Here’s To My Other YU
Towards the end of my sophomore year at Yale, I decided that Judaism should mean everything to me. Our Hillel’s JLIC rabbi — a talmid of this yeshiva, and to this day my close teacher and friend — encouraged me to go to Morasha Kollel that summer to get acquainted with the Gemara and those who take it seriously. Those six weeks were like an intense dream, and I resolved that they shouldn’t stop just because the academic calendar said so. That fall and spring, and into my senior year, I took the Metro North every week I could from New Haven to New York, then the subway through Harlem to Yeshiva University’s Wilf Campus. I came to love YU as much as I feel a right to love any school that is not my own, and I’d like to tell you why. In part because I think giving thanks is the proper response to feeling thankful. Also, I have a vainglorious hope that YU may take encouragement from the gratitude of someone who had no claim on the school’s resources, but who gained and still gains from their gracious provision.
To my way of thinking, an institution’s central virtue is the character of its leaders, so I’ll begin with the roshei yeshiva. I never thought there could be so many people whose sagacity equals their integrity, whose scholarship and teaching are matched by a generous concern for those who are not their students and colleagues. The roshei yeshiva, a friend once said to me, try every day to be better people, and to improve others through example. No student at a secular college can say that about all of his or her teachers. Nor is there any university faculty, I would wager, with one fifth as many loving and fearful servants of the Lord as preside over the Glueck beit midrash. Ten thousand men of Harvard could not confer such distinction.
Faithfully emulating their rebbeim, YU’s students are joyful, diligent, broad-minded and firm-footed travelers along the narrow path of the halakhah. For no reason other than our common faith, the YU studentry invited me into its intellectual and ritual life. Dozens of talmidim helped me through my first sugyas, answering questions they had asked as young bnei mitzvah, with patience, charity and intelligence. Study at a secular university can feel a bit monastic. Most of it is done in the sterile silence of a library, often in cubicles excluding all signs of the world outside a computer screen. I think the yoshvei beis medrish have taken vows of loquacity, always explaining and arguing and asking their friends to do the same (this learned buzz even infects the uptown library, in which I felt together rather than alone with other people). The approach is dialectical and cooperative, a united quest for a holy truth during which controversy is sharp and productive and disinterested, and the best partners are the worthiest opponents.
Keeping Shabbos at Yale is counter-cultural, but how much more wonderful for a whole school to keep it together! Redoubtable members of the Kollel Elyon welcomed me into their homes and showed me proper, frum parenting and loving marriages — how to build faithful, peaceful houses in Israel. The rebbeim who live in the Heights did the same, answering questions I asked and ones I lacked the courage to voice. These bnei Torah, young and old, became my guides and comrades in a nascent life of Orthodoxy.
My experience of YU is exclusive. I have never visited the Beren campus, and I’ve only met about twenty students of Stern College. Still, I found them to be as serious, perspicacious and kind as their brothers in the Heights. Yeshiva University takes a refreshingly unified view of study and culture, which is that both are conducted under the Yoke of Heaven. Therefore, YU expects men and women to behave towards one another with modesty. American culture lusts for a cheap equation between the sexes. Vive la differénce, YU insists without apology. Maximum dignity, maximum sanctity. Integration when appropriate, separation when necessary. A treatise on the wisdom of these principles would go longer than “Atlas Shrugged.”
There is a final thing to say about YU, which is just that it has the best mission any institution can have — to preserve, to transmit and to discover further riches of our tradition, and to cultivate its students to do the same in turn. The Proverb tells us “to know the Lord in all our ways.” Sensible of this instruction’s breadth, YU teaches its students the liberal arts and sciences, sites of auxiliary efforts to know God’s world. Each day, uptown and downtown, the students and faculty of this school do a great thing. Thank you, beloved teachers and friends, for including me in it.
Photo Caption: Glueck Beit Midrash
Photo Credit: The Commentator