By: Yechiel Friedman | Features  | 

From the Archives (April 19, 1978; Volume 43 Issue 11) — Yeshiva College Fiftieth Anniversary

Editor’s Note: Just over 90 years ago, Yeshiva College opened its doors for its first class of undergraduate college students. In this issue, The Commentator reprints a throwback article that was written on the occasion of the college’s fiftieth anniversary, in 1978.

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Most Yeshiva students know little more about the history of the college than that which they gleaned from the outdated catalog when they were entering freshmen.

Besides a short history of our institution, the one-page article also extolls Yeshiva for what it has become today. Yet, the question remains, how did it get there?

In 1886 a group of Eastern-European Jewish immigrants formed the first yeshiva in America for the teaching of young Jews in the Lower East Side. The organizers, mostly local tradesmen, knew very little about running a school, though they were sincerely dedicated to the task.

An Early Experience

One of the first secular teachers hired by the school (none lasted too long) was Abraham Cahan, a clever young man who had shown great promise with his studies in a European yeshiva. In his autobiography, Cahan records that the curriculum at the time was loosely drawn to provide just for the study of the three “R’s” — all within the “English department.” Because the directors had no clear idea of what should be taught, the English department functioned haphazardly, more out of a perfunctory acknowledgement for these subjects than a sincere desire to provide the children with a modern education.

When Cahan tried to improve the situation by enlisting the other teacher, a fourteen year old boy who had just graduate public school, to pressure the directors for a $50 allotment for new texts, he was criticized for being too extravagant. Cahan later became a prominent journalist, the editor of the Jewish Daily Forward, and a commanding figure in the Socialist movement for almost half a century.

Establishment of RIETS

The Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary (RIETS), was formed in 1897 as the response of the Eastern European Jewish immigrants to the increasingly secular Jewish Theological Seminary of the “Uptown” American Jews. It struggled in its first years, as did Yeshivat Etz Chaim, moving from shul to shul till 1904 when RIETS purchased a building in the Lower East Side for the then tremendous sum of $28,500.

With the security of owning its own building, together with the accreditation of RIETS by the Agudath HaRabbanim, the administration turned its attention, successfully, to improving the quality of the religious instruction in RIETS.

A Student Strike

Though continually gaining students as a result of the excellent quality of its instruction, RIETS was forced to close its doors in 1907 because all its students went on strike to protest the director’s continuous rebuffing of student requests for secular instruction.

The strike was successful. The Board of Directors and all officers were replaced, but the new directors pleaded financial instability. These problems were partially solved in 1915 with the merger of Yeshivat Etz Chaim and RIETS.

From then on, the new institution, called RIETS, was on the road of constant growth. A high school, called the Talmudical Academy, was established. More importantly, a new President of the Faculty was hired, Rabbi Dr. Bernard Revel, a graduate of NYU and Dropsie College, as well as a universally acknowledged scholar in both religious and secular studies.

Early Growth

Soon, RIETS found itself with another division, the Teachers Institute, founded in 1917 as a supplemental religious school by Rabbi Judah Leib Fishman (Maimon), Rabbi Meir Berlin (Bar-Ilan) and other prominent members of the Mizrachi Organization of America.

To keep up with this rapid expansion, RIETS began a fundraising campaign to raise 5 million dollars for the creation of fa new educational complex. With the money eventually raised, a site also had to be chosen. The proposals included an estate in southern New Jersey, a large tract of land near where AECOM is presently located, and the present site of the Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital and Medical Center.

These sites were all rejected because they were either too far from New York City, too large, or too expensive. Finally, the building committee settled on a two-block area, known as the Barney Estate, lying west of Amsterdam Avenue between 186th and 187th Streets, in the Washington Heights section of upper Manhattan. This represented about fifty city building lots. Later, additional property to round out the parcels on the west side of Amsterdam Avenue and the Horton Estate on the east side of Amsterdam Avenue were acquired. The total real estate value of the purchase was reported to be $1,274,960.

A College and Grad School

With the granting of a charter by the Regents of the University of the State of New York, the newly formed Yeshiva College soon began producing outstanding graduates, and later, outstanding graduate students.

The first graduate program in Jewish and Semitic studies was initiated in 1935 and expanded into a full graduate school in 1937, ten short years before the establishment of the Harry Fischel School for Higher Jewish Studies, a companion institute to the (later renamed) Bernard Revel Graduate School, which offers identical coursework during the summer semesters.

Another more important step forward in 1945 was YU’s attaining full university status as recognized by the New York State Board of Regents, which distinguished YU as the first university in America under Jewish auspices. Two other new schools were also formed in that year; another high school and the Institute of mathematics, now known to us as the Belfer Graduate School of Science. The Community Services Division was also formed that year.

All this impressive growth was achieved under YU’s new president, Dr. Samuel Belkin. This master plan of expansion neared completion in 1952 with another amendment to YU’s charter, facilitating the establishment, in 1955, of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine. Still other schools of the fifties included Stern College (1954), Teachers Institute for Women (1952), Cantorial Training Institute (1954), the James Striar School of General Jewish Studies (1956), the Sue Golding Graduate Division of Medical Sciences of AECOM (1957), the Ferkauf Graduate School of Humanities and Social Sciences (1957), and the Wurzweiler School of Social Work (1957).

Effects of the Expansion

With this rapid expansion, the University was in an especially favorable position to take advantage of the effects of the go-go sixties, the post was baby boom, the Russian launching of Sputnik and its impetus to American education, and the government aid to education.

The advent of the seventies was a time for change in YU, but it took the administration too long to change. Nevertheless, new schools were established, one in Los Angeles called the West Coast Teachers College (1970) and the now much heralded Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law (1976).

These changes may have boded well for the University as a whole, but they nevertheless detracted from the undergraduate division. The recent closing of the Belfer Graduate School, to be replaced with a scientific research institute, and the recent change of administrators under the current president, Dr. Norman Lamm, may be steps in the right direction. Nevertheless, like YC’s new business program, only time, as well as the administration’s cooperation with the student body, can really tell.

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Photo Caption: The Commentator archives

Photo Credit: The Commentator