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Secular Universities: Safe for Jews, Not Free from Jews

In the past, I have not been shy about criticizing Yeshiva University for how it has dealt with various challenges it has faced.

At the same time, it’s important to recognize when Yeshiva University gets things right. And Rabbi Ari Berman, the president of YU, certainly hit the nail on the head in a recent email to the larger YU community about the current climate on campuses across the country – and YU’s responsibility to existing and future Orthodox college students.

First, Rabbi Berman acknowledged the serious problem of antisemitism at secular colleges … and then offered to help universities to keep their Jewish students safe from physical and psychological harm:

“It is not good for America or for the Jewish people for any campus to be unsafe for Jewish students or students of any minority or vulnerable population. We extend our hand to be of any assistance in supporting efforts by these universities to protect their students from threats to their safety.”

Next, he pointed out the responsibility of YU to be a place for Jewish students to attend school if they felt they would be unsafe at another school:

“At the same time, we cannot ignore the profound distress we have been witnessing. No Jewish student should have to face the threats and intimidation that have sadly been taking place. While our enrollments are already full for the coming year, we at the flagship Jewish university will not turn our backs on these students.”

Then, he announced that YU would extend the deadline for transfer students to apply to YU, to allow those who wanted to switch to YU to still do so:

“Therefore, although the deadline for transfer applications has passed, we are reopening the portal for undergraduate applicants, including for our honors programs. Additionally, we have reserved places for incoming students in our recently launched track for those interested in pursuing their undergraduate degree in Israel, in partnership with Tel Aviv University and Bar Ilan University.”

To his credit, Rabbi Berman wants to make sure that anyone who feels that YU is a safer place to spend their college years than Harvard, Columbia, Yale, or any other secular university is granted that opportunity. By extending the deadline for transfer students to apply to the school, he is making sure that anybody who wants to attend YU is given that chance, even at this late date.

He even encouraged faculty who felt that YU might be a better environment in which to teach to apply for positions:

“We have also heard from top-tier faculty across the country who are feeling uncomfortable on their current campuses and are interested in being part of an institution whose core values align with their own. As we continue to expand, we are creating new faculty positions in a few fields.”

Now you might be thinking that all of this sounds noble, but YU’s ulterior motive is simply to capitalize on the current crisis to increase its own enrollment. No doubt this represents a unique opportunity to appeal to students the school otherwise might not have attracted. However, Rabbi Berman ended his email by also acknowledging the responsibility of secular universities to make sure their campuses are comfortable places for Jewish students:

This is a time of turmoil in higher education. Universities are under great stress to express their core values while balancing the needs of their diverse communities. For the future of higher education, the American university system needs to meet the challenges of this moment. Universities need to be safe for Jews, not free from Jews. I have devoted much time this year to finding and partnering with bridge builders, and I look forward to working with my colleagues from universities across the country to build a brighter future together.”

Rabbi Berman correctly realizes that it would be impossible for YU to serve every yeshiva high school graduate who wanted to attend college … and that it would be in everybody’s best interests – including the best interests of YU – to make sure that Jewish students also feel comfortable applying to secular schools and attending them.

The reality is that YU is not the right school for everyone to attend, even when you consider the current climate at other college campuses. First, not every Orthodox college student wants a sex-segregated environment. Second, Yeshiva University might not offer certain concentrations in specific subjects that are desired by students. Third, there is a dress code that is followed at YU (perhaps unwritten but still adhered to by students). Fourth, Judaic studies are mandatory at YU. And finally, YU doesn’t have a traditional campus like other schools.

Also, I wonder whether it’s a good idea for a college student to attend YU solely because they are uncomfortable expressing their Judaism outwardly at another school rather than wanting to engage in serious Jewish learning after high school (which should be the main reason why anyone attends YU).

Finally, let’s not forget about next year’s sophomores, juniors, and seniors at Maryland, Rutgers, Binghamton, Columbia, and Penn. They chose to attend universities that allowed for Orthodox students to lead a fully observant life and be proud of their Judaism. The JLIC at the Orthodox Union has invested heavily in making sure there is an Orthodox support system at these universities. Are we simply willing to abandon these students, and encourage them to leave their school, even though there might be many good reasons for them to remain? Or do we want to make sure, as Rabbi Berman stated in his message, that secular college campuses are safe for Jews, not free from Jews.

Yeshiva University has recently mishandled several controversial issues. The school failed to work out a compromise with the YU Pride Alliance to have a club on campus … and then decided to appeal a court decision that legally required the school to recognize the club (by the way, I would argue that the school didn’t win any points with anyone with its actions, regardless of which side of the argument you are on).

I also think it was a mistake for Stern College to arbitrarily cancel its beginner and immediate Talmud classes last year because of low enrollment – fortunately, the school changed its decision after 1,400 people signed a petition to reinstate the courses, and dozens of Stern college students are now taking Talmud courses from high-level instructors. However, the university still has egg on its face for its initial decision.

In addition, Rabbi Menachem Penner’s departure from YU’s rabbinical school earlier this year left students, faculty, and administrators with more questions than answers.

Fortunately, the school has recently risen to the occasion – and has reacted thoughtfully and wisely to the current antisemitism being experienced on college campuses across the country.  It’s important for us to recognize this … even those like myself who at times might have been critical of the school in the past.

Yasher koach, Rabbi Berman!

About the Author
Michael Feldstein, who lives in Stamford, CT, is the author of "Meet Me in the Middle," a collection of essays on contemporary Jewish life. His articles and letters have appeared in The Jewish Link, The Jewish Week, The Forward, and The Jewish Press. He can be reached at michaelgfeldstein@gmail.com
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