Finding Common Ground
Life is full of choices. On May 1st 2015, after much deliberation, dozens of lists of pro’s and con’s, and conversations with just about every college student who would respond to my texts, I made the choice to take my talents to Yeshiva University. Life at Yeshiva University promised unparalleled religious conveniences. It was the only place where I felt I could have it all. At YU I wouldn't have to miss any events or be barred from participating in any extracurricular activities due to religious constraints. However, the thing that drew me to YU most was what I thought was a homogenous student body. I was under the naive impression that at YU I wouldn't have to worry about being "different". I would be living and studying with other young adults who would share all of my beliefs. I would be in a place where I could continue to grow without having my every move challenged by my peers.
When I arrived on campus in the fall I was shocked to learn that this expectation could not have been farther from the reality. I have since gotten used to, and become immensely grateful for, all the opportunities being wrong has presented me with. To be sure, I don't think diversity is our strong suit. However, what I am suggesting that I learned when I arrived on “campus” is that despite our lack of racial diversity, we are far from uniform.
We as a student body are a group of people who all see the world and our relationships to Judaism very differently. I arrived on campus during a particularly politically-charged season, the presidential election was coming up and controversial speakers were scheduled to address a wide range of political issues. At first I thought that those factors were the sole cause of the combative mood permeating campus. I soon realized that the divisiveness runs much deeper than any election season or lightening rod speaker.
Divisiveness is multifaceted--there is the kind that breeds intelligible conversation and pushes the community forward and the kind that leads to animosity. We as a student body have fallen prey to the latter. We continuously divide ourselves over and over again. We find any and every reason to close ourselves off from each other and form highschool-esque cliques. We’ve created social castes so strict that they’re reminiscent of Pre-Ghandi India.
The girls who learn Gemara are instantly dubbed “radical feminists”, the Netiv “flipouts” who partied in high school and now never leave the Beis. We insist that the “Gush” boys would only ever think to learn for intellectual stimulation, and deem the girls whose skirts are a little longer than ours “Yeshivish” off the bat.There are the “Poster Children” who are paradigmatic of the Torah U’Maddah philosophy and the kids that come to YU for easy access to New York City. The students whose parents gave them no choice but to come here, and the should-be Ivy Leaguers who came because they were offered seductive scholarships.
We’ve gotten to a point where we think we can learn everything about each other based on thirty second interactions we have attempting to avoid awkward silences in the elevator, or the two word descriptions we’ve been given by our mutual friends. We assume entire Hashkafic (religious-approach based) Identities based on where a persons 18-year old self chose to spend their year in Israel. We sum up a person’s IQ based on their major, and when someone doesn't fit into our boxes quite as neatly as we’d like them to, we wave them off--claim they're confusing, they don't make sense, deem them anomalies, and move on.
We are losing sight of the fact that this diversity has the potential to create a beautiful symphony where different instruments can find a way to play in harmony. Instead, we are creating a ruckus. Each instrument is struggling to keep tempo, fighting for their own solos, limiting some of the most talented musicians to only one instrument. Attempting to see the YU community objectively, I feel that we are a microcosm of the Jewish world-- more specifically the Orthodox world. As Orthodox Jews, we too find ourselves, trying to divide ourselves, pushing forward our own agendas, sometimes so blinded by our desire to be correct that we fail to move forward. We are Chassidish, Misnagid, Charedi, Open Orthodox, Left-Wing Modern Orthodox, Centrist, Right-Wing Modern Orthodox, Egalitarian, Chardal, Dati Leumi, Yeshivish, Conservative, Reform, Conservadox. We somehow manage to use the minutiae of our religious practice to divide ourselves. We swear time and time again that our way is right, we are the “ideal”, the quintessential Jews. What we fail to be conscious of however is that we are all share a common goal, to serve God in the best possible way.
In parshat (Torah portion) Vayechi, which we read a few weeks ago, Yaakov blesses all of his children as he lays on his deathbed. He calls them to be blessed with the following words “heiyasfu veyagida lachem” loosely translated as “gather and I will tell you". He continues on to give each of his children their unique blessings, catered to their own strengths and weaknesses. Rabbi Jesse Horn, a Rabbi at Yeshivat Hakotel, suggests that this comes to teach us that only after we have gathered can our individuality be productive, and can our unique character traits complement each other.
YU is unique in that it is a place where we are all gathered. Jews who will someday be forced into one of the many boxes society creates. We are the institution in which future leaders, rabbis, doctors, social workers, lawyers, and teachers are nurtured. We will develop into a group of professionals who will all continue to relate to their religion very differently. Fast forward 20 years, the current students of YU will be living their lives very differently from another. Will they remain members of every artificial group we have created? The culture of the Jewish world is at our fingertips. Our job is to create an attitude on campus that will allows us to mold the culture of orthodoxy when we leave this safe space. It is our immense duty and responsibility, to make this gathering one of more than just proximity. We share the same Batei Midrash, Dining halls, dorm buildings, and classes, but lets start sharing more than that. As a community let’s start sharing ideas, openly. Let’s us lower our defense mechanisms so that we can try to learn from and with one another.
In my short time here I have found that I have more in common with people who I couldn’t have felt more different from. I have learnt that when I am open, honest, and non-confrontational, I am a better me. Honest dialogue with peers who hold differing viewpoints has swayed my opinions on some matters, and solidified them on others. If we used the time that we spend trying to label people to start talking, to respectfully question each other, not as attackers but as people with a genuine interest in one another, we could do a lot of good for the orthodox world. If we can do this, then we have the potential to send forth students, whose passion for unity surpass their passion for correctitude. We have an opportunity to create unity to pave the way toward a less divisive Orthodoxy, Judaism, and world. Let us take this unorganized clamoring of instruments and turn it into an award winning symphony.
There are very few groups of people presented with the opportunity to create a new culture. People who have been presented with the ability to make a tangible change in our children's lives, let’s not let that go to waste.