YU Students Consider Exodus
It’s been a tough semester here at Yeshiva University. One would easily be justified in saying that the faculty and students have all had to confront many unpleasant realities. All have had to find ways to surmount difficulties in the face of swirling tensions and an overall atmosphere of unpleasantness. While the tempest is not yet over, it has subsided. Many, many of our students and faculty have even elected to weather another year at Yeshiva. But not all. While some of our professors are leaving involuntarily, while others have decided to take their talent elsewhere. Several students, too, have decided that the time has come for them to test their luck in other universities. While it is unclear how much of this is due to the financial crisis, it is undeniable that there is a significantly higher amount of students applying to transfer from YU this year than usual.
Granted, it is natural and expected that students in any school find themselves looking for a change. As one Yeshiva student succinctly put it, “I’m not the same person at 21 as I was at 17, applying to schools. I’ve matured, and the things that were important to me then and the things that are important to me now are vastly different.” In fact, all things considered, Yeshiva’s Freshman retention rate is quite high, at 91%, according to US News and World Report. That puts us in line with SUNY Binghamton and Michigan State University. As Yeshiva College Associate Dean Frederic Sugarman states, “We do quite well in terms of retention” and are equal to “other very good schools.”
The transfer situation at Yeshiva is even more understandable, considering the pivotal experiences that many students have in their gap year(s) in Israel. A change in character, in worldview, and in beliefs over such formative years is natural and may cause one to pursue an education elsewhere. Former student Aviv Kleinman, who was made famous by a video of him ecstatically opening his acceptance letter to YU, noted that before going to Israel, “I was on a cloud. I really could not see myself going anywhere but YU.” But he changed over time, and today he is a proud student at Binghamton University, who looks at his decision to transfer from YU as “one of the best decisions I’ve ever made in my life.”
Like Aviv, for many YU students, applying to Yeshiva was a no-brainer. Oftentimes, one’s parents went to YU, as did one’s siblings. In some cases, even one’s grandparents are proud YU graduates. One student dryly noted, “I applied here because it was expected of me by my family.” Another student, reflecting the attitude of many, said “I never even considered anywhere else.” YU also offered enticing scholarships which encouraged a wide variety students to apply and enroll who otherwise would have gone to other colleges. As one student reflected, “YU made a lot of sense. It was a comfortable and obvious choice. My siblings had gone there, and I knew lots of people going.” Another student noted that it was his choice to come to YU, because he wanted “to learn Gemara on a high level” while “getting a quality [secular] education.” He was also excited about the “collection of minds here” amongst students, which “is unparalleled.” But upon coming to YU, something changed.
Dr. Chaim Nissel, University Dean of Students, writes that “Students leave for many different reasons. Some are looking for a social environment that we cannot provide at YU and others leave because they feel that YU’s dual curriculum is not the best fit for them.” But in conversation with students, other factors emerged as well. Some students cited the changing YU population as the reason they was looking elsewhere. As one observed, “Ideologically, this is the community I always wanted to be in. YU is supposed to be Modern Orthodox. But when it comes to Undergraduate Torah Studies specifically, it is far more to the right than the ideal Modern Orthodox ideology.” As a result, he said, he found himself disappointed by the course offerings in the academic Jewish department and by the choice of morning shiurim. He said, “I want to go to a university where I can get a strong academic Jewish studies education and encounter people with like-minded hashkafot.” The budget cuts, which threaten to reduce the academic Jewish offerings only exacerbated the sensation. “It became clear that the administration has no inkling of what Torah u’Madda is about. To talk of academic Jewish studies being cut- that is the bridge between the two, the symbol of what YU represents. The fact that the administration is even considering cuts to this program displays an attitude that makes me uncomfortable about the institution and its values.”
Yet this disconnect between YU’s vision as a flagship Modern Orthodox institution and the reality has carried into other areas as well. Said another student, “I expected an integrated Torah u’Madda experience, but it is as if there is an unconscious tension between the two, an unspeakable wall that prevents interaction. Within university classes, students to the right have a negative attitude towards modern aspect of YU. This doesn’t speak well to the overall mission.” “In the past,” another student confided, “everyone who came to YU was serious about both the Yeshiva and the University. Rabbi Dr. Lamm, Rabbi Dr. Belkin, and Rabbi Dr. Revel all embodied this ideal. But suddenly, you get here and those kinds of people are the minority, instead of the norm.” He noted that here there is “a tangible lack of mutual respect” for different social groups and different religious groups. To many students, YU has become a bastion of conservatism, because “We have so few rabbinic staff members who can be considered Modern Orthodox.” The atmosphere of religious dogmatism is one-sided, and there are little efforts to cater to those in the minority.
The frustration with the priorities of the student body is a recurring theme. As Josh Tranen, a YC junior reflected, “The student body here isn’t interested in liberal arts. It is essentially a failure of Torah u’Madda. Here we have scholars with PhDs in their fields, and students are afraid of taking their classes for fear that they are too difficult. They don’t realize that they are passing up the opportunity to learn from some of the most talented, brilliant people I’ve ever met. It is disheartening to be in a place where people are only interested in being successful professionally, and have no interest in studying humanities for humanities.” Another student noted, “From my perspective, YU is 80% yeshivish, people who get secular degrees on the side only because their parents told them to or because they need to get jobs. I felt marginalized in a way.”
YU’s academics are also pointed to by some as the reason for departure. Says one student, who has since transferred to University of Pennsylvania, “I had no help in pursuing what I wanted to pursue. In the computer science department, the full time professors were mostly weak, and all of the students immediately saw the faults of the program.” Despite much talk of strengthening the department, little was actually implemented. Another student lamented that the academics here were “not as rigorous as I would have wanted” and that there were “not too many offerings.” Unsurprisingly, many students cite the inadequate amount of classes on offer as reasons for exploring elsewhere. As one student put it, “the course options are clearly worse than the average college.” Other students reflected more generally on a growing insecurity about the future and future classes, especially in light of the cuts. Said one, “I’m counting on the music program, which I’ve been told will last for another two years at the least. But I’m worried nonetheless.” Another student concurred, “I’m scared about the education and the quality of my degree. I don’t know how it will hold up in the long run.” Yet another student noted that while he was hoping to study economics, seeing as two professors were recently let go he is now questioning that decision and his future at this institution.
The primary issue, these students say, is that YU is claiming to be something it is not. As one student put it, “YU hasn’t met the standards that it claims to uphold itself to.” Tranen concurs. “YU is an amazing place for a lot of people. The problem is that it pretends that it’s good for everyone. The university needs to sit down and decide what it stands for. Right now, it is a right-wing yeshiva with a limited college. If that is what it is, then it is dishonest to pretend that it is anything else.” Another student said, “YU needs to focus on its strengths, because it has no competency to deliver on everything. What it does well, it does really well. The weaker areas are preventing the university from being able to excel.”
Some students also cite the inadequate community life at Yeshiva as a reason for leaving. College years are intended for growing both academically and socially, and many feel that YU is not the right place for social growth. In the past, YU was the only place where Jews could go through college and still be involved in a Jewish community. But that is no longer the case. One student noted, “Elsewhere there are active Jewish communities” which are “far more cohesive” than YU’s. There is a sense that the student body at YU is deeply divided. Another student noted the difficulty he had in making friends here because of the ‘cliqueiness’ at YU. “I’m from out of town, and I never went to summer camp. Coming in, I knew about 20 people, while the average student knows much more. Most people come in with a group of friends and are set in that group, and it’s very hard to make friends.” The lack of a community feel is also mentioned. One student bemoaned that the “majority of YU students live in the tri-state area, and most of them don’t even have a desire to stay in for Shabbat.” Another transfer student said, “Every time the weekend rolled around I felt bummed out. YU becomes a wasteland.”
There’s little to be done to improve these problems in the short term, and there is a deep sense of sadness amongst students about this reality. One student noted, “I would love to be happy here. I’m just not.” Another noted, “My possible departure from YU comes as a disappointment, both to my family and to myself. I applied early to YU and had very high expectations.” A third reflected that “My parents are devastated, but they’re slowly coming around to it. They’re being woken up to the reality of what YU is today.” The reality is that things at YU are simply not as sunny as they may appear in promotional material. Yet, as discontent and disheartened as they may be, all of the students seem grateful for the time that they spent at Yeshiva. Says Tranen, “As much as I am upset with YU’s administration, I don’t regret coming here for a minute. I’ve met an incredible group of professors who have really gone above and beyond to be there for me, who have supported me and helped me discover what I care about and what I want to study.” These transfer students are merely acting on the basis of a number of long-extant issues that are slowly eroding the foundation of this institution. One student said, “I thought YU was the perfect place to be a Modern Orthodox Jew. Now I know that there is no perfect place.” Perhaps one day, Yeshiva can become that place.