By: Michael Weiner | Opinions  | 

Babies at YU: An Appreciation

If you spend enough time on the Wilf Campus, you will see lots of babies. Granted, none of them have a makom kavua in the beit midrash (yet), but their presence is unmistakable. Every day without fail, walking through campus between classes, I inevitably cross paths with some babies in strollers, being pushed by students about my age who are “on duty” as fathers and mothers.

By contrast, I’ve spent a couple of Shabbatot visiting friends at secular college campuses this year, and I can say with confidence that there are far, far fewer babies in those student communities than there are here. It’s not even close. But why should anyone care? After all, it should come as no surprise that strollers are more ubiquitous here than at other colleges, given the relatively young age at which most Orthodox Jews marry and the high value we place on having children.

That said, I think the presence of babies on campus adds something profound to our college experience that is all-too-often overlooked.

My case for the benefits of having babies around, in brief: they give you perspective.

College campuses are worlds unto themselves; isolated cocoons of students who are all mostly doing the same thing, set apart from the hustle and bustle of life “out there.” In an average day on a campus, it would be easy and natural for every single person you encounter (barring faculty and other school employees) to be about the same age as you and in the same stage of life. Schools can tout their diversity along lines of race or gender, but few have much diversity in terms of age.

There’s a discomfiting artificiality to this setting. It is so unlike the real world, filled with a dazzling array of people of all ages. That kind of environment can have some seriously negative effects. After living on a typical college campus for a few months, you might (justifiably!) start to get the feeling that everyone in the world is 20 years old. And by the same token, that everyone in the world has the same thoughts, feelings, experiences, hopes and dreams that you and your 20-year-old friends do.

In its worst incarnation, a college campus can become a sort of Never Never Land, where, because we only spend time with peers just like us, we stop growing up. And just like in the story, although Never Never Land might sound like paradise, it ends up becoming a nightmare. Classes, shiur, homework, clubs. These are all enriching, meaningful activities, but they’re also all about you. Most of life, as a spouse and a parent and a coworker, will be lived with and for other people.

Stuck inside this cocoon, thinking about ourselves, our work and the present moment, we can be in danger of forgetting that college is just one leg of the journey of life, and that we have a number of critical life milestones coming up that we desperately need to prepare for. Unfortunately, acing all your classes or even getting an internship is not the right kind of preparation.

Enter babies. Their presence, even for just a few moments, keeps us grounded in reality, gently and adorably reminding us to think of others and of the future. “Finding yourself” is absolutely about exploring personal passions and career options, but for Orthodox Jews, it’s just as much about growing into the kind of person who can one day be a wonderful parent and spouse.

Walking down Amsterdam Avenue, lost in thought about essay deadlines and my next class, babies help snap me out of my reverie. Looking down at their adorable faces buried in the recesses of their strollers, I hear the message: you will soon grow up. You will face greater challenges than a midterm. You will one day be a parent to a baby just like this one. And your choices now do matter, shaping you into becoming the most caring and empathic human being you can be.

Thanks for those daily reminders of humility and empowerment that you unconsciously send me, anonymous babies. They’re coming at the perfect time.

Photo Caption: Two smiling babies