By: Benjamin Koslowe | Editorials  | 

How Bare Heads Are More Than Just Bare Heads, and Why It Matters for YU

There exists a sizeable population of male undergraduate Yeshiva University students who publicly do not wear kippahs on campus. Bareheaded undergrads have become a normal sight in YU hallways, outdoor plazas, lounges, libraries and even classrooms. This phenomenon is antithetical to Yeshiva values and should be shocking to any member of the extended community.

The problem is not about religious non-observance. Indeed, Yeshiva University accepts students spanning a wide range of religious commitment and does not enforce any religious observance on its students. It is an open institution that welcomes non-religious students who want to connect to and learn from Judaism in their own way, allowing everyone to feel comfortable in his own level of observance. As far as school policy is concerned, a student in the privacy of his dorm room is permitted to eat on Yom Kippur.

On the institutional level, though, Yeshiva University is Orthodox. This is explicit in various founding documents, mission statements and official slogans. It is also implicitly obvious from institutional policies. The educational requirements include Jewish history, Bible and Hebrew. There are vibrant batei midrash where hundreds of students spend their mornings fully immersed in a traditional yeshiva setting. Even those who do not spend their mornings learning Gemara dedicate half of their education to Jewish studies courses. The cafeterias serve only kosher food. The academic calendar accommodates Shabbat and Jewish holidays. And the list goes on.

As an Orthodox institution, Yeshiva University legitimately demands public respect of Orthodoxy. While a student may watch Netflix on his own on Friday night, the workout gym and vending machines, whose usage would create an atmosphere that detracts from Shabbat for others, are closed to him. Public respect includes other activities to avoid in public, but it includes active requirements too. A prime example is that students (and faculty) are expected, both formally and societally, to dress according to religious Jewish standards of modesty.

Kippah-wearing belongs to a similar category of reasonable requirements. These requirements are natural expectations that derive from the community rather than from some official set of rules. In fact, Yeshiva University does not officially demand that men cover their heads. The only requirement of male students, according to YU’s official dress code, is that they “wear pants and a shirt.” But communal expectations in any institution extend beyond the classroom and the letter of the law; in the case of Yeshiva University, male head-covering is one such unwritten expectation, and its noncompliance constitutes disrespect of Orthodoxy.

The practice of Orthodox Jewish men to wear kippahs transcends halakhic observance. The kippah represents belief in God and commitment to the system. The covered head serves not only as a reminder to the individual but as a meaningful signal to those who see him. By extension, a community of kippah-wearers signals to the outside world that they, both in themselves and as part of whatever group they represent, are Orthodox. In such a community, those individuals who do not comply stand out. So a Yeshiva University student who does not cover his head makes more than an individual choice. He, as a member of the community, detracts from the group’s religious image.

The difference between complete and incomplete kippah compliance is very significant. When the community becomes one that includes a noticeable group of individuals who publicly do not commit to Orthodoxy, the institution loses some of the inherent respect that it owes, as per its mission, to Orthodoxy. This matters in any Orthodox institution, but especially in Yeshiva University, a place where there are few other ideas besides for “Orthodoxy” itself that can unite the entire community.

Think for a moment about any other Orthodox institution, whether it be a high school, yeshiva, sleepaway camp or synagogue. Would it not seem highly unusual in any of these institutions to find a population of men or boys who do not cover their heads? And yet, in Yeshiva University, it has somehow become not only an existent culture but a normal matter of fact.

It is worth noting that the population of non-kippah-wearing students at YU is certainly not homogenous. There are many reasons why an individual student might choose to not wear a kippah, or perhaps even not ever put one on in the first place. Some students do not even have a reason, per se, but rather simply never thought twice about how kippah noncompliance at YU might be a bit strange. There are even many Orthodox students who are not used to wearing kippahs because of their particular custom, be it their Sephardic or some other heritage.

It would be unfair to ascribe malicious or antagonistic intent to any individual student who does not wear a kippah. That being said, the actions of many individuals collectively add up to the communal problem.

Of course, the reasonable expectation of kippah compliance is nuanced. There are exceptions to the rule, such spaces like gyms, the swimming pool and bathrooms, where even the strictest religiously-minded remove kippahs temporarily. Another exception is non-Jewish graduate students and professors who, despite walking around YU premises with uncovered heads, are typically discernibly older than most undergrads. The average passerby, with his ability to recognize that these of bare skulls are not Yeshiva University undergraduates, does not form an impression from these members of the institution about the undergraduate religious community.

Another area of nuance is the outer rims of YU’s campuses, whose exact boundaries are hard to precisely delineate. It is clear that the batei midrash, classrooms, libraries and cafeterias are intrinsically part of the institution. Certain outdoor spaces, such as the 185th Street Pedestrian Plaza, are similarly endowed with institutional status by their central locations. But does a student walking a block away from the main campus represent YU? What about when he is eating in one of the YU-dominated restaurants? These grey areas are complicated.

What can be done going forward?

The solution is not for the administration to crack down on dress standards, which would almost certainly result in unpleasant pushback. If any change is to occur, it will most likely be the result of slow, patient, thoughtful, open-minded dialogue about this topic. This dialogue might address certain important questions: Are students simply unaware of the importance of wearing kippahs in an Orthodox institution? To what extent does kippah noncompliance indicate an apathy towards religious practice? Are there students whose bare heads indicate a rejection of YU’s basic values and beliefs? Is there a place in YU for those students who would answer yes to the last question?

Is kippah noncompliance an isolated issue, or is it indicative of something much more alarming about the state of Yeshiva University’s undergraduate community today?