By: Josh Appel  | 

Letter to the Editor: Yeshiva University — Brighter than Ever

This past Thursday New York public schools shut down without knowing exactly when they will reopen. State and city colleges also closed down when the Thanksgiving weekend began without a clear reopening date. Other universities, including Harvard, are allowing only half of their student body on campus per semester, offering few in person classes. Penn and Princeton have transitioned to full remote learning, after previously announcing that half their student body would be allowed to return to campus. Would it be fathomable that amidst this crisis a single college offered every student the opportunity to return to campus? That a college would offer an in-person faculty presence, weekend programming and social events, all while keeping the spread of a highly contagious virus low? Somehow, (by way of G-d,) Yeshiva University has stood out from amongst the crowd, slowly moving back to normalcy, offering students a first-class experience. 

Last week, a Commentator editorial criticized the efforts of administration, Rebbeim and staff regarding this year’s “unique” fall semester. Many students were shocked to read arguments claiming that YU has offered a subpar and lackluster experience during this global pandemic. For many, the fall semester has actually highlighted YU’s wonderful campus life even amidst a raging disease. What emerged from the editorial were three key assumptions that need to be addressed: (1) YU has thus far done a less than acceptable job in reopening its campuses for the Fall 2020 semester. (2) YU has the ability to do a better job. (3) Therefore, the legacy and contributions of YU are undermined.

Let us begin with the first component, namely, that YU’s performance has been rather poor lately. What other institution at the moment offers an open gymnasium, library, cafeteria, dormitories, Beis Midrash, dozens of daily Minyanim, in-person learning opportunities, in-person Shiurim, a select number of in-person classes, weekend events including question and answer sessions with Jewish communal leaders, meals with friends and top notch Shiurim from leading Rabbanim? The answer, of course, is none. There are many moments throughout the days and weeks in which, if not for the Covid precautions, YU would be indistinguishable now from what it was in previous years. Indeed, it would be nice if more classes were in person, but YU cannot force teachers who are fearful of a real threat to return to campus. Only 4% of colleges in America do not have a hybrid model of learning. In terms of in-person classes, YU offers no less than the average college which is offering most, if not all, of its course catalog online. Thus far, hundreds of students have returned to the Wilf and Beren Campuses creating an energetic, thriving environment. Hundreds can be found in the various Batei Midrash day and night (with masks, social distancing and plexiglass per CDC guidelines and medical guidance). In the afternoon, students eat lunch with one another and find friends to sit with in the library or lounge while taking classes. As one YU student put it, “YU is essentially the same as last year but with less food.”

The second issue raised in the editorial is that YU has the ability to deliver a better experience. In many cases this claim is false. As the article states, the gyms in New York cannot legally be open past a certain hour. If students wish for other venues to be opened, that should be sent in an email to the administration, not an open letter claiming that YU has done something wrong. Moreover, the end of the article describes students who are fearful that their graduation will not be what they hoped for. Indeed, this is true and saddening. Unfortunately, due to a global pandemic which has seized the lives of millions across the globe, the university  cannot hold the normal graduation festivities. This is not a YU problem nor something which YU can fix. Additionally, perhaps the graduation last semester was a disappointment, but please let us put things into perspective: YU, as well as every other institution in the entire world, was dealing with implementing new and never-before-used methods of delivering programming and content to students. I would not have expected the graduation online to rival the normal in-person graduation and I would not expect any future online event, or any Covid social gathering for that matter, to rival any previous social interaction we can imagine. YU has held many programs this semester which of course have been hindered by health restrictions.  This is the drawback to a worldwide pandemic that we pray daily should end.

Lastly, it is really quite strange to suggest that YU’s legacy and students’ overall experiences will be completely undermined because of an uncontrollable virus. It is surprising to say that years of high-level Torah and academic learning from some of the most intelligent minds of this generation could be tarnished simply because of a locked fence or miscommunications with security guards (which, as the editorial said, the administration handled straight away). To make these claims does not help defend YU’s legacy, as the author suggests, but in fact contributes to the undermining of YU’s monumental legacy in American Orthodoxy. Let us not restrict YU’s illustrious history to our three-year experience and believe that, if an election viewing party had a small turnout, this dwarfs YU’s more substantial accomplishments. YU’s legacy will go far beyond this semester and far beyond the unfortunate experience of an individual or two who weren’t allowed into the library one day. In fact, this year only highlights the care and concern YU has for delivering world class Torah and academic education to their student body while balancing guidelines for health and safety.

Last week I was sent home (even though YU offers isolation on campus) because a chavrusa of mine tested positive for Covid. Although I enjoy being home, I was counting down the days until I could return to campus yet again. For many, the return to campus has been overwhelmingly enjoyable. For months we were home, affixed to screens alone in our rooms. Now, Yeshiva University, through dedicated effort, has offered students an opportunity to return to campus for in person learning and interaction. The consensus of students I have seen is that they are refreshed and appreciative to be back in a place where they can grow and connect. Granted, things are not as seamless as they were previously, but this does not detract in the slightest from YU’s successful start to the fall semester.

Thank you to the administration, staff and Rebbeim at YU for continued hard work and positivity amidst unprecedented conditions within our lifetimes.