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Holding on to Judaism While Attending University

For the vast majority of students who truly want the best of both worlds, I would strongly recommend YU over any Ivy League school.
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There is an excellent, albeit very lengthy article in The Eye – a blog which I assume is part Columbia University’s online student newspaper.

It deals with campus life for Orthodox students there. Columbia is one of a number of top schools that have a rich Orthodox Jewish environment. They have about 250 students that are observant. They fully keep Kosher and observe Shabbos. They have several Minyanim daily – and some even spend part of their day studying Torah. On the surface I would describe it as a wonderful place for a religious Jew to get an Ivy League education. And yet, I have reservations about it and ultimately wonder about the wisdom of choosing a school like this for an undergraduate degree.

The author of the article describes Yavneh, which it seems is responsible for creating and fostering such an environment. I actually attended a few Yavneh events as a single young man back when I was in HTC while attending Roosevelt University at night here in Chicago. Yavneh is a fine institution that provides social services for religious students.

There were profiles in that article of several students whose experiences differed widely from each other. One student wanted the Ivy League education but also wanted the Yeshiva experience. So he decided to spend his mornings at Yeshiva University (Y.U.) learning in their Beis HaMedrash. Afternoons were spent in classes at Columbia.

Another student who attended saw his commitment to Orthodoxy slipping. I’m not sure whether he is still fully observant. Hopefully he is. But the direction he was taking seemed to be a slippery slope away from full commitment to Halacha.

A third Jewish student who came from a non-observant home found his experiences at Columbia’s Orthodox environment bringing him a lot closer to observance – taking on various observances.

So I see attending a school like Columbia to be a mixed bag despite its wonderful environment.

I am the first in line to promote the study of Torah U’Mada (Torah as well as secular knowledge). I am also supportive of participating in those aspects of the general culture that do not contradict my religious values. But I am still wary of the challenges of attending an Ivy League school that does not really cater to the needs of a religious Jew – At least not as its primary function.

I’m not saying it is impossible to do. Obviously it is very possible and is being done successfully by quite a few Orthodox students. I would even go so far as to say that in some cases it might even be a plus to do so, especially if one’s commitment to observant Judaism is high on his list. But for the vast majority of students who truly want the best of both worlds, I would strongly recommend Y.U. over any Ivy League school, no matter how accommodating it is to Orthodox Students – or how Orthodox the Jewish environment is made to be by organizations like Yavneh. The problems are evident even in this very positive article about life there.

I recall a graduate of Y.U. telling me about the following predicament He was in one of Y.U.’s joint programs with Columbia. This individual is very bright and a model of religious observance in all areas – Bein Adam L’Makom (between man and God) and Adam L’Charevro (between man and his fellow man). He is an expert in his chosen profession. When he’s not working, he spends much of his time learning Torah. I consider him a role model for those who choose a Torah U’Mada or Torah im Derech Eretz (“Torah with manners”) path in Judaism.

And yet as committed as he is – and was while at Columbia – he found himself contemplating whether to attend an important class on Shabbos (or perhaps it was Yom Tov. I don’t recall which). He had figured out all kinds of ways of doing it without violating Shabbos. He decided in the end not to do it. He felt that even if it wasn’t technically a violation of Shabbos, it was certainly not in the spirit of Shabbos. This is just one of the many problems one can encounter in a secular university, which would not happen in Y.U. There is also the social scene that is prevalent on university campuses these days… one that is not conducive to the high moral standards Halacha requires of us.

There are of course no guarantees in life. There are people that become more observant in places like Columbia, and there are students that can go OTD (off the Derech) in Y.U. But I do believe that Y.U. is more conducive to those who are interested in keeping the highest standards of observance; being able to study Torah at the highest levels comparable to the best Yeshivos; and at the same getting an excellent university education.

There is also a qualitative difference in being a part of a Yeshiva and simply studying in its Beis HaMedrash there even on a daily basis. As full time student at Y.U. you become part of the culture. You have some of the most respected rabbis in Orthodoxy mentoring you. Most of whom have university degrees of their own. They are role models that students will most likely be looking to. And there is also a broad scope of Jewish studies available there that may not be available at Columbia and certainly not available in the standard Yeshiva environment, studies that include a variety of Jewish philosophy or Jewish history courses.

I don’t think that these kinds of things should be minimized or overlooked when choosing a school. There may be a professional advantage to choosing a school like Columbia but the trade-off in losing the Y.U. environment may not be worth the gain.

While I am very happy to see such a vibrant observant campus life in places like Columbia – which testify to the vibrancy of Modern Orthodoxy, I can’t emphasize enough the greater value in most cases of choosing a Yeshiva like Y.U. for higher education. It is Y.U.’s Haskafa that drives the school and not just academics alone. There is no better place to absorb the Modern Orthodox Hashkafa of Torah U’Mada than Y.U.

Visit Emes Ve-Emunah.

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About the Author: Harry Maryles runs the blog "Emes Ve-Emunah" which focuses on current events and issues that effect the Jewish world in general and Orthodoxy in particular. It discuses Hashkafa and news events of the day - from a Centrist perspctive and a philosphy of Torah U'Mada. He can be reached at hmaryles@yahoo.com.


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3 Responses to “Holding on to Judaism While Attending University”

  1. The Jewish people have a distinct culture and traditions they can be proud of just like any other distinctive people.

  2. The Jewish people have a distinct culture and traditions they can be proud of just like any other distinctive people.

  3. David Willig says:

    How about Bar Ilan, and get the fringe benefit of the MITZVA of living in Eretz Yisrael? Why does that Mitzva not count?

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