It’s Time for Desegregation
The first day of class is always awkward. There’s that moment of confusion, when everyone tries to figure out where they’d like to sit for the rest of the semester. There’s that mad dash for the seats near the windows or near the back, depending on what kind of person you are (and where the WiFi signal is strongest, honestly). While they wait for the professor to show up, people pull out their cell phones, clearly too cool or too busy to get to know their classmates right now. Better to stick with the familiar. And then the professor walks in and tries to make it less awkward, by taking attendance. Several professors will go a step further, asking students to say something interesting about themselves, about where they're from, what they’re majoring in, etc., and the all-famous (and never quite successful at alleviating the awkwardness) “Share something that people don’t know about you”. But depending on the class or on the information volunteered by students, talk tends to include which yeshiva one attended in Israel. This is key information, even more important than determining who’s funny, who’s spoiled and entitled, who’s cool, and who’s a total slacker. With this innocent question, we can judge intelligence, religiosity, and worldview, all in one or two simple words. Shraga. Gush. Hakotel. Sha’alvim. Reishit. Netiv. KBY. Eretz Hatzvi. And so on, and so forth. Oh, and for that poor true freshman who didn’t attend yeshiva in Israel, well, the jury is still out on him.
Outside of class, the same holds true. In my observation, one’s friends are overwhelmingly drawn from one’s yeshiva. True, the argument can be made that this is natural: it makes sense that we should be closest with those who share similar intellectual inclinations, who hold the same levels of religiosity, and who share the same worldviews as we do. Except for the fact that it seems that no yeshiva has a homogenous student body. I have yet to meet a student who fills all of the stereotypes of his yeshiva, and I have yet to meet a population of yeshiva students who share the same qualities, even in terms of intelligence. In fact, the opposite is true. So often, the reputations of people from particular yeshivot are wholly exaggerated or simply wrong. I’m convinced that each yeshiva boasts a diverse and wonderful student body, filled with bright, inquisitive, and thoughtful individuals. It’s a shame to simply group all of these talmidim into one category, especially when our purpose is to then dismiss them altogether by looking up to them or down to them.
Which is what ends up happening, by the way. Sure, we can point to some examples of inter-yeshiva friendships. But even if they do occur, the mingling of students from different yeshivot leaves something to be desired. When was the last time we saw a group of guys from Gush hanging out with a couple of Reishit guys? Who went to the last Sha’alvim/Eretz Hatzvi get-together? My colleague Josh Blicker wrote about this phenomenon in a Commentator article several months ago, in which he urged students to stop the judgement that goes on and work on integrating tables in the Dining Hall. Rabbi Jeremy Wieder, Rosh Yeshiva at YU, among others, has on multiple occasions stressed the need to get to know other elements within the student body and reach out to them. And yet, there is still much to be done.
In my time at YU, I’ve tried very hard to cultivate a diverse group of friends. I recognize how much there is to gain from people of different backgrounds and from people who have had different experiences than me, and I’ve worked to build sincere and enduring relationships with these people alongside my yeshiva friends. But I haven’t quite succeeded. I’ve frequently gotten the sense that friends of mine who have interacted together with my yeshiva friends feel left out, even if there were sizeable amounts of other people in the group who did not attend the same yeshiva as I did. Because no matter what happens, the group of people who were in yeshiva together share a tighter bond. It’s much, much easier to fall back on this tighter bond, and to limit one’s group of close friends to these compatriots. But I know that we are missing out in the process.
There is a problem here, which is that in a school of our size, we must devise artificial ways of dividing ourselves. We cannot be like the Hillels and Chabads of secular colleges, where the small numbers of Jewish students band together, because of the sheer scope of our population. We don’t have fraternities, or tight-knit residence halls, or even clubs and extracurricular activities in which students meet up often enough to form real, lasting friendships and peer groups. And it seems that the most comfortable and likely division to be made is based on where we spend the previous year or years of our lives before entering YU.
But what happens when you didn’t go to yeshiva in Israel? What happens if you’ve changed and become a far different person than who you were in yeshiva? What if you just didn’t enjoy your year in Israel, and want little to do with the people you knew there? Do you go through your college years as a relative loner? Do you transfer out of YU, looking for a place with people like you? Or do you try hard to make friends from across the board?
We need to make this process easier. We need to switch things up, to divide up our campus in a more organic way and in a manner which ultimately produces greater unity. I’m not sure how exactly to do that. Like University of Chicago and Yale University, for example, perhaps we should devise a system in which students are divided into houses or societies, where they can form brotherhoods of students from many different backgrounds and be united by common interests and a desire to build lasting bonds with members of their house. Perhaps it is enough to encourage students pursuing a particular major to get together socially, outside of class. I’m not naïve enough to think that these changes will actually happen anytime soon. But let’s start now. Perhaps, perhaps, it’s enough to sit with those other kids at the table in the cafeteria. Perhaps it’s enough to walk over to that group of students whom you know vaguely and strike up a conversation. And if you’re in one of those groups, invite others in. Without sounding too preachy, seek others, and you will find yourself feeling enriched by your newfound friends.