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How YU Left Me Estranged from Torah

I have a confession to make. Looking back on two and a half years at YU, I feel more distant from Torah than when I arrived. I left yeshiva in Eretz Yisrael ready and excited for what YU offered: shiur in the morning, seder in the evening, more Roshei Yeshiva than you could count on your fingers (and toes!).

I remember my first 8:30 minyan. It was crowded and felt like a real tzibbur. I remember my first seder, it was full of energy. That first shiur was awe-inspiring. But learning slowly started to unravel as I got deeper in the semester. Seder felt like a burden, not an opportunity. Shiur got bogged down in so much lamdanus (maybe even pilpul) that I eventually threw up my hands and switched.

For the next four semesters, I switched in and out of shiurim. Some rabbis were kind and inviting. Some were like helicopter parents, wanting to know everything about my life that it started to feel uncomfortable. I bounced around BMP until I witnessed a rabbi yell at a student for advocating for rights for Palestinians and then watched as the rabbi kicked the student out of the class for not wearing a kippah. What they say about a “wide variety” of opinions amongst the Roshei Yeshiva seemed in reality to be a sliding scale of homophobia, anti-Arabism, and anti-intellectualism.

It was difficult finding a shiur that was right for me. I never wanted to go to IBC because, like most YP guys, I felt it was unbecoming for a student of a Hesder yeshiva to switch into a “watered down” program, never mind the mark it would put on my shidduch resume. I switched around a lot until I settled on an “Ir Miklat Shiur.” We all know they exist. But I switched in not because the rigors of college or because endless seasons of “How I Met Your Mother” ate away at my time, but because the rabbi came, gave shiur, and left without political or religious insensitivity, without a creepy investment in his students, and without making a face if I chose to wear a T-shirt. He was happy to see me there and, for the next year, I was happier to be there.

Needless to say, the shiur didn’t exactly inspire me learn more or take on more mitzvot. It asked me for a minimum and I responded in kind. I never went to a mashgiach and never talked to someone in RIETS for fear of being marked, if not on paper, then in the eyes of the Yeshiva as a student unfit to learn and unsuitable for whichever shiur I was currently in.

It wasn’t just shiur that turned me away from torah. In minyan, I felt judged for the length of my shemonah esrei and the length of my tzitzis. I felt judged for the stripes on my button down shirt and not the content of my character. On Shabbat, I felt judged for not wearing a suit to minyan or not singing in communal meals. Eventually I stopped going, preferring to don Tefillin in the quiet confines of my dorm room than in the impersonal minyan downstairs. Shabbatot were harder to escape from. When in-towners leave YU, they seem to want to leave everything behind. I rarely got invited out for a Shabbat.

I relished at the opportunity to visit my yeshiva friends in Brandeis or Penn or the “Vegas” of YU: the University of Maryland. There the rabbis were “normal,” nuanced, maybe even fun. People were happy to share their thoughts and feelings with the Rabbis because there weren’t consequences for admitting to caving into the social pressures of a college life. People were happy to go to minyan because minyan felt like a community, not a factory. There was a real Shabbat community and even people to greet you at the door, welcoming you into the community. Shabbat greeters? That would be unheard of in YU.

Eventually, I found my Jewish studies professors to be greater role models than my Roshei Yeshiva. They were Jews in the real world, not products of an MTA-YU-RIETS education. They went to secular college and understood the challenges. They didn’t judge me for the questions I brought up in class. They never hurled “Kofer” or “Apikores” at a challenge. They were enthusiastic to discuss ideas about Mesorah, excited to point me to a book or article, and happy to discuss politics without telling me what to believe. I found in my Jewish history and Bible professors Jews who were intellectual and frum, sensitive and nonjudgmental.

Could I have gone to more shacharises in my time in YU? Tried out more night shiurim? Found a more “appropriate” shiur? Probably, but I feared that every time I went, I would simply be even more turned off from Torah as a result. The sichos mussar that I went to were full of fire-and-brimstone and didn’t at all speak to a student in college with college difficulties. The various RIETS Yeshiva-wide meetings included the same stale speeches. Every minyan I tried was full of strangers hurrying through davening.

I don’t think it’s just me who feels this way. Tens, maybe even hundreds of students feel far from Torah, not because of time commitments, but because the Yeshiva no longer speaks to them. It speaks over them. It speaks under them. It speaks for them.