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.