Latest update: December 4th, 2012
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.
As a campus kiruv rabbi, I have raised this issue with my colleagues a number of times and invariably they respond, “Sorry, we can’t help everyone. Our focus is on the unaffiliated students.”
I cannot tell you how many applications I’ve received from yeshiva high school alumni who have stopped observing Shabbos but who beg to go on our Israel experience (which has Torah learning and touring components) – and how many of those I’ve had to turn down because the kiruv organizations cannot take them.
For one thing, the organizations rightly believe that the Jewish issues a secular college student struggles with are different from the ones confronting a yeshiva high school alumnus. For another, the funders of the various kiruv organizations have limited funds. And they feel the Orthodox students are the responsibility of their home communities.
That being the case, why do we spend hundreds of thousands of dollars in tuition educating children through high school and spend next to nothing afterward?
Some Possible Solutions
The reality is that there are no easy answers. I’d like, however, to put forth some ideas.
Going to a good university is not just part of growing up Modern Orthodox; it perhaps has become its leitmotif. Any suggestion that students not go to a coed college would immediately be greeted by derisive eye rolling or worse. So what are these young men and women to do?
1. A year of Torah study in Israel for American students should be de rigueur. While many parents fear their children will be brainwashed and decide not go to college once the year is up, statistics don’t bear that out. (See a study by Dr. Shalom Berger in the book Flipping Out which indicates the overwhelming majority of these young people are not deserting college for a life in kollel. They are more likely to return to college, but with a far more intense commitment to the core elements of Jewish continuity and belief, something that will certainly help them navigate the challenging years ahead.)
2. More funding, resources and – crucially – staffing needs to be poured into the programs on campus that work directly with Orthodox students.
3. We need to get the kiruv organizations more involved with our yeshiva high school alumni. Kiruv rabbis are in a unique position to help these students. As stated above, many kiruv organizations are reluctant to get involved. But if the community were to demand it, it would be more likely to happen. As we have seen in the political arena, if there is a grassroots movement for change, change will come.
4. Emunah and issues of maintaining one’s Judaism in the modern world need to be stressed far more in Modern Orthodox high schools. The standard classes of Tanach, Gemara and halacha simply do not suffice. (An excellent organization with emunah and hashkafah programming is Project Chazon, run by Rabbis Mechanic and Millstein.) In addition, students must develop a close relationship with a rabbi or a mentor with whom they can speak openly about any and all issues.
5. Parents themselves must set a better example for their children. Young people can easily sense when their parents are preaching but not practicing. Young people need to see parents who attend shiurim, are involved in chesed projects, etc.
6. Modern Orthodoxy seeks to synthesize the world with Torah and Judaism. As one eminent kiruv rabbi and thinker has suggested, students attending college must be inculcated with the idea that they aren’t merely trying to fight off their yetzer hara but rather must see themselves as ambassadors of Judaism, spreading the Torah’s values to other Jews and the campus in general. This sense of mission is a powerful vehicle for one’s own spiritual growth.
7. Most important, this problem must become a major point of discussion in our communities. Even if we don’t have clear answers, the mere fact that it is being discussed is a step in the right direction. Nothing less than the Jewish future is at stake.
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