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.


  1. Interesting post.

    The idea of spiritual growth, balance, and the role of post-high school study relates a little to the conversation that Bad for Shidduchim had a few days ago, where she discussed how women dating for marriage are sometimes asked about their "spiritual" pursuits.

    Completely absent in the responses was pushback on what should be defined as spirituality. Mostly, people dutifully defined it as engaging in torah study or attendance at shiurim.

    I think that too many post-high school programs -- for both men and women -- define spirituality a mostly solitary activity done mostly to enrich the belief or knowledge of the student. (yes, yes - i know the world is dependent on Torah study, but let's face it; most practitioners are doing it because of peer pressure, and are not doing it to save the world or to get a spiritual high)

    I humbly suggest that public service / tircha d'tziburah be promoted as a legitimate expression of spirituality by the Judaic studies portion of these programs or yeshivas and seminaries. This sensitivity to the spiritual, emotional and phsycial needs of friends, neighbors and families might inject a little balance into the curriculum.

  2. I have so many thoughts on this (excellent) post that I don't where to start.

    Regarding DRS's idea... it sounds like it is a low-cost alternative that would negatively impact places like Lander and YU. Smart on their part; not necessarily great in the overall picture, but that's a different point.

    I never really viewed YU as an option while in HS, simply because it was ingrained into me that it was less "frum"; this, despite my sister and brother-in-law having been in YU/Stern. (Stern, for whatever reason, did not have that stigma.)

    Only when I went to visit was I impressed by their full BM; on the flip side, the guy who showed us around had just woken up and his chavrusa was sleeping. (It was 1030am.) Moreover, there were 5-600 guys learning. There are 1,100 in YU, as pointed out by a Rebbe of mine.

    The Torah-centric point is a fantastic one and aligns well with a few other discussions I was having recently (some after this post was written). To super-over-simplify a much longer conversation, it's not surprising that it exists in YU, but not in Lander. If someone is MO or MO-background or "flipped", there is often a need to ensure that one is perceived as being the proper level of frum. In Lander, by being there alone one self-defines as being "more frum" (as compared to YU et al). In YU, because there is a large chunk of people who could not care less, those who do feel a pressure to 'show' their frumkeit by bringing Torah everywhere (as opposed to understanding that Torah is part of everywhere). The same person in Lander doesn't have this pressure; they are already "frum"; they can simply focus on their secular studies at their time and learning at its time.

    I personally didn't find the Rabbeim in Lander to be much better than what you described, but then again, I was used to WITS and OJ, two places notoriously good about it; it was substantially better in LCM than in other Yeshivos I was in, so give it that. Certainly they made time if approached.

    Lost track of all the thoughts, but excellent post. Lots of other discussions that can come from this.

  3. Also, great comment by Ari as well.

  4. Re: DRS - I think it's great that they're having this program. As one of the Rebbeim there said, yeah, it's cheaper than YU, but for the near 50% or students who don't choose YU, it's a great option. Those kids should be able to have at least one Modern Orthodox learning program instead of their only options being programs that are more yeshivish. I don't think it will take boys away from Lander. The ones going to Lander probably wouldn't consider going to a program run by DRS (or very few, anyway). Not to mention that programs like this already exist, just not MO ones.

    In Lander, by being there alone one self-defines as being "more frum" (as compared to YU et al).

    True. Although what about within Lander itself? There isn't that same competition?

  5. Twenty years ago, bachurim had the option of learning in a variety of yeshivos and attending college at the same time. Quite a number of young men in Far Rockaway learned in YFR in the day and attended Queens College at night. However, with the general trend to the right, this was discontinued. As a result, those who wanted to combine learning with college had far fewer options. We'll see if this takes off.

  6. I realize I'm a little late to this party, but as someone whose younger brother is hoping to become a part of MYP after four years at Chafetz Chayim - what would you recommend? Were there any rabbeim you felt were more amenable to being involved? Was this truly across the board in the higher shiurs?

    My brother's a middle-of-the-road kind of guy, and he's going to YU rather than a CC beis medrash because his values (like our family's) are somewhat more modern than CC. But your post has me worried that he will feel neglected or out-of-place for believing in the same values YU usually highlights: Torah u'madda. Is it possible to belong to one of the more advanced shiurs and still hang with a "normal" crowd, placing equal emphasis on secular studies?

  7. Fudge -

    Is he going as a college student or for smicha?

  8. as a college student, straight from high school (doesn't want to go to israel at this time).