Reflections on My Time in an Ultra-Orthodox Yeshiva
We live in a bubble. Here at YU, we are surrounded by Modern (or Centrist) Orthodox Jews of many different colors and stripes. For all our knowledge of other Jewish denominations and their theologies, however, we are ignorant to the nuances and details of the different communities we encounter. Instead of getting to know them directly, we mostly just generalize and stereotype, and that is very dangerous.
I grew up in a small town with a small Modern Orthodox community. And yet, I spent my entire life in and around our Jewish community, surrounded by Jews of many types who lived in their own bubbles and did not adequately communicate with one another. Thus, I stuck to my Modern Orthodox bubble.
For various reasons, I was unable to go to yeshiva in Israel after high-school. Instead, I attended a yeshiva in my hometown. Before starting, I was very worried that I would not enjoy it, and that I would struggle to fit in. It was a Yeshivish/Chareidi yeshiva, and as such, I negatively judged it by the simplistic, stereotypical model I had of that community. My parents, however, were wiser than I, and knew that communities are not (usually) monolithic — this one being no exception.
I began my year at the yeshiva and discovered that — surprise — the Chareidi community is NOT monolithic, and it is NOT accurately represented by the stereotypes that I — and, I suspect, many of us — unthinkingly believe about it. I discovered that many of the students, and even rabbis, were more liberal than I could’ve imagined. As an example, I vividly recall the mashgiach telling us that saying “Hallel on the fifth of Iyyar (Yom Ha’Atzmaut) isn’t such a stretch.” In addition, students enjoyed history, movies, smartphones (which were technically “illegal” under yeshiva rules, though most students had one at some point) and more. There was a lot of individuality, healthy diversity, relative liberalism, moderation, nuance, etc. etc. etc.
Unfortunately, I also saw ugly things during my time in the moderate Chareidi world. Misogyny, violence, pseudo-intellectualism, naivety, racism and superstition were some of the major issues with which I was confronted — and, sadly, I must admit, there was not much I could do.
However, I was pleasantly surprised by the experience overall, and, coupled with my enjoyment of the Torah studies curriculum, I decided to stay for a second year. I saw a lot of beauty, authenticity and warmth in the Chareidi community. Truth be told, I was even attracted to the idea of learning for a third year at this yeshiva. But I must admit that for all the good that was there, it was not good to stay in such a toxic environment.
I have now been at YU for two weeks, and it has been an amazing experience. Thank G-d, here I can continue my Torah studies on a much higher level than I could at my former yeshiva, while advancing my secular education as well. One of the highlights occurred last week as we celebrated Yom Ha’atzmaut. I celebrated as a new member of the YU community. Coming from a very small Religious Zionist community, it exceeded expectations beyond any of my wildest dreams. I feel blessed to be in this bubble, where I saw only the recognition of the miracle and gift that G-d has given us in the State of Israel.
Reflecting on the celebration, I was sobered by recalling a story that one of my fellow students from my former yeshiva told me, or rather, bragged to me. I do not know if the story is even true, but it highlighted to me that we face anti-Zionism not only from extremists and bigots, but even from our fellow Orthodox Jews of the moderate Chareidi world. I now share with you this (perhaps true, perhaps fictitious) story:
Earlier this year, there was a Modern Orthodox synagogue in Brooklyn that hosted a prominent Jewish singer for Shabbat. Due to his prominence, he drew fans from the Chareidi community in the area. At an oneg at which he performed, he was accompanied by other singers, and Chareidi yeshiva bochurim showed up to hear him. They sang many “yeshivish” songs together, after which — as my source said — the lead singer “had to sing some songs to please” the community that had hired him. He sang Hatikvah.
After he finished, the yeshiva bochurim (but not the lead singer) hummed the song “Be’Shilton Ha’Kofrim” (“In the Sovereignty of the Heretics”) together. This is an anti-Zionist song, and serves as the anthem of the Neturei Karta sect. The yeshiva bochurim had no fear of humming this song in front of their hosts because they knew that (almost) no Modern Orthodox Jew would recognize it. My source enjoyed telling me this story — thinking it rather amusing. At the time, I had no clue what this song was, but I was curious and I did some research.
The full English translation reads as follows:
Hashem is our King, and we are His slaves.
The Torah is our Faith, and in it we believe.
We do not believe in the sovereignty of the heretics, and we do not recognize their laws.
We will walk in the ways of the Torah, through fire and water… in order to sanctify the name of Heaven.
As soon as I realized the content of the song, I was appalled. Is this really how they view and treat us? Have they rejected all Derech Eretz? Have they no respect for a plurality of hashkafot, or at the very least, for their hosts? Whether or not this story was true, think of the bochur who gleefully boasted this story to me ...
I remind myself that stereotypes are harmful, though they tend to have some basis. We need to approach everyone with an open mind and open arms, and hopefully, we will be pleasantly and joyfully surprised with what we find — as I often am. But we must be careful not to leave ourselves vulnerable to the facade of a class act, behind which hides derision and hatred. We need to choose our bubble carefully and value its protection, while not letting it isolate us; we need to choose our home, while fearlessly venturing out into the great diverse universe.