An Insider’s Guide to the International Community at YU
For the vast majority of international students, attending Yeshiva University means being far away from home, turning down offers from larger and more affordable universities and adjusting to a completely different culture. Despite these challenges, the international community has grown tremendously in the last few years. A closer look at the Yeshiva University experience from the perspective of current and past international students may give a more refined insight into their mentality and help the greater YU student body relate to their international peers.
To some extent, the YU experience for international students is nowhere near that of their American friends. For many American YU students, attending YU has always been an option presented to them by their school faculty or family members. They have been exposed to the YU ideology early on, attended open houses and are related to alumni. Many of them have grown up in large Jewish communities with a robust Jewish infrastructure. Perhaps they go home every Thursday afternoon and return to the dorms late Sunday night, while their international peers search for a place to stay and make weekend plans in the city. International students don’t have it so easy. Isaac Bendahan (YC ‘20), who hails from the Canary Islands, pointed out that the American “in town” mentality sometimes hinders international students from getting close to their fellow American peers. “We come from very small communities while almost all of them have lived in enormous Jewish communities,” he said.
It is not just the community size that differentiates these two groups. International students are being exposed to the concepts of Torah Umadda for the first time, getting to know the American educational system, learning how to navigate around New York City and becoming familiar with American culture. This cultural divide becomes noticeable when they interact with American students and often leaves international students feeling confused or frustrated.
For Spanish and French speakers, the solution to this challenge is to remain within their own circle of peers and develop their own supportive environment. “I believe it’s okay, to a certain extent. We need to feel comfortable, speak our own language and make our own jokes,” said Bendahan. Students who are the sole or one of the very few representatives of their countries, such as Lithuanians, South Africans, Dutch or Austrians, tend to integrate more easily into the American YU community and, as a result, are more distant from the rest of the international community. This phenomenon also applies to international students who spent a year in Israel learning or traveling alongside Americans. When they arrived in New York, they knew who to approach for help, had an established circle of American friends and were familiar with American culture.
Canadians also tend to feel more comfortable among American YU students because the international community does not quite regard them as one of their own. This divide between international students who consider themselves to be typical YU students and international students who feel more comfortable around like-minded people who speak their language is quite noticeable. While the majority of French- and Spanish-speaking students pride themselves on the strong relationships they have fostered with one another, other students feel excluded at events for international students. “If you are Spanish-speaking or French-speaking, you have a lot more of a community. Once you are more separated you make your own micro-communities,” said Zak Benarroch (Syms ‘20). “As a whole, the YU international club and YU community do include us in stuff, but I feel like it’s catered towards non-English speakers.”
Elizabeth Kershteyn (Stern ‘22), a pre-med student from Vilnius, Lithuania, is also aware of the prominent disparity between the French- and Spanish-speaking students and the rest of the international community. However, she is hopeful that the situation will gradually change for the better “once other international students start to be more active.” Even with the current divide, she still sees a “deep connection” between all international students “since they are in a similar situation of being in a foreign country.”
Despite, and possibly as a positive result of these challenges, international students at YU feel privileged to be here and are flourishing academically and socially. Many students had heard about the vibrant Jewish community and the opportunities to explore secular and Jewish subjects in an academic setting, which is why they decided to enroll in YU. They are fully committed to their new life in New York, take on the challenge of “living in English,” as Aline Halpern (Stern ‘20) from Brazil phrases it, and actively contribute to the greater YU community. International students have established a presence at YU, which is apparent in the number of clubs on campus that were founded in order to make the international students feel at home. In addition to the highly active and influential International Club — which hosts popular events such as the International Shabbaton and the Great Challah Bake — Yeshiva University is home to the Russian Society, the Canada Club and the newly-founded Europeans at YU Club.
It is not just Jewish life and the academic setting that attracts international students. The career and networking opportunities are also a big factor. Looking back, Akiva Eisenberg (Syms ‘15) from Vienna, Austria, would not change anything in terms of his college experience. “For me, that was a huge draw, to be able to continue my Jewish studies while at the same time getting a high-class degree in my desired field.” Eisenberg is convinced that choosing to attend an American University instead of an institution in his hometown was beneficial to him career-wise. “The fact that it’s a smaller school gives you the ability to stand out, take initiative, be the president of a club, found your own club. I think that stands out on a resume.” He also emphasized that the “alumni base is smaller [and] people are more inclined to help you. If you can get yourself into that infrastructure, it is very helpful in terms of the career trajectory.”
Finally, attending Yeshiva University exposes international students to a Jewish world they did not know existed and are eager to explore. Especially in smaller communities, in which very few Jewish schooling options are offered, students attend institutions they do not identify with religiously or philosophically. They haven’t yet found their niche within Orthodox Judaism because their previous education did not allow them to explore the complexity and nuances of Judaism thoroughly. Yeshiva University offers classes, resources and teachers to support students who want to explore their religious identities. Additionally, the wide religious spectrum of students who attend YU creates a friendly environment for international students to discuss their questions and ideas related to Judaism.
Yeshiva University goes through great lengths to recruit students from all around the world. About five years ago, Rabbi Dr. Kenneth Brander, former Vice President for University and Community Life at YU and current President and Rosh haYeshiva at Ohr Torah Stone, and Director of Admissions Geri Mansdorf, with the guidance of former President Richard Joel, decided to create an international admissions process that was similar to the domestic admissions process. “The greatest challenge that international students face — aside from the obvious English requirements and the visa process — in the application process is that they are not aware of the process. Our goal is to make more students and their families aware of the benefits of a YU education and to raise awareness about how studying at YU can work and has worked for students from thirty countries across the globe,” explained Rabbi Ari Solomont, who is in his fourth year as YU’s Director of International Admissions and Recruitment. “There is no other university where students can have it all, make no compromises, gain a world-class education ... and have high-level Jewish experiences.“
The question of where to settle after graduation is on many international students’ minds. While many students arrived in New York with the intention to return to their hometown or make aliyah upon graduation, quite a number of students regard YU to be their first step towards settling down in the United States. For some, the vibrant social life they enjoy in New York makes it seemingly impossible to ever go back to their former communities. Others strive to attend graduate school in New York and are drawn to the numerous academic and religious opportunities that are offered in the area.
The vast majority of students who were approached for this article are thoroughly enjoying their college experience in New York. When asked whether they are happy with their decision to attend YU, nearly all of them responded with a definite “yes.” International students are highly involved in student life, take full advantage of Torah learning on campus and are eager to meet new people. Kershteyn summed it up quite nicely: “People in YU are very nice. I am not used to it. I come from a depressing country.”
However, there is room for improvement. Students have been vocal about various changes the administration should consider implementing, such as additional travel days and generous scholarships for internationals. These suggestions are important and should be taken seriously by the administration, but it’s mostly up to the student body to ensure that international students continue to feel at home at Yeshiva University. It is necessary to examine what divides the different communities in YU in order to focus on what unites them.
You would all benefit greatly from exploring the colorful perspectives of your fellow international students. Ask your international friends about their background (they love talking about where they are from, trust me), invite them over for Shabbat (if you are in Teaneck, they will laugh at your reflective belts) and include them in your cultural activities (if you can’t properly explain the rules of American football, do you really know what you're talking about?). It’s the small gestures that count.
Photo Caption: International students come from all over the world.
Photo Credit: Elisheva Kohn