By: Avi Strauss  | 

Diamonds in the Rough: YU’s Transfer Students

For many students, choosing a college to attend is a one-time deal. After a rigorous application process, students, compelled by acceptance deadlines can only enroll in one university to further their education. However, according to the National Association for College Admissions Counseling, nearly 1 in 3 students who enroll in a two or four year college transfer at some point.

For its part, Yeshiva University has a freshman retention rate amongst the highest in the nation at 91% (69th overall according to US News), which is on par with large state universities like Michigan State and Texas A&M. But what this number doesn’t represent is the significant portion of the Yeshiva student population that are transfers into the university. Each year, disaffected students from across the country reconsider their original decision and transfer to Yeshiva.

Although precise numbers were not available to us at press time, most students know several friends or peers who have joined the YU community during their college careers, all for different reasons or because of changed perspectives.

For Josh Wildes an SSSB senior majoring in business management and minoring in marketing, Boston University just never felt right. “From the moment I stepped foot into Boston University, I knew something was missing. Part of me just simply did not feel right.”

Like many Yeshiva students, Josh spent a year abroad, a “gap year,” prior to starting college. “After living in Israel and attending Bar Ilan for one year after high school, I felt like it was important for me to further explore my true identity. However, at such a big school, it was too easy to just fall into the mix.” Boston University, like many of the secular universities modern orthodox Jews attend, among the biggest universities in the country, is home to 30,000 students and can have classes and lectures with hundreds of students. “Everyone there is a little fish in a big ocean.”

According to Director of Undergraduate Admissions Geri Mansdorf, this is common in many students at Yeshiva. “Students are motivated by many things when they make their decision to apply to, and later accept an offer of admission at a college. About 75-80% of our cohort, is going to spend anywhere from one to two years, on average, in Israel post high school.” She continued “this translates into more time for them to develop and consider options they might not have considered as seniors in high school.” After experiencing what other colleges have to offer, they realize that it isn’t possible to get everything they want out of college at their original choice of institution. “Overall, most transfer students are looking for all the unique opportunities only found at Yeshiva” Mansdorf added.

Justine Englanoff, a junior at Stern College majoring in biochemistry, reacted similarly to the immense size of Maryland University, where she was an engineering student for one semester after her gap year in Israel. “The classes were much larger and less personal than I would have liked” she said, often a particularly acute issue for students pursuing degrees in the natural sciences.

But the sheer size of campus life at other universities isn’t the only reason Englanoff cited for transferring. “The [Maryland University] Jewish community, while great, was not comparable to being in a naturally all-immersive Jewish community like I knew it would be at Stern” she said.

Maryland, for its part, has one of the largest, (if not the largest), orthodox Jewish communities at a University outside of Yeshiva, with approximately 400 orthodox students who are a part of the Hillel.

For the most part, the Jewish communities on secular campuses are run and sustained by a campus Hillel, which provides kosher food, houses prayer services and plays host to community events. Many campus Hillel’s have orthodox divisions--in Maryland, “Kedma” is responsible for orthodox life, with a board that coordinates communal activities and events. Together, with a Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus (JLIC) couple, often a recent RIETS semicha graduate and his wife, they manage modern orthodox life on campus, giving shiurim and serving as the spiritual leaders there.

Jasmine Razi, a finance and marketing double major at Syms, described a successful Jewish community at UCLA, her former school. “At UCLA, there was a really nice Jewish community and a wonderful Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus (JLIC) run by Rabbi Aryeh and Sharona Kaplan (both YU and Stern graduates) but I always felt that I needed to go to Hillel or specific Jewish events to see my friends and be part of the community.”

Several students interviewed for this article reported similar experiences, having to go out of their way to participate in communal activities or see their friends, more so than they had to back home in their high schools or during their year abroad.

Wildes described a smaller and somewhat complex Jewish community at Boston University. On the one hand he reported “it is thriving with people who are Jewish and it has a beautiful Hillel building right on campus.” Yet, he continued, “the religious aspect of the Jewish community is almost non-existent.” Although students there may find it difficult to get a seat at Shabbat dinner, there is rarely a minyan (quorum of 10 Jewish men) for davening. Additionally, Wildes described the absence of kosher food on Sundays as being particularly difficult. However, despite its inadequacies, he insists the Jewish community’s deficiencies were not responsible for his transfer.

Another transfer student on campus, Josh Lankin, a senior in YC majoring in biology and minoring in math and computer science, only had words of praise for the community he left at Brandeis. “The Jewish community at Brandeis is spectacular. I have the utmost respect and admiration for the Jewish community at Brandeis, and I smile everyday seeing the flourishing of BOO (Brandeis orthodox organization) under the incredible leadership of Rabbi David and Ariel Pardo and the student leaders.”

Since transferring, Lankin’s married his “amazing wife” Jennifer Lifshutz (SCW '16), who he said “supported me through the entire transfer process, and continues to do so as we approach 9 months of married life together.”

Other transfer students, however, described their experience with their former university’s community as a “battle for survival”. Sam Apple transferred to Yeshiva from Binghamton University, a popular destination for modern orthodox Jews from New York communities. Apple, a Biology major and English minor, described his year at Binghamton as “an atypical Shana Bet”. (Shana Bet usually refers to an additional year of studying abroad in Israel, which several students opt to participate in, prior to attending college).

“After a tremendously impactful year on a secular campus, I was proud to say that my Judaism, so to speak, survived outside of ‘the bubble’” he said. “Then I realized I wanted, and needed, more than mere survival. I came to YU because I viewed it, then as now, as a place where I would not have to sacrifice one identity at the expense of the other.”

This is not to say Apple doesn’t think highly of the Jewish community at Binghamton. He described the community there as “unbelievably welcoming and warm” and “perhaps the greatest deterrent for my transfer… It was inspiring to witness those who took it upon themselves to become leaders for the Jewish community there.”

However, he made sure to note “it would be a lie to leave out the fact that there is no paucity of lurking spiritual dangers.” He did not elaborate specifically what those “spiritual dangers” were, although for many students at Yeshiva, it means situations that challenge their orthodox strictures, be it with the opposite gender, Shabbat observance or with kosher food. When speaking directly about his transfer and experience at Yeshiva, Apple said “I am not sure if I could be more satisfied.” When asked to discuss his favorite part of Yeshiva, Apple was torn between choosing his shiur and the Cross Country team, of which he is a member.

And it seems being active on campus and directly involved in YU’s extra –curricular activities is a theme amongst transfer students. In addition to joining the Israel club and assorted science clubs, Englanoff is the current treasurer of the Stern College for Women Student Council and Razi, a member of the Israeli consulting group Tamid. Wildes, who served on the board of the College Democrats last year, started the “Humans of Yeshiva University” Facebook page, modeled after the world famous Humans of New York page, which spotlights individuals and gives them an opportunity to speak about a life experience or comment on any subject of their choosing, usually with some profound insight.

This isn’t to say the decision to transfer isn’t complex and fraught with challenges. As Lankin made sure to note, “the decision to transfer is a very personal one, and can be extremely complex. There are a myriad of reasons to stay, and there may be just as many to leave too, but it really comes down to what feels right for each person.”

But perhaps what’s most interesting about the transfer students currently studying at Yeshiva is their unique perspective on campus and university life here. While it’s easy for students to discuss their experiences on campus—the good and the bad—hardly any Yeshiva students have the luxury of being able to compare it to the experiences of attending a different college.

Wildes seemed acutely aware of this when he said “I think a lot of students at YU like to complain that the grass may be greener on the other side. However, this blinds them to the amazing things that they have right in front of them. Knowing what another college is like, I can tell you that YU offers amazing things that other places don’t.”

And Englanoff went as far as suggesting that transferring be a compulsory part of education at YU. “I think everyone should be required to spend a semester elsewhere before they come to YU. Myself, my sister, and our best friend all started off at other colleges-- and while our other friends may like or even love YU, they will never have the same appreciation for it that we [transfer students] do.”
Most students studying here grew up in Yeshiva day schools and high schools, never being exposed to studies in a completely secular context.

Short of such a full scale transfer operation, it seems many students will never have such an experience, which leaves many wondering if the grass is in fact greener on the secular college side. And it is the transfer students, our diamonds in the rough, that serve as bastions of optimism here.
Lankin used the unique faculty at Yeshiva to illuminate an important contrast many students often fail to appreciate. “There is no other place in the world where your biology professor will spend a week of classes giving an in-depth analysis of the Torah sources on the theory of evolution. It was truly a remarkable experience.”

Perhaps most importantly it is these perspectives and the way transfer students actively participate in a multitude of activities on campus that could serve as a warning to those students who think it might be better elsewhere.

“Being open-minded/embracing is key” Apple advised current, non-transfer students. “Recognize that nowhere is perfect that everything you deem inadequate is also an opportunity for you to effect change and improve the system.”

With perspectives like these, our university is thankful these students were willing to take the risky leap and transfer.