Edited by Max Gruber
In three months, high school seniors will choose a college to attend. Fellow writer and longtime friend Akiva Chevitz labeled this choice “The Decision.” It mimics LeBron James’s famous decision to leave Cleveland for Miami in 2010. Six years ago, I embarked on the college decision journey. Lessons gleaned from this adventure introduced me to a brand new perspective on life.
During the college application cycle, my relative recommends YU to all high school seniors. After hearing of my friend Alex’s acceptance to NYU, this relative responded: “That’s nice, Alex. But just take out the N, and you’ll be fine.” Several weeks later, my friend Rafi received an acceptance letter to Cornell. After catching wind of this news, my relative asked Rafi a follow-up question: “Have you considered YU?”
One Sukkot, a female guest at our sukkah informed my relative she planned to attend Harvard University. Following this statement, my relative provided a memorable response: “Have you thought about going to Stern? It’s probably fun to live in Midtown.” Hearing this propaganda at family gatherings prompted me to develop “ehhh” feelings about Yeshiva University.
The summer leading up to senior year, several thoughts about YU jumped in and out of my head. Why listen to my relative? Why take on four more years of Judaic studies? Why attend another school without girls? What about joining a fraternity? What about going to College football games? Why give up an Ivy League education?
Hold the phone, Yosef. You could never get into an Ivy League school. Like many of our community’s thinking 17-year-olds, I wanted to swim against the tide. I wanted to experience a life beyond the Jewish bubble of Teaneck and mainstream Modern Orthodoxy. At the time, YU represented conformity, whereas secular college represented independence.
One Sunday in November, this relative encouraged me to attend YU’s open house. Upon arriving at YU’s campus, I entered the beit midrash. Suddenly, Rabbi Yehuda Willig walked toward me and offered a cordial greeting. “Hello. What’s your name?” Without thinking, I launched a blunt comeback to Rabbi Willig. “I’m Joe. I’m only visiting here to make my relative happy. I don’t want to come here.” At this open house, YU plastered its catchy slogan around campus that stated, “Nowhere But Here.” My sarcastic response at the time was “Anywhere But Here.”
After graduating high school, I studied at a yeshiva in Israel for two years. Often, rabbis on staff would ask students about their future. One day after shiur, a rabbi from yeshiva asked about my college plans: “So, Yosef. What are your plans for after yeshiva?”
Unphased by the question, I crossed both legs, one on top of the other, and replied confidently, “I’m going to the University of Maryland.”
“Have you considered YU? I hear they have excellent Torah learning opportunities there. You seem to enjoy learning in my shiur.”
“I have. But it’s just that everybody I know goes to YU. It would be nice to branch out at Maryland. They have a sick campus filled with Orthodox Jews, amazing clubs. They even have an Orthodox fraternity. Besides, I never heard anyone rave about YU who wasn’t super religious.”
During my second year of yeshiva, I developed second thoughts about UMD. Before yeshiva in Israel, I never spent two full years away from immediate family and grandparents. Although phone calls and FaceTime make keeping in touch simple, nothing beats face-to-face interactions. It takes four hours to reach the University of Maryland from Teaneck. Attending this school would remove dozens of yearly visits to family members.
Some nights, I would have nightmares about missing four more years of family time. At home, my twin younger siblings, Ezra and Ahava, were entering seventh grade. Enrolling at the University of Maryland would leave Ezra and Ahava without a big brother during their formative years. Attending a school near home would make it easier to maintain strong family ties.
Before yeshiva in Israel, I never strived for religious growth. Outside of school, I learned Torah sporadically and attended the late, fast minyans around town. In high school, I walked out during the rabbi’s Friday night speech to talk about fantasy football. Following yeshiva, I began devoting hours of free time to learning Torah and Gemara. After yeshiva, I started hitting up slow minyans. After yeshiva, I looked forward to the rabbi’s Friday night speech. My yeshiva experiences played the catalyst for my newfound commitment to yiddishkeit.
Some people have the capacity to achieve religious growth in small Orthodox communities. Others require a large frum infrastructure to buttress their religious growth. Deep introspection revealed, I thrive amidst large religious infrastructures. Thus, Yeshiva University’s numerous shiurim, minyanim and opportunities for religious growth presented a better fit than University of Maryland.
At Yeshiva University, I had an incredible religious and social experience. For two years, I learned under Rabbi Netanel Weiderblank. Outsiders know of Rabbi Weidebralnk’s insightful books and mastery of Jewish philosophy. Insiders know of Rabbi Weiderblank’s immeasurable character. At any given moment, students and colleagues can interrupt his personal learning to ask him Torah or life questions. During one-on-one schmoozes, Rabbi Weiderblank makes every student feel like a million bucks. In and out of shiur, Rabbi Weiderblank treats each student like his own child. No matter the week, he will make time to speak with you. He puts the A in the word “accessible.”
Observing this role model inspires me to be a more compassionate, flexible and committed person. I hope to soon have Rabbi Weiderblank officiate my wedding.
Relax, Yosef. It’s only been three dates. You haven’t asked if she wants to make aliyah, nor mentioned that you dated her older sister. Either way, when it happens, he’ll be there.
Throughout college, I volunteered for YU’s Makor program. This program teaches adults with cognitive disabilities the life skills needed to strive for their highest level of functioning and independence. At night, I learned Navi or halacha with various Makor students. On Wednesdays, I grabbed lunch with one Makor student at Golan Heights. Once or twice a semester, I helped run Makor shabbatons on campus. Befriending students at Makor taught me the value of making time for others. Guiding students at Makor inspired me to pursue a career in clinical psychology.
In this article, I shared insights about my own college decision process. However, you may have different career, social or spiritual goals. Pursue the school which best fits your goals.
But keep an open mind. Sometimes, the places we perceive to be “ehhhh” turn out amazing.
To quote a friend of mine. “It’s not where you go to college, but how you go to college.”
To quote Rabbi Yisachar Frand. “If you can’t give, you can’t live.
To quote Rabbi Netanel Weiderblank. “The best charity you can give someone is your time.”
Links to several of Rabbi Weidrbalnk’s books: Each of his books breaks down Jewish philosophy in a simple straightforward way.
Lastly, I recently published a fiction book called Adulting with DLG Publishing Partners. If you enjoyed this article, check out the paperback or kindle version on Amazon. It discusses religious and social challenges of modern orthodox teenagers with fun humor and modern life lessons. If you type up Yosef Silfen Adulting on Google. You will find it. https://www.amazon.com/Adulting-Yosef-Silfen/dp/1952805783