Investing in Night Seder -- YU’s Focus on the “Yeshiva Elite”
For many of us, the choice to acquire our college degrees at Yeshiva University, rather than at another college, was determined by YU’s notable opportunities for Torah learning and a Jewish environment. Aside from its esteemed Morning Seder program, YU’s Night Seder program offers its students a unique opportunity to engage in a two-hour communal gathering of Torah learning after the conclusion of daily college classes. YU is constantly developing new strategies to help students improve their efficiency during the Night Seder program, most recently by providing positive incentives (such as YU Seforim Sale gift cards for passing bekius tests) and adding new staff members to aid students in their learning. While YU’s focus on helping students maximize the number of dapim they cover in bekius is a worthwhile venture, I can’t help but think that this project misses focusing on the true issue of the Night Seder program—attendance. While Night Seder is not mandatory, it provides students with invaluable preparation for how to incorporate Torah learning into their daily schedules once they begin their careers. The September 19, 2016 issue of The Commentator reported that around two-hundred students participate in the Night Seder program. Considering the invaluable benefits that its Night Seder program offers, I find this number to be well below what YU should be aiming for.
I want to first clarify that I am in no way blaming those who have failed to participate. After all, the non-participants to whom I’m referring include students who have never consistently attended a Night Seder program prior to YU, generally due to a weak yeshiva background, and students who, despite a strong yeshiva background and familiarity with Night Seder programs, struggle to participate due to the academic pressures of college. While attending Night Seder (even for a brief period) is admirable, YU’s rigorous morning and afternoon schedules exhausts even the best of us. I won’t pretend that I’ve never missed Night Seder to meet a deadline for a paper or study for midterms. I have -- more times than I care to admit. I believe it is safe to assume that students facing these challenges will not be swayed to attend Night Seder by YU Seforim Sale gift cards. Students with a weak yeshiva background still have that weak background. Not to mention those four unread textbook chapters and that essay due tomorrow that’s still three pages too short.
Nevertheless, YU’s focus on improving the Night Seder program seems to only concentrate on how to help the “yeshiva elite” (your classic Gush, Shaalavim, HaKotel, and KBY alumni) finish the mesechta (my deepest apologies to any yeshivas I failed to include). But where are the attempts at resolving the fundamental problem of Night Seder participation?
Perhaps I am being a bit harsh on YU. After all, this problem has no easy fix. If there was, I’m sure it would have been done already. Therefore, I will shift my critique to instead question YU’s noticeable lack of attempts in receiving student input on how to improve student participation. After all, isn’t the first step in helping others with their problems to ask those people how you might be of assistance?
Regardless of whether YU deserves criticism for its lack of effort in improving Night Seder participation, I wish to move on to a more productive conversation: how can we resolve this problem? While I have only just begun my academic career in YU and by no means am an expert in the fields of sociology or pedagogy, I believe, as a student who is no stranger to the issues discussed in this article, that I have some input to offer.
Particularly in regards to those students with a strong yeshiva background, yet who are continuously overwhelmed with school work, I believe that the solution for the attendance issue rests in removing the “all-or-nothing” mentality. I refer to the attitude of many YC students that if they cannot participate in a full Night Seder, like they did while attending yeshiva, they might as well give up on the entire program. Most often this attitude does not stem from the student’s lack of awareness of the benefits that can be gained from even an abbreviated seder, but rather emerges as a rationalization when the student has other priorities. I need to finish an essay, which results in my missing the first hour of Night Seder; at that point, I may as well continue working on homework (or possibly engage in more relaxing activities). For all of its shortcomings in increasing Night Seder attendance among the non-“yeshiva elite”, YU has at least recognized this “all-or-nothing” mentality, going as far as to warn its students to avoid this trap in the beginning of the year. Yet actual methods to avoid this problem have rarely been suggested.
While I’m sure there are many ways to help students avoid this mentality, I believe that it is first important to remove the impression that Night Seder must be spent focusing on bekius. Bekius is oriented around a person’s progress in the mesechta. As such, for those who can only commit themselves to a half-hour night seder (or perhaps can’t commit to a daily schedule at all), Night Seder would be very discouraging, as these people will likely achieve very little progress in the mesechta. Therefore, if they wish to see improvement in attendance, YU must not only encourage students to learn materials other than Talmud (such as mussar, machshava, or Halacha), but actively provide students with access to learning these alternate Judaic subjects. An effective way of accomplishing this would be to provide nightly mini-shiurim (perhaps fifteen minutes to half an hour). These mini-shiurim should discuss new topics each day, so that every student will have a shiur to attend regardless of whether they missed a previous shiur. However, it would also be beneficial to provide shiurim which constantly build on previous shiurim, to encourage continued participation. Additionally, it could be helpful to provide online streaming of these shiurim, allowing students to participate in Night Seder from the comfort of their dorm rooms. Personally, if I had an official, organized shiur to attend on a nightly basis, I would be much more inclined to attend Night Seder for those shiurim even on nights where I’m bombarded with schoolwork. While these alterations in the Night Seder program will likely show greatest results among students with a strong Yeshiva background, hopefully they can benefit those without such a background as well.
YU might also want to consider enhancing the quality of its positive incentives. Rather than just a Seforim Sale gift card for doing well on a test, perhaps a more frequent gift card to Golan would encourage more students to participate, especially in conjunction with the suggestions above. Maybe the rabbis present at Night Seder could take turns inviting regular Night Seder participants to their houses for Shabbos, a melava malka, or some other extracurricular activity.
I realize that these suggestions ask a lot from the YU hanhala. However, if Night Seder is truly something that YU wishes to make accessible to all its students, it will require some heavy investments.