Why We Don’t Study Abroad
Two months ago I realized why most Yeshiva University students don’t study abroad. At the time, I was celebrating Purim in Shanghai. For my Purim seudah, I had invited my closest friends (both Jewish and non-Jewish) to share a meal of mac and cheese and wine with me. After briefly explaining the cultural significance of Purim to them, I leaned back and enjoyed their company.
The previous Purim, I had eaten my seudah in YU’s Heights Lounge with ten friends, all of whom were Orthodox Jews, all of whom studied for at least a year in Israel before coming to YU, and all of whom were male. This Purim, I observed, I was eating my seudah on the 17th floor of an apartment high-rise in Shanghai with seven friends who represented five different nationalities, three different religions, and two different genders. The difference between this year and last year was amazing, almost absurd. I was struck then by how much my life had changed because of my decision to study abroad.
At YU, we are insulated from the diversity of New York City and the world by the means of carefully erected boundaries that were put in place to preserve the religious integrity of our school. In this article, I do not intend to argue, as so many others have, about when and where those boundaries should be placed. Those boundaries include our school’s unwillingness to host speakers and support clubs who conflict with the ideological goals of the school, the separation of the Beren and Wilf campuses, and the general lack of students on campus who are not Orthodox Jews. Those boundaries will always exist. For those who want to discover the wondrous diversity of opinion and experience that this world offers, the best solution is not to push helplessly against those boundaries.
It is to take a step, however brief, outside of them.
Studying abroad not only provides YU students with the opportunity to meet people from other universities across the world, but also gives them the opportunity to immerse themselves in a new and unfamiliar culture. I chose to study abroad in China, specifically, because it is a nation with a culture vastly unlike that of America. After four months abroad, I’m still noticing the ways that people here are different from me. I’m also still noticing the countless ways that we are fundamentally the same, no matter our nationality or religion.
But a step outside of our community’s carefully constructed barriers comes at a cost. After tasting the freedom of the outside world, it is not going to be easy for me, or any other YU student who chooses to study abroad, to integrate back into our relatively homogeneous community. And that is, I think, the heart of why most YU students do not study abroad. We’re not afraid of having to take the step outside. We’re afraid of having to take the step back inside.
I will say, though, as a student who registered for classes on May 2nd, that the experiences that I have had this semester are worth more to me than the safety and comfort of staying inside the YU community. I’d prefer to appreciate the things that I like about other cultures rather than only criticize the problems of our own. Studying in a country where people are not free to think what they want, say what they want, and write what they want has made me acutely aware of the negative effects of remaining unexposed to other opinions. No good can come of staying inside our own barriers merely because we are afraid of what we might find out about ourselves on the other side.
I therefore encourage all YU students to seriously consider the possibility of studying abroad. While it is an uncustomary decision, John Stuart Mill defended such decisions in On Liberty by claiming, “Customs are made for customary circumstances and customary characters; and his circumstances or character may be uncustomary.” In my semester abroad, I realized just how uncustomary we all are.
Finally, I would like to extend an offer of support and guidance to any YU students who are considering taking a semester abroad. Just the knowledge that there are YU students who have done it, like I learned from a Commentator article earlier this year, should be enough to inspire hope in anyone who is considering studying abroad. It can be done, and I know now from personal experience that it is worth it.
To talk to Jacob about studying abroad from YU, contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.