Like many of his classmates at Frisch Yeshiva High School, Dr. Gil Perl continued his education at an Ivy League school at the University of Pennsylvania — and later completed a graduate degree at Harvard University. However, when he was 25 years old, he co-authored a controversial monograph, “A Parent’s Guide to Orthodox Assimilation on University Campuses,” in which he questioned the decision of Orthodox parents who decide to send their kids to secular colleges. He also attempted to push our community to invest more in creating the proper resources for our youngsters, both in preparing them better before they arrive at secular colleges and in supporting them while they are there.
The monograph created quite a buzz in the Modern Orthodox community at the time, and likely spurred the Orthodox Union to create the JLIC program and for high schools to create curricula for seniors to address the issues their students would be facing at secular universities. However, the publication’s effect on increased enrollment at YU and Touro was minimal. For the past two decades, most Modern Orthodox parents continued to send their children to secular campuses, with only a small percentage of high school graduates at SAR, Frisch, and Ramaz opting to attend Yeshiva University or Touro College.
And why not? Many secular campuses now boast kosher kitchens, daily minyanim, Shabbat programming, JLIC couples, and even Daf Yomi programs. Parents felt confident that by sending their kids to an Ivy League school or another secular campus with a solid academic reputation, they could get the best of both worlds – a top-notch college education for their youngsters without the fear of losing them to the fold.
All that just might have come crashing down to a halt because of the current war against Hamas. Dozens of universities have been the site of anti-Israel rallies, and several of these institutions have failed to issue clear condemnations of the brutal and savage attack against Israeli civilians by Hamas on October 7th. Petitions have been signed by students, faculty, and administrators deploring Israel’s response to the unprovoked attack, in some cases failing to even acknowledge the initial massacre. As a result, many parents are seriously asking themselves whether they should be sending their kids to Columbia, Penn, and Harvard – even if their kids are fortunate enough to be among the few who are accepted.
And that’s where Yeshiva University (and Touro) come in. For as long as I recall, the very large majority of high school students who would both apply and attend YU were the ones who wouldn’t consider going to a secular college in the first place – with perhaps a handful of gap year students who might have changed their mind after a year or two in Israel and switched from going to a secular college to attend YU or Touro.
For years, Yeshiva University has valiantly tried to attract Modern Orthodoxy’s best and brightest – the students who could get into the Ivy League colleges, but who chose instead to attend YU. They always convince some each year. However, based on discussions I have had with high school administrators and students themselves, I think they have had great difficulty at achieving this goal for several decades, despite their honors program and other things they have done to market to this demographic.
Now, for the first time, the university has a real chance to change the narrative – and increase its student body with high school students who only a few weeks ago had their sights set on Harvard, Yale, Columbia, and Penn. And continue attracting these kinds of students for many years to come.
Despite the prestige of sending their kids to a highly rated academic institution, many Orthodox parents are now questioning whether this is the right move for their children, for three main reasons:
First, they are seriously concerned about whether their kids will be physically and emotionally safe expressing their Judaism outwardly on campus. Columbia University, which has a very high percentage of Jewish students, was forced to place their students on lockdown at its Jewish students center during a protest rally on campus, for fear of their safety. Besides the horrible war that is going on in Israel, there is another war going on across university campuses – a war against Jewish students the likes of which we have never seen before.
Second, they are questioning whether their kids will remain Orthodox if they are discouraged from outwardly demonstrating their Jewish lineage. It was hard enough even before the current war for Orthodox kids to remain observant after four years at a secular university … imagine how hard it will be now when you add the hostility that is prevalent now against Israel and the Jewish people.
Third, parents are reluctant to support universities that have not unequivocally condemned the attack on Israel by Hamas, especially after these institutions issued strong statements about the George Floyd murder and the Me-Too movement. Rape should never be okay. Decapitating human beings should never be okay. Saying you are allowed to murder and kidnap individuals in the name of resistance should never be okay. Yet that is exactly what administrators at many academic institutions are saying. It’s not surprising that Modern Orthodox parents are thinking twice about spending $50,000-plus a year to educate their kids at such places.
Shai Davidai, an Israeli professor of business at Columbia University, created a powerful video that recently went viral. In the video, he stated that he felt Columbia University could no longer protect its Jewish students against terror student organizations, which have been given permission to march on campus and which administrators have failed to even criticize. The same thing unfortunately can be said about a dozen other high-profile universities.
In the next few months, high school seniors will be applying to the colleges of their choice. It’s likely that things will not be getting any better for Jews on university campuses in the coming months. No doubt there will be some parents who still believe that an Ivy League education is the right choice for their kids – and we should respect that decision. But there will be many others who now might question what they felt a month ago. This is Yeshiva University’s golden opportunity to accomplish what it has found difficult to accomplish before – and convince hundreds more students to make YU their school of choice.