Let’s Define Our Terms: Are We Really Yeshivish?
I don’t seek in this article to argue whether one should or shouldn’t be pro yeshiva-style events. I seek to define terms. Only once we define our terms can we decide what we are and aren’t for. Over the past month or so, time and time again, YP students in YU who generally are more into a “yeshiva style atmosphere” have been defined as “yeshivish.” No doubt, some students in YU are yeshivish. However the conversations which led to these descriptions don’t reflect yeshivish tendencies per se, and there are inaccurate sociological breakdowns being conducted by those who seem to have miscategorized a large portion of YU. I want to take you through the instances in which this occurred and explain the underlying issue here.
To be clear, the point I set out to make isn’t that being labeled yeshivish is a bad thing. The yeshivish community in America has thrived and grown over the past century, and in my opinion is to be respected tremendously. However, people should decide for themselves whether or not they are part of a certain community whether they be in YU, Lakewood or elsewhere.
What really triggered this article was a conversation that took place before a class I am in, a few weeks ago. A few students were discussing the YU play which ran in April. I mentioned to someone that there was a question asked about the play at Richard Joel’s town hall that week. The question happened to be about why the university was shifting next year from two plays a year to one, but that isn’t what is important to this discussion. Before I could mention what the question was a student turned to me and said, “was it some yeshivish kid asking why actors in the play don’t wear kippahs?”
That question threw me off a bit. I had two responses. Firstly, no that was not the question. Second, had someone asked that question, I truly fail to see why that would make him yeshivish. Again, my point here isn’t to assess whether students should be wearing kippahs during an official university event, that is for another time. The thought that arose in my head at the time was if that concern indicates that someone is part of the “yeshivish” community then what is the expected response to such an instance by a halacha following, Modern Orthodox individual?
In early February, the YU Commentator ran an article titled, “Shabbat on Campus?” which raised some issues with the atmosphere in YU on Shabbos. The article correctly noted that some students don’t feel connected to the yeshiva-style programming which takes place on Shabbos. I am not here to object to that fact. What I do find problematic is how those who the Shabbos schedule is supposedly catered towards, are described. The article quotes a member of SOY (Student Organization of Yeshiva) as saying, “shabbatot at YU are generally geared towards the more ‘yeshivish’ community which is often unappealing for students who simply want a ‘Jewish community feel’ on campus.” The article then continues “The SOY board on Wilf has been working to create programming that is geared towards both demographics at YU. For starters, shabbatot will now be called ‘community Shabbos’ as opposed to an ‘in-Shabbos’, which has a very yeshivish connotation.”
There are a couple of ironies in this statement. First, the traditional YU scheduling on Shabbos is not yeshivish. A schedule that consists of a tisch, parsha shiur and sicha at shaleshudes are traditional to all yeshivos, from Yeshivish to Modern. Second, the term “in-Shabbos” is hardly a “very yeshivish connotation” or a yeshivish phrase at all for that matter. In fact, the very Israeli yeshivos which the proponents of the “community shabbos” come from refer to shabbos in Yeshiva as an in-Shabbos. To reiterate, I am not weighing the issue of whether Shabbos at YU should be called “community Shabbos” or “in-Shabbos” (although I hardly feel this strongly contributes to the issues students have), but rather am taking issue with the characterization of both the schedule and the term “in-Shabbos” as “yeshivish.” They simply aren’t.
At a student council debate prior to the recent elections at YU, one of the candidates running for a position in SOY suggested having separate Shabbos meals appealing to different interests of students. Once again, I do not wish to assess to the value of such an idea and whether it would enhance the Shabbos community atmosphere at YU. What I take issue with is the way the meals were described. The candidate suggested having a more “yeshivish” meal with singing and divrei torah for those interested. If you’re following my thought pattern, it may not be necessary to continue the line of reasoning here, but I will anyways. I wonder, if a meal that consists of singing and divrei torah is “yeshivish” what does a Modern Orthodox meal look like? I understand everything is relative and in relation to the other meal this divrei torah filled meal would be more yeshivish. But that is really only true if the other meal more properly represents Modern Orthodoxy and I question whether that would be true. It should be thought provoking if this sounds uncomfortable: “there will be a more Modern Orthodox meal with singing and divrei torah for those interested.” At the least, both of the meal options represent a correct model of a Modern Orthodox shabbos meal.
Also at this debate (who knew these debates could be so exciting?) a candidate for a position on SOY took issue with the fact that some in YU don’t know who personalities like Rav Mayer Twersky are. It seemed pretty harmless but apparently that too was a microagression of sorts. A student in YU posted a comment on Facebook taking issue with the statement saying perhaps people don’t want to know who Rav Twersky or be involved in the yeshiva. As an aside, this is an absurd comment considering Rav Twersky is one of the friendliest people, not just rebbeim, people, in YU and there is no reason for people not to want to know him. He admits that it is superficial to have this desire but still wishes it be respected. Regardless, later on the author of this comment writes, “and by the way, don’t call this the IBC crowd. It only adds division, and it is patently false – there are a tremendous amount of YP students who also want different environments and non-yeshivish religious events.”
Here is the problem with that comment. The author is irate that people are placed in a general box of “IBC” if they have one persuasion, perhaps rightfully so, and then goes on to refer to the religious events being advocated by this candidate as “yeshivish.” In other words, if you want such religious events you have now been placed into the “yeshivish” box. So much for not adding division and being patently false.
I am not trying to solve YU’s problems. I am trying to address the step before that. We need to define our terms. While I will not attempt here to give an exact definition of “yeshivish,” since I believe there is both overlap and differences between the YU and yeshivish community, none of the instances above indicate an incongruence with Modern Orthodox judaism. Referring to beis medrash students as “yeshivish” is a way to distance them from what YU is known to be, the flagship Modern Orthodox Yeshiva. It is, whether conscious or not, a way to remove these students from the mainstream and place them on the fringes of YU, an unjustifiable alienation of a certain group.This is the very concern reformers have regarding how other groups are treated in YU. We can work to bridge gaps and outlooks in the YU community but only if both sides are taken into account when doing so.