Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Finding a Center: The Role of Yeshiva University

Reprinted with permission from Adventures in Chinuch
by YD

I just read that DRS (the boys high school in Woodmere) is opening up a post-high school yeshiva program. I am extremely happy with this news, although I am sure (based on speaking to someone there), that Yeshiva University is not. Obviously this presents a potential cheaper option for those who want to attend Queens College or a comparable place. But it is not only the potential savings that excites me.

I am not going to go through my entire story, but suffice it to say that I was not happy for the year I spent at YU. I subsequently switched to Lander College, from where I graduated. I know, if I switched to Lander you are probably thinking that I must have...

a) Thought of myself as being yeshivish
b) Considered poetry to be the source of all evil in the world
c) Labeled Rabbi Lamm as a kofer
d) Been really weird
e) All of the above

Actually none is true, except maybe d. I switched because I wasn't happy. I wasn't happy because I felt that the environment in the Yeshiva Program was (and probably still is) a bit too Torah-Centric. Here's what I mean:

As we have discussed numerous times, there is a lot more to meaning in a Jewish life than how much a person engages in "holy" activities. There is a lot to be said for accomplishing things outside the realm of what people call "spirituality." People, including myself, are often sensitive to this, and need other things for their spirituality. In fact, engaging in pursuits other than "holiness" may be fulfilling part of the purpose of creation. If you don't trust me, read the first chapter of By His Light, which is based on R' Aharon Lichtenstein's speeches. (Thanks to fellow blogger Erachet for suggesting I read it; it's a must-read for anyone who believes in "being normal.")

This idea, is one of the biggest casualties of the "flipping out" phenomenon. When many teenagers flip out they change their entire focus to the areas of Talmud Torah and holiness. What many don't realize is that to drastically alter your focus is not an obligation incumbent on every person, and that for many, it is unhealthy. Additionally, they may become ignorant of the fact that other who don't follow their approach, may actually be doing the right thing.

As we have discussed, the Rebbeim is Israel have the ability to set these kid straight, and often don't, either because they don't believe they should, or because they think it will hurt the effectiveness of their Yeshiva, or some other reason. However, as fellow blogger Chaim pointed in the comments, the post-high school Rebbeim have just as much responsibility and ability to attend to this problem.

Which brings me to YU. I found there to be very little guidance from the Rebbeim in Yeshiva University. Many of them only come in for a few hours, just to give shiur, and leave. Very little is heard from the Rebbeim besides the Torah they teach, and for some, even the Parsha shiur is just another Gemara sugya on a topic related to the Parsha. Every once in a while there was a speech about a meaningful topic like dating or something, but this was never followed by a "meet with the rebbe and discuss your issues personally" session. In short, one could easily get the impression there that Talmud Torah is the only important value.

My impression was that this attitude was very prevalent among the students there as well. People spent hours on end learning, (which is good) but cut a lot of their classes (which is bad), brought seforim to class (which is disrespectful), were constantly deriding the Madda portion of the school (also bad), and gave off the general impression that value to yourself and the Jewish people is based on how much Torah you learn. These guys were the ones who were "well-known" in the Beis Medrash (aka the role models), and were overall just way too intense.

I wouldn't have a problem with this if YU were strictly a Yeshiva for the most serious boys. But it's not. Just based on the sheer numbers, there is no way that the Yeshiva Program can expect everyone to be Torah-only students. Additionally, YU itself stands for the type of well-rounded philosophy that is not most common among it's students. Most care too much about Torah, or not enough Torah, to even come near the ideal YU product. So either the Rebbeim are not on boat with YU philosophy (which is dysfunctional) or they are, but don't have time to care (which is equally as dysfunctional).

Either way, YU has the potential to produce normal, but G-d fearing graduates who are knowledgeable in both their professional field and in Torah. But unfortunately, the opportunity is not being taken advantage of for whatever reason or reasons that may be. I know YU has been trying lately to reverse this trend, but until they do more to change the culture there, I will be excited about any new possible program that may (or may not) steer their students, and by extension the rest of us, in the right direction.