Boro Park and Flatbush are adjacent Brooklyn neighborhoods. I have lived in Boro Park from the age of nine, to the astonishment of some. Brooklyn College is a stone’s throw away in Flatbush. I had never seen Brooklyn College until the spring of 1952 when I was seventeen and about to graduate high school.
My twin, Allen, and I applied to Brooklyn, which had high admission standards, and we were accepted. We attended an orientation session on campus and what I saw astounded me.
Brooklyn College then was an uncluttered, relaxed, and beautifully laid out quadrilateral campus that consisted of four major buildings named Boylan, Ingersoll, Roosevelt, and LaGuardia. Boylan was the main classroom building, Ingersoll had science labs and classrooms, LaGuardia was the library facility, and Roosevelt, which was across Flatbush Avenue, consisted primarily of a gym, including a large swimming pool.
With the expansion of the City University system, Brooklyn College also grew, with buildings of divergent architectural style being added. The inevitable result was that the campus lost much of its charm, which is true of many colleges and universities across the country. Higher education is badly afflicted by a severe edifice complex.
We continued at the Rabbi Jacob Joseph School, studying in the Beth Medrash until about 4 p.m. Our classes at Brooklyn were in the evening, from about 5 p.m. until 10:40. Each class met twice a week, Monday/Wednesday or Tuesday/Thursday.
There were many Orthodox Jewish students, mostly male, who went to RJJ or Torah Vodaath or Chaim Berlin during the day. It is not an excess of religious Jewish pride or chauvinism to note that Orthodox students routinely were at the top of the class. I especially remember with much fondness Leonard Dickstein of blessed memory who graduated with a perfect average and who for decades was a neighbor and a wonderful friend of Allen’s in Silver Spring, Maryland.
The phenomenon of combining Torah study with a college education is nearly entirely gone with the wind and it is certainly not now viewed as an acceptable approach in the yeshiva world. Yet in the 1950s it was routine and my college classmates included individuals who are now recognized as outstanding roshei yeshiva and rabbis. A substantial portion of the yeshiva students at Brooklyn during this period continued on to graduate or professional schools.
There are good reasons why the combination of significant Torah study and a college education has now vanished almost entirely, the primary one being the emphasis on total immersion in Torah study. But as welcome as this development is, it needs to be underscored that there is no reason to apologize for a pattern that existed in a previous generation and it is necessary to emphasize that the pattern yielded enormous benefits to our community.
Of course, Brooklyn College has changed, as has just about all of higher education. In the evening and into the night, the Brooklyn campus is not the hive of classroom activity it was in the 1950s. Security concerns and lifestyle changes have severely curtailed the use of the campus at night.
Night college ordinarily was part time in nature, meaning that students did not take a full load of sixteen credits. There were yeshiva students who with the approval and, at times, strong encouragement of their roshei yeshiva went to Brooklyn four evenings a week, the aim being to graduate quickly so that they could devote themselves full time to Torah study.
This option was not available to Allen and me because Thursday evenings were reserved for work in our mother’s bakery. As we wanted to graduate in four years, we generally took four courses or twelve credits each semester and then we went to Brooklyn’s summer school. Because science courses entailed both classroom and laboratory periods, they could not be fit into the ordinary Fall or Spring semester schedule. We took two chemistry courses during one summer, going first to Brooklyn and then for a second session to NYU. The experience was exhausting and less than successful.