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YU’s Brand of Diversity

The comedian’s opening joke at Senior Dinner was hardly surprising—“Wow, what a diverse crew you guys have here at Yeshiva!”

Orthodox Jews on other college campuses often make judgments about YU students, whom they perceive as “Shtetl Jews,” afraid to venture outside of their safe and comfortable bubble. Countless high school students have told me that they would never consider going to YU because they want to “broaden their perspectives.” “I don’t want four more years of Jewish day school,” they say. “I want to see what else is out there.”

As far as undergraduate liberal arts institutions go, we are undoubtedly perceived of as a place that misses out on the vast richness offered by diversity—the wonderful opportunities afforded by having people of different backgrounds gather in a common space, challenging each other with their own unique perspectives, their own personal outlooks. In some ways, this critique of YU is valid: With regards to the backgrounds of our students, we are, undoubtedly, one of the most homogenous undergraduate populations in America. A large percentage of us grew up in the same smattering of Modern Orthodox enclaves that exist in a handful of metropolitan areas throughout the United States. The result, it should seem, would be a population that is monolithic in its beliefs and perspectives.

Yet, that is not what one finds here at YU.

Sure, many of us ask similar types of questions, like: how can I best manage being part of the Modern world while still maintaining my Judaism? And sure, some of us share similar philosophical concerns, like: Which model of morality do I subscribe to, the divine, or the man-made? Does such a distinction even exist? The similarities, however, end at these basic questions.

I have spoken to many students over my four years at YU, and I have heard far more answers than questions. As the old saying goes, “for every two Jews, there are three opinions.” By serving as Opinions Editor of The Commentator, I was especially privy to these opinions.

One of the reasons for this diversity is the unique curriculum that exists here. We simultaneously immerse ourselves in a humanistic understanding of the world, centered around empiricism and rationality, and a godly understanding of the world, centered around concepts like meaning and faith. Rather than dismissing traditional Jewish ideas that did not make it into the mainstream Western educational canon, we take tradition seriously, vigorously searching for the wisdom contained within. Our existence is suspended between Athens and Jerusalem, with each of us landing somewhere in between.

At YU, I have taken classes taught by atheists and classes taught by deeply religious Jews. Some faculty members, of any persuasion, try to proselytize their students, either explicitly or implicitly. Others try to discuss things that might challenge other viewpoints with an impressive combination of sensitivity and balance. In other words, the faculty and course offerings at YU are anything but “narrow.” In fact, I think that YU is one of the best places to “broaden one’s perspective” in a way that is responsibly nuanced.

Once, after discussing Karl Marx’s proclamation that religion is “the opiate of the people,” one of my professors went on a Richard Dawkins like rant, before concluding that the existence of organized religion is a tragedy, the principal cause of war and suffering worldwide. Yet, across the street, students were poring over their Talmuds, reading phrases like “Talmidei Chachamim Marbim Shalom ba’Olam,” that the existence of Torah scholars results in the proliferation of peace.

Some in the Beit Midrash have embraced the value of maintaining traditional Orthodox halakha at all costs, refusing to deviate from the mesorah, even if it seems to conflict with other values they hold dear. Others have modified their worldviews so that the conflict no longer exists; there are those who think the western worldview is flawed, those who deny that Judaism has a monopoly on truth, and those who deny Judaism outright.

There are dedicated Democrats on campus, eager to square off against their right leaning peers on issues like government borrowing and spending, foreign policy, and same-sex marriage. Some students spend their winter breaks building houses for financially struggling individuals in South Carolina or building libraries for undereducated rural youth in Nicaragua. Others spend their break learning in Yeshivot, ranging from the progressive Yeshivat Chovevei Torah in Riverdale to the staunchly traditional Mir Yeshiva in Jerusalem. Some students spend their Thursday nights in nightclubs; others spend their Thursday nights eating chulent and singing hymns about G-d. Right wing students were angered when Jeremy Ben-Ami—the founder of J-Street—was given a podium at a YU event; a student told me that “people like Jeremy Ben-Ami are among the biggest threats facing the State of Israel.” Left wingers, on the other hand, were infuriated when Likud MK Tzipi Hotovely—who publicly voices her opposition to the Two State Solution—was invited to speak at YU, with one student telling me that “her vision,” not Ben-Ami’s, “would be a suicidal one for Israel to pursue.”

So yes, many YU students come from similar backgrounds. Nevertheless, they are still given plenty of opportunities to broaden their perspectives in a unique way. The constant dialectic on campus creates the perfect conditions and culture for the development of a nuanced and thorough worldview, mindful of past, present and future. The sarcastic quip made by the comedian at Senior Dinner was hardly a joke; it was a profoundly true statement.