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On Making Choices: A Response to The Commentator’s ‘The Case for a Flexible Morning Program’

I was pleased to read The Commentator's recent staff editorial, "The Case for a Flexible Morning Program."  I agree that the Jewish Studies administration might well look into ways of making the morning program more flexible, and I hope that this editorial might be responsible for the creation of new, more flexible initiatives.  But I took issue with two aspects of the editorial piece which may, in my opinion, reflect the real issues involved.

The penultimate sentence in the editorial highlights a problem in the generally accepted wisdom at YU.  "What if the Judaic studies programs we are all mandatorily enrolled in, the very programs that make Yeshiva what it is and the reason many of us are here, allowed for types of learning other than four hours of preparation for an hour and a half lecture?"  Besides for the exaggeration here (MYP mandates three hours of preparation for that hour and a half lecture), it seems to me that there are indeed other programs that do allow for other types of learning.  The apparently lesser-known Mechinah, IBC and SBMP programs do indeed have other schedules, in which both the requisite time and format of learning are different from those of MYP.  Admittedly, the editorial does implicitly reference these programs earlier, but many of the concerns raised by the article would be alleviated if a student were enrolled in one of these programs.  For example, we would not need to "pretend that every single student actually puts in the hours that the morning programs decree" if the students we were examining were part of the Mechinah, IBC or SBMP programs, in which attendance is much more closely monitored.  The entire premise of the editorial, that there is no flexibility whatsoever in morning programs, is thus false, considering that there are four programs from which students can choose.

Then why does the editorial (largely) ignore the existence of these programs?  I think we all know the answer, even if we may not admit it aloud: it is because MYP is perceived to be a better, higher-level program than any of the others. While Mechinah is intended to introduce students to Jewish practice and learning, IBC and SBMP should, in theory, be just as intellectually rigorous as MYP – and yet the conventional wisdom denies that this is so.  I have not been a student in IBC or SBMP, so I cannot state whether this assumption is actually true, but I do know that it is an assumption which has been subtly transmitted to students by none other than the administration of the Jewish studies programs.  Students in MYP are encouraged to learn with other students who may not come otherwise to the beit midrash, implying that those students, the ones in Mechinah, IBC and SBMP, are somehow inferior because they are not in MYP.  The "yeshiva minyan" on campus, which students are encouraged to attend, happens to revolve around the MYP schedule and no other.  The most prominent expenditure in the last five years has been the construction of the Glueck Beit Midrash, a wonderful building which I am extremely grateful for, but one which only services students in MYP.  The "heart of our Yeshiva," President Joel often says, is the beit midrash – but doesn't that assign priority to MYP?

Students also perpetuate this ranking of programs.  When students come back from yeshivot in Israel, especially the most prestigious ones, they often feel uncomfortable joining IBC or SBMP, even though these might be the most appropriate programs for them, either because of the subjects taught or the time commitment necessary.  If it is true that no classes in IBC and SBMP are at the same level as the shiurim in MYP then that is something which the administration of the Jewish studies programs must change.  But if such classes do exist, then we should be encouraging students who would benefit from these programs to enroll in IBC and SBMP, rather than creating a social atmosphere which discourages them from doing so.

My second comment revolves around two sentences in the last paragraph. "The status quo - and not just this year, but for as long as anyone can remember - is that some students clock their hours in the Beit Midrash while many others make the choices they should be entitled to as adults.  That choice may be to dedicate that time to other types of learning, secular coursework, or even various forms of recreation (including, we'll not pretend not to notice, sleeping in)."  Perhaps I'm over-reading, but it seems as if the author wants us to be allowed to have the choice to sleep instead of attending a Jewish studies program.  At the very least, it is argued that because the Jewish studies programs are so inflexible, students end up sleeping in rather than attending them.

This argument is, well, silly.  Are we really naïve enough to think that if the Jewish studies programs were more flexible, students who watch YouTube videos now instead of attending them would suddenly change their minds?  Deciding to come to Jewish studies classes has to be a personal choice.  There is nothing we can do to encourage these students to come, except for one thing: attendance could be taken at morning seder.  Unless attendance is taken at each of the four morning programs, students will simply choose the program which doesn't have attendance taken (hint: MYP) and enroll in it.  Making the programs more flexible won't convince anyone to attend when sleeping or watching TV is an option.

Two years ago, I wrote an opinion piece for The Commentator in which I argued that students should not feel pressured to learn night seder.  But when it comes to morning seder, or to attending a morning program in general, my feelings are completely different.  Besides being an academic requirement, learning Torah is an integral part of YU.  If you find that you'd prefer to sleep rather than attend morning seder, perhaps you should consider joining IBC or SBMP.  Even if it were true that these programs are at a lower level, it would be absurd to choose not to join those programs because they are too easy for you – and then not go to morning seder because they don't take attendance there.  If you care about learning Torah, pick a program where you'll actually learn it.  I hope the administration of the Jewish studies programs will make an effort to help these students by ensuring that the IBC and SBMP programs offer classes at all levels and for as many different student interests as possible.  But students have to make a choice to take advantage of what's offered here.  The editorial emphasizes that we students are adults and are able to make our own choices.  I wholeheartedly agree.  You already made a choice to attend Yeshiva University, a university which places a primary focus on studying Torah.  Now make another choice: find the morning program that best suits you, and show up.


Jerry Karp (YC '11) is majoring in physics and mathematics.