By: Netanel Paley  | 

United We Act

It’s no secret that our beloved Yeshiva University is in the midst of trying times. As it was five years ago, it is still difficult to merely mention YU in conversation without inducing a sarcastic remark about its notorious financial predicament. What may be less obvious is that this challenging period comprises a critical juncture in the storied history of the institution. If last year’s academic “right-sizing” and the sudden appearance of YU Global were not enough to make this clear, President Richard Joel’s recent announcement of his decision not to seek an additional term may be sufficient evidence that the university is at a crossroads. And as RIETS has not-so-quietly entered the storm of controversies swirling around the Modern Orthodox world, from the International Beit Din to women’s Torah study, one has to wonder whether its leaders, too, smell urgency in the air. Yet neither the university administration’s conservative actions, nor the yeshiva’s reactionary statements, reflect a drastically innovative strategy appropriate for such drastically pressing circumstances. As allergic as it is to change, Yeshiva University needs to do something truly groundbreaking to restore its former glory.

To his great credit, it was the under the tenure of President Joel that YU last did something revolutionary. The founding of the Center for the Jewish Future in 2005, pioneered by inaugural dean Rabbi Kenneth Brander, represented YU’s long-awaited commitment to the communal and educational needs of Modern Orthodoxy. To be fair, YU has long viewed its role as a bastion of Jewish communal work and cooperation as central to its mission. But it was only with the CJF’s creation that the institution began to devote significant resources to the cause of the religious and social advancement of the greater Modern Orthodox community. The center’s multitude of promising programs, from continuing education for rabbinic and communal leaders to leadership training for high school and undergraduate students, seemed to point to an abundance of creativity as well as cash. More importantly, though, the CJF successfully engaged Modern Orthodoxy, exciting its youth about Judaism, reinvigorating adults with hope for the future, and last but not least, advertising effectively on behalf of Yeshiva University free of charge.

Alas, how times have changed. The CJF, perhaps hit harder by financial cutbacks than any other division of Yeshiva University, is now a hollow shell of its former self. With many of its programs now defunct, it would be virtually unknown to undergraduate students were it not for the perennially successful Torah Tours and Counterpoint Israel programs, which it rallies around with great enthusiasm. Of course, this is not to belittle the vital educational resources the Center provides Modern Orthodox congregations across North America. But with so little funds at its disposal, the CJF commands a fraction of the attention it used to. With no thriving gateway to its greater constituent community, YU finds itself drifting away, from both potential students and donors. Arguably, if the CJF was still operating at full strength, no reactionary declaration from any Rosh Yeshiva, regardless how outdated, would alienate Modern Orthodox people the way YU has in recent days.

So what will lessen that distance between YU and Modern Orthodoxy, and inspire new endowments? Though the expensive financial overhaul, courtesy of Alvarez & Marsal, and the academic restructuring brought the institution ever so much closer to solvency, the CJF is not receiving generous allocations anytime soon. Nor will any institutional change, like YU Global, prove relevant enough to the Jewish community to change their opinion about YU. And no, the Roshei Yeshiva will not alter their hashkafic views to accommodate the shifting ethos of Modern Orthodoxy. Change in Yeshiva University needs to come from the bottom up, because, as we students know well, it will simply not happen otherwise. The answer, therefore, seems natural: a grassroots movement to connect YU with the Jewish community around it, serving not only as a replacement for the CJF’s shuttered social programs, but as a reinforcement for YU’s public image. Besides for reclaiming YU’s position as the hub of Modern Orthodox communal life, such an organization can expand the university’s reach beyond the Modern Orthodox community into other sects and denominations, generating a universal relevance not seen since the early days of the institution and possibly convincing non-Modern Orthodox people to donate.

Though it is only in its early stages, I can proudly say that the movement has already begun. Just a few weeks ago, I sent an email to the whole undergraduate student body about TheEruv, a new club I started to unite YU with the Jewish communities in Washington Heights and Midtown. Like most “[stud]” emails, mine were replete with exclamation points and corny lines and thus a ripe target for cynicism, but the responses I received reflected the exact opposite sentiment. Nearly 100 people signed up to receive weekly email updates about TheEruv’s programs and events--which include after-school programming for day school students and Shabbatonim at senior centers and other colleges--and several of them submitted their own ideas. To me, it is a refreshing testament to the idealism that is still alive and well on campus, despite the pervasive negativity that has accompanied the difficult circumstances. Just as importantly, the community leaders whom I have contacted have all expressed the same enthusiasm as my fellow students, giving me confidence that there is a place for TheEruv in the Jewish community around YU.

To accomplish its mission of uniting the Jewish community, however, TheEruv must be more than a community chesed club. Chesed, while a fundamental value in its own right, is often a gateway to profound personal connections as well. The hope is that the personal relationships formed through TheEruv’s individual chesed opportunities, whether at hospitals, nursing homes, or less-attended weddings, give way to strong communal bonds. The same goal can hopefully be achieved through Torah study groups with students at other New York City colleges and less observant Jews. And by bringing together these bonds at community-wide events such as open panel discussions and holiday chagigot, perhaps some sense of communal unity can finally be attained. It certainly will not be easy, but I believe the value of Jewish unity, especially in times like these, is well worth all the effort required.

This all seems very nice on a theoretical level, but will TheEruv’s programs accomplish the club’s greater goals in practice? The answer depends on us, the student body of YU. If we want to demonstrate that YU is part of the Jewish communal conversation in New York City, if we want to demonstrate that YU is relevant to the Jewish world at large, we need to create these connections ourselves. The future of YU as an inclusive center of Jewish life depends on our efforts as much as it depends on the efforts of the administration. With the current state of Modern Orthodoxy hanging in the balance, and with no plan in place to change that, we truly are the future of this institution.