By: Daniel Atwood  | 

A Student Grows in Washington Heights

It was a moment out of a movie. My first co-ed Shabbat at the Beren Campus, four years ago. I walk into Koch Auditorium for Friday night dinner and freeze; my heart sinks. The tables are filled with hundreds of men and women, 95% of whom I had never met, and some of whom gave off an intimidating aura. Coming from being the big man on campus in high school, and then away for a year while I was in yeshiva in Israel, starting college was a scary endeavor. If not for the fact that I am deeply committed to Shabbat observance, I would have turned around right then and there and taken the train back uptown.

Jumping ahead to May 2015, I just came back from my last Shabbat at Beren, which, ironically enough, was the The Commentator/The Observer Shabbaton, which I had been involved in organizing and leading. The difference between my first Shabbat at Beren and my last was stark, mostly in that at my last Shabbat, unlike my first, I felt comfortable. Four years later, I was finally me.

On my way uptown I reflected upon my most recent Shabbat experience. During that first Shabbat all I could think about was, what will people think of me? Will I come off as too frum? Not frum enough? Will I get a Shidduch (date)? Are my clothes too fancy? Not fancy enough? How will I figure out what to major in and what career to pursue? How will I become me? As selfish as it may sound, I started being happy in college once I figured out that I can be myself, without worrying about others. By my last Shabbat it was not just that I was more comfortable, it is that I had fewer fears and inhibitions. Though the task may sound trite, finding who we truly are and becoming comfortable with ourselves is a vital component of the college experience.

I have been working in the opinions section of The Commentator for the past four years, as both a writer, junior editor, and now senior editor. Coming to the end of my four years at YU and my tenure at The Commentator, I am thinking about the past four years in the opinions section in retrospective. Being involved in the process of thinking deeply about the issues our community faces has very much shaped my journey through college and my personal development as I enter the “real world.” My journey took place both in the classroom, on campus, and on these very pages.

I wrote many articles for this paper, more than I can count. I am proud of my journalistic accomplishments here at YU. One of my biggest regrets, however, are all of the articles that I did not publish out of fear. Fear of what my friends and rabbis will think of me, my Shidduch prospects, myself, perhaps. A little bit of fear is humbling, an important quality for a journalist.. But too much fear is crippling. While I wish it had not taken four years to happen, I am happy that I have finally replaced crippling fear with humbling fear. Though always respectful, I fulfill my duty as an opinions journalist and say what I believe needs to be said.

At YU I sought out various communities - consisting of friends, professors, and rabbis - who would support me along my journey in college. Once I deepened my interpersonal relationships and realized that people were not judging me, for the most part, I was able to stop judging myself and embrace my community. I admit that the very particularistic nature of our student body at YU makes it substantially more difficult for a given person to really find their niche. It is more difficult for people who do not fit the mold - a mold which is very defined - to find their place. However, I sincerely believe that the payoff to seeking out a community at YU is great. People are often surprised at the relative diversity on campus at YU. While obviously that diversity is still limited, and I do not want to allude anyone into thinking that YU is just as diverse as any other university, there definitely are people thinking in interesting and nuanced ways. Finding a community here can be extremely validating and meaningful, even if difficult.

After high school it would have been easier for me to run away to my second choice of college (YU was my first), which was a well-established, high-ranking, private university who had accepted me. I would have felt comfortable and safe in my opinions, and not had to worry about my major being cut from the budget. However, I wanted to continue being an active member in the community in which I was raised, the Modern Orthodox community. I know that it is only YU which gave me the tools to be able to ask the serious questions that I have asked myself and written about over the past four years. YU - its students, professors, rabbis, and legacy - challenged me to think in a most sophisticated manner, even if that caused me to challenge the institution itself. I know I would not have been challenged in such a way elsewhere. For giving me that space to be challenged, I owe much gratitude to YU.

Believe me, all is not perfect, there is work yet to be done. While some spaces at YU are extremely conducive to challenge and sophisticated thought, other spaces have no interest in such. I still found something odd about the fact that I had to travel 150 blocks downtown, to a campus that is not even my own, to feel comfortable on Shabbat. Although the speaker whom I organized to present at Beren for our Shabbaton, a highly accomplished professional music journalist, was an astounding success, delivering one of the best Friday night talks I have ever been to at YU, I know that I would never even have the chance to bring him for Shabbat in Washington Heights. I would never have the opportunity to moderate a Friday night discussion uptown, despite my having spent countless Shabbats here over the past four years. Many colleges are now dealing with the issue of what appears to be a lack of free-speech on campus. As this national conversation occurs, I think YU would greatly benefit from participating in this discussion in an effort to try and harmonize the very different attitudes that exist on our campuses.

And as the landscape of Jewish life on campus in America continues to improve, YU must also continue to ask itself what its role is as a Jewish college. If I may make a suggestion, perhaps YU, unlike other places, is here to challenge members of our community in an environment that is very much a product and reflection of our community. At YU no assumption should go unchallenged, no question unasked. More importantly, we must realize that no single man or woman, and no single institution, has the answer to every question. College is not just about setting yourself up to make money, it is about growing as a thinking and contributing member of society. In terms of creating sophisticated and thinking Modern Orthodox Jews, YU does a pretty good job, even if not 100% of the time. Case and point is yours truly.

Some people who knew me four years ago may wonder what it is that made me change. I like to think that my journey over the past four years was not a change; it was an evolution. “Change” implies something totally different. “Evolution” implies a more sophisticated version of something former. I am not radically different, but rather I have had the opportunity to fully express and actualize my true self. This is an evolution that played itself out in the classroom, in my dorm room, off campus, and, most importantly, on these very opinions pages that I have spent four years filling with ink. It has truly been a pleasure, and though it is hard to let go, I feel confident as hand over the reigns to the next generation.