Why YU Needs a Hillel
When I was first applying to Yeshiva University I would always make the same joke to my parents: “Are you sure I should apply here? They don’t even have a Hillel. The Jewish life there must be terrible.” The Joke was funny because of its ridiculousness. Of course one of the few Jewish universities in America would have a thriving Jewish student lifestyle. How could it not?
This is a question that crosses the minds of many first year students -like myself- when they experience their first shabbat on either the Beren or Wilf campus. Except this time, it is not rhetorical. It is no secret that the Yeshiva University campus Shabbat atmosphere and lifestyle is, to put it mildly, lacking. There is barely any programming, half the university disappears with their own plans, and the meals are dull and lifeless.
Before I continue I want to stress that I am not talking about spending shabbat in a friends’ apartment in midtown or the heights. From my own experience I am well aware of how fun and entertaining those weekends can be. What I am talking about is the atmosphere on the campuses themselves.
Shabbat is a time when family and friends come together and enjoy great meals, conversation, and singing. It is a time when community takes center stage while all our other distractions that separate us during the week are put aside. This is the problem with Yeshiva University Shabbats. They lack a feeling of community and togetherness. Instead of the the campuses coming together everyone just does whatever they want, creating a void on the campus itself.
There are many reasons for this problem but the main one, in my opinion, is the fact that there is a significant percentage of students that attend YU that are from the New York/New Jersey area. On a usual YU Shabbat many of these students will go home, leaving the campus feeling empty and lifeless. Now, because half the school is gone, many other students will decide that they don't want to stay either. If no one is there, why should they be? They will find places to eat around their respective campus or go to another universities for the weekend. This leaves a very small group of students at YU which in turn creates a weak Shabbat atmosphere. Furthermore, because their is no central organization in charge of the shabbat, the people staying in are left feeling discombobulated and uncared for.
I know that SOY and the Housing and Student Life departments are doing their best to try and enhance the Shabbat atmosphere here at YU and I when I talk to other students I hear that it is definitely better than it was a few years ago. However, YU has had this problem for decades now and I believe it is time to bring in some outside help that specializes in this field. In other words, YU needs a Hillel.
A YU Hillel would be responsible for running programming that creates a sense of community and connection on campus. It would be run by a young couple who specializes in this type of community outreach. They must be open-minded and be able to connect with students from all backgrounds. Not everyone knows the rabbi of the week for YU Shabbats and the YU rabbis don't have time to meet and connect with everyone. Furthermore, they are usually only there for one shabbat every few months. This is not a healthy way to foster a relationship between a student and rabbi. This couples’ sole job would be to meet people and form relationships, creating a consistent leading figure for Shabbat.
Next comes programming. A parsha shiur, and board games are not going to give people that feeling of community. The Hillel couple would be in charge of creating programming that is not only interesting, but also allows people to branch out and meet new people. Besides for Shabbat meals, this could include panel discussions with special guests, a lively and informal tisch run by the students, or simply just a place where people can relax and talk. If, however, you think these programs are terrible do not fret! The Hillel should also have a student board that is responsible for creating programming with the couple so people like me don’t come in with our terrible ideas.
The Hillel is about creating a sense of community on the campuses for Shabbat. This means that all Yeshiva University students should be invited to attend a Hillel shabbat on Wilf campus, including Stern students. You cannot create a community of Yeshiva University students when half of the school is not invited. There are those who may say that this may create a certain atmosphere on the campus that the Yeshiva disapproves of. However, to those people I would say that by not inviting them you are depriving many people of a fun and meaningful shabbat and that you are creating an atmosphere that does not foster a sense of community, a central aspect of shabbat. Yeshiva University does not just belong to you but to everyone that goes here. Students should not have flee to midtown or other universities to experience a lively and community-oriented Shabbat. They should be able to do it on their own campus.
Of course, this will not stop people from going home, visiting friends, or going to other universities and nor should it. No one should be expected or wants to stay on campus for every Shabbat. However, for those that do decide to stay, a Hillel could offer what they and the YU Shabbat atmosphere is lacking: a sense of belonging and community.