By: Lilly Gelman  | 

Being a Jew at YU

If you, like me, follow the Yeshiva University Admissions page on Facebook, by now you would have seen the new ads stressing the unique religious experience on campus. YU has seemingly endless kosher food options, a plethora of Judaic studies courses, consistent Shabbat programming, and a schedule built around the Jewish holidays. As students of Yeshiva University, our college experience is not burdened by the stress of midterms during chaggim (Jewish holidays) or the inconvenience of extracurricular activities on Saturdays. On the surface, YU offers the impression of a religiously satisfying college experience, allowing the students to spend these four formative years focusing solely on their classes and extracurriculars without the worries of religious obligations. It appears to me, however, that what makes religious life at Yeshiva University effortless, is in fact one of the greatest challenges of attending this uniquely religious institution.

While it is unfair to speak from the perspective of Jewish students in secular college — as I currently attend YU, not Penn, Maryland, or Barnard — I can speak from the experience of growing up in a smaller Jewish community in Houston, which I believe may have some valuable similarities. We had one Modern Orthodox school, one shul option in the neighborhood, and four kosher restaurants. Our religious questions pertained to the entire community. We as a community needed the school to thrive because without it, we would have no Modern Orthodox education for our youth. We collectively took on the responsibility of making minyanim (prayer quorums) during the week and learning the leining (Torah reading) for Shabbat because if we didn’t, it wouldn’t have happened. We supported the businesses that sold kosher food because without them, the entire community would be at a loss. By default, every member of the community was an involved and committed leader who had taken upon themselves certain responsibilities that benefited the community that we provided for ourselves.

When I began my first semester at YU, I immediately sensed the difference. I do not wish to discount the fact that Yeshiva University is an institution which allows us to be immersed in Judaism throughout our entire university experience — a school that places the value of Torah studies on the same pedestal as that of secular education and provides a Jewish community in which we can thrive. I do believe, however, that it is this fact that we are provided with a community from the outset and not pushed to create one for ourselves that yields a great challenge. The struggle on Yeshiva University campuses is existential as opposed to situational. We are not faced with the challenge of creating a Jewish community, but rather tasked with discovering our own level of involvement and commitment. Will I go to minyan if they don't really need me? Will I give the chabura in the Beit Midrash if there are others willing to do so? There is no pull to be involved in Jewish life on campus, because all life on campus is Jewish life.

I am not writing to make a positive or negative judgment; I am writing to offer an opinion — to describe an observation I have made over the last five and half months that I hope will resonate with at least some of the student body at Yeshiva University. I cannot say which is better; to have responsibility thrust upon a person or to allow those who desire involvement to seek the opportunity out on their own. All I know is that just because we are a religious university, does not signify that religious struggle dissipates within this institution.

Not only does the orthodoxy of the establishment provide a challenge, but the supposed uniformity of the student body does as well. Last year I attended Migdal Oz, an Israeli Midrasha (seminary) with an overseas program, consisting of 39 non-Israelis out of the close to 150 women in the Beit Midrash. Those 39 gap-year students were far from homogeneous; we came from different places and grew up with different religious backgrounds, and yet became a “crew” nonetheless. We bonded over the sole fact that we were the Bnot Chul (women from outside of Israel) in a Midrasha full of Israelis, providing a sense of belonging in a situation where individually we did not belong.

While I still do not have a full picture, it seems to me that the sentiment on secular campuses is quite similar. A bond forms between Jewish students simply because they are the minority — a small group within a large university that creates a community and a connection over what they have in common — Jewish identity. At risk of over-generalizing, I think it is safe to say that almost all YU undergraduate students have some sort of Jewish identity. This supposedly unifying factor becomes what diversifies the Jewish community at Yeshiva University. A student cannot simply identify as “Jewish” or “religious” to feel belonging, but rather is impelled to discover their place on the nuanced and gradational spectrum of religious observance and Jewish identity. We are compelled to identify based on subtle distinctions between our respective Israel schools, our shiur programs, and how we dress. The search and what comes of it, may, in the end, isolate us from other students. Forcing ourselves to fit into boxes and within parameters that can impart belonging, we find that, in reality, those borders do not exist in as clear a form as we have imagined. What is unearthed may be that one does not fully connect with a single group, and while they may not be alone as a Jew at YU, one may be lonely in their personal religious standing.

I see the religious struggle at Yeshiva University as twofold; navigating the necessary internal push to engage in the community and discovering one’s identity within the seemingly homogenous group are two aspects of the challenge of being a Jew at YU. At risk of sounding like an admissions spokesperson, I want to say that these internal conflicts serve as a blessing in disguise. Religious life is not meant to be easy. College students should not sit back and put religious self-examination on the back burner. We should constantly question our standing within the Jewish community and the extent of our involvement. We do not need to worry about keeping kosher or Shabbat, but instead are able to focus on the nuances of how our religious lives appear in all aspects of orthodox practice. Jewish life at YU is far from easy, but it pushes us to question meaningfully the role Judaism plays in our lives — a matter that otherwise may have been overlooked.