1. Josh is a 20-year-old college student who was given a yeshiva education from kindergarten through 12th grade. No doubt his parents spent well over $100,000 for his solid Jewish education. He is involved in Jewish life on campus and attends minyan regularly, though life on campus is a spiritual battle. So when he told me he went to his college football team’s stadium to attend a game on a Shabbos afternoon, I was a little disappointed.
“Don’t worry,” he reassured me. “I walked to the game.”
“How did you get your ticket there?” I asked, knowing the eruv does not extend to the stadium.
“Oh, don’t worry,” he responded. “I had one of my non-observant friends carry it for me.”
Not much better, I thought, since it is prohibited to have another Jew break Shabbos for you in non-emergency situations.
Josh proceeded to relate a “funny” story. As his team was dismantled in a driving rainstorm, he overheard a female student several rows behind him complain to her friend, “For this I broke Shabbos!?”
2. On my second day as a campus rabbi back in September 2004, I was looking for secular Jewish students for my kiruv program. I met a nice Orthodox girl unloading her belongings in the dorm with her father. I struck up a conversation with him and he congratulated me on my new venture, saying, “My friend’s daughter spent four years in a yeshiva high school and then went to a coed college; within a week she completely changed her wardrobe to a very provocative one and soon after that became a dancer.” (And no, it wasn’t for a music company).
As someone who has worked on a coed college campus doing kiruv for the past five years, I can tell you – as can every one of my colleagues – a hundred more stories like these about students who come from Orthodox families and went through twelve years of yeshiva education.
After receiving one too many a phone call from parents who hadn’t known about their children dating non-Jews in college, or from talking to the frustrated good students on campus who are doing all they can to have a positive impact on their friends who have turned their back on the Torah education they received in high school, I feel I cannot keep this information to myself. I have a responsibility to share it with parents whose children are college bound.
The spiritual situation facing Orthodox students on college campuses is a precarious one. Most dorms are coed and the peer pressure to fit in and be like everyone else is enormous. Even a sincerely observant 19 year old certainly still has the desire to taste the forbidden fruit, even if just to see what it’s like. So for how long will an Orthodox college student manage to resist the influence of his or her secular counterparts (who have an average of 5.5 intimate partners during their undergraduate years)?
Additionally, how do we expect a high school Jewish education to compete with a secular university education? This is especially the case when many of the yeshiva high schools offer very little to students in the areas of emunah, Jewish outlook and hashkafah.
Fortunately, some students find refuge in Hillel or the Chabad House. Programs such as the OU’s Jewish Learning Initiative, Chabad on campus, and Rabbi Shalom Axelrod’s Kesharim are a good step in the right direction. At Rutgers, for example, Rabbi Yisroel and Shoshana Porath of the JLI, in partnership with Hillel, have had tremendous success. A multitude of Shabbos meals and shiurim are available. There is also a daily kosher meal plan as well as Shabbos meals, learning, and other programs available at Rutgers Chabad, run by the popular Rabbi Boruch Goodman. Many students have used these opportunities to grow in their religious observance and deepen their Torah knowledge.
These programs, however, are usually attended by some of the more religiously motivated students while those who perhaps entered college a bit weaker in their Yiddishkeit tend to fall away. For one thing, even the most dedicated campus rabbis and rebbetzins cannot have a close relationship with more than 65-75 students. Naturally they will have such relationships with the students who seek them out. But on many campuses with large Jewish populations – Penn, Brandeis, University of Maryland, Rutgers, etc. – there are hundreds of yeshiva high school alumni who are not involved. Who is taking care of their spiritual needs? There must be more funding for programs to reach out to students who are getting lost and leaving Orthodoxy.