Social Stratification: A Damaged, Yet Rectifiable, State of Affairs
After spending one or two years studying in yeshiva in Israel, coming to Yeshiva University can be a daunting experience for students. The cultural differences between the two institutions can be vast. Some students feel the need to isolate themselves from others to preserve their new habits and values. Although these students may feel that this practice is beneficial for them, others may disagree. For example, a few days ago, I was talking to someone who went to a different yeshiva than I did. I was taken aback when he said that I seem so down to earth in comparison to my aloof friends from yeshiva. After carefully observing the behavior of my peers, I realized that his comment may have been a result of the negative, judgemental environment that is caused by the social fragmentation at Yeshiva University.
The religious tensions and divisions that exist between the various groups are pernicious for the members within each group and for the Jewish collective. They can be the impetus for hatred and fighting within the Orthodox world. These societal divisions are apparent in many areas of Jewish life and are, unfortunately, noticeable in Yeshiva University as well. Most saliently, the rift between religious groups manifests itself in the student dining hall. Students who view themselves as more shtark, or more serious Torah scholars, tend to shy away from those who are not a part of their group, appearing cold, selfish, and aloof. Consequently, they are avoided by their outwardly less religious peers. In reality, the former group may be purposefully more introverted in order to create a community of like minded individuals dedicated to achieving the goals of serious Torah study. While the so-called “less religious” individuals may harbor ill feelings towards these other students as a result, they too hold some culpability. For the behavior of the “less religious group” can indeed have negative effects that only creates further distance between them and their fellow students. Evidently, the religious divisions in YU are symptomatic of those outside of YU, for almost all of the students belong to a segment of the Orthodox community that, to a certain extent, is involved in a similar religious struggle as well. The judgemental behavior in which students engage will only increase the likelihood of their involvement in possibly more damaging activities upon their graduation of YU.
One could argue that the interaction between these two groups does not relate to the damaging inter-community relations that take place off the grounds of the university. The ostensible religious stratification in YU, so the argument goes, may simply be a result of students wanting to associate with the people with whom they attended yeshiva in Israel. Sadly, the divisions that exist in the dining room, for example, are indicative of religious divisions that run much deeper than friends from yeshiva eating together. For example, on Shabbat in the student dining room, there are tables where only students wearing specific attire—such as a suit, a hat, or lack thereof—are welcome. However, the students who sit at the other table are also religious, as evidenced by the lively discussions of Torah that can be overheard from both groups in various different settings, such as the Beit Midrash and the dormitories.
Granted, the various elements within Orthodox society tend to hold differing opinions and world outlooks. However, there are also many areas where our groups agree rather than disagree. For example, a few weeks ago, YU students from across the board were able to come together and recite Tehillim as a collective student community for the benefit of our brethren in Israel. The sense of unity demonstrated by the two groups at the Tehillim event indicates that the divisions perceived between the groups are not as large as they appear. Additionally, the recent kumzitz that took place in Times Square in support of the State of Israel indicates the commitment of both groups to the Jewish collective regardless of the existent social and religious divisions. Such displays of cooperation are both heart-warming and optimistic. The behavior that took place at these event exemplifies ideal behavior for our students as well as the for communities outside of YU. But it should not take a national Jewish crisis to force us stop the damaging social interactions between the groups.
In order to mitigate the judgemental views that can be a source of friction between our groups, we need to expand our social circles and interact with those who we perceive as different. Focusing on our similarities through conversation will enable us to shorten the distance between us. For example, almost all of the students at YU have a common interest in the development of the nation of Israel. Also, both groups value religious study, for many students spent a year (or two) studying Torah in Israel and all of the students have chosen to attend a university where they spend the first part of their day studying Torah. Most importantly, we must learn to view our peers as more than the political and sociological ideologies to which they subscribe. Doing so will allow us to forge relationships with those beyond our current social boundaries. If we can improve our views of our peers and positively change our attitudes towards them, it is my belief that YU will serve as an ideal model for social interaction for the Jewish community as well for as the world at large.