes, but I was never fully at ease. Lastly, while, as Chazal teach us, overcoming challenges is meant to be a vehicle for growth, we are not necessarily obliged, or recommended, to submit and offer ourselves to risk and danger (see Sanhedrin 107a for an interesting discussion on this). Life contains no paucity of challenges, don’t you worry.
I do not mean to disparage anyone who attended, currently attends, or plans on attending a secular college and holds Judaism close to their hearts. By all means, please, for Klal Yisroel, be a living example of what it means to be a ben or bat Torah, irrespective of comfort and convenience. Erase the stigma and, in the immortal words of Ghandi, “be the change you wish to see in the world.” But, in the spirit of “Lo sa’amod al dam rei’echa (don’t stand idly by your brother’s blood),” I feel compelled to speak up.
While there is a lot of good that can be done on secular campuses, that potential should not and cannot be the only consideration of attending such a college. Beyond merely “welcoming and embracing the challenge,” as Fruchter writes, one has to think realistically about what one hopes to achieve in college, and what values s/he wants to live by.
The bigger question we must ask ourselves is why do our teenagers seemingly want to distance themselves from places of Torah? We must squarely ask the question: Is Torah our number one priority? At the expense of sounding trite, having our teenagers experience their formative years in places like Yeshiva University should not only be an expectation from the outside, but it ideally should be felt, pulsating, within each and every one of our teens.
As a community, we spend more money on Torah education than on pretty much anything else, so this is something that should give us some pause. What is the purpose of “the system” or, in less abstract terms, what do we want our children to be when they take themselves off the conveyer belt of the shul(s), school(s), and programming they grew up on? What values do we want to instill in them? Is Torah the center or our lives, and do we truly want it to be the center of theirs?