By: Eli Sandhaus  | 

Is YU a Modern Orthodox Institution or a Jewish Institution?

I think that YU is one of the greatest institutions in the world. I just don’t think YU understands how much greater it can be.

My family is comprised of a beautiful menagerie of characters, all with varying degrees of religiosity. So, my teenage years were fraught with struggles about my religious identity: Would I follow my more modern older sisters or become more yeshivish like my older brother?

At first, I was convinced that I would go the more yeshivish route. Because my hometown lacked sufficiently religious high schools, I dormed in Queens where I attended Sha’ar HaTorah, the MIT of Ultra-Orthodox high schools. While not necessarily the most prestigious high school, Sha’ar HaTorah was the most rigorous. It’s known for its intense Jewish education, with an all-male student body and 16-hour school days. Basically, I worked my butt off in high school. The average student in Sha’ar HaTorah remains post high-school for over three years studying Talmud exclusively in their beis medrash. However, I had dreams of studying in Israel and further discovering my religious identity, so after high-school I went to Yeshiva Toras Chaim in Jerusalem, the Harvard of Ultra-Orthodox yeshivas. While not necessarily the most rigorous yeshiva, Toras Chaim was the most prestigious. I remained there for three years and explored my religious identity.

While at Toras Chaim, there was a disturbing notion that I couldn’t shake. Every waking moment, and even in my dreams, I was plagued by the following: What’s next? The standard in the Ultra-Orthodox community is that after studying in beis medrash for three plus years, guys will go to the U.S., date, get married, move to Israel for a few years to continue their studies, move back to the U.S., learn in a kollel for a few more years, then eventually get a job at their father-in-law’s business. They have their whole life mapped out for them. I saw this future before me. I was standing at the precipice of this journey, and I knew that once I began, there was no going back. And it frightened me.

In my final weeks at Toras Chaim, I was still deliberating. It was then, in those final moments before taking the plunge and following the predetermined Ultra-Orthodox route, that another option occurred to me. There was this magical institution that I had dreamed of attending since I was a child but was always too scared to. This institution promised to synthesize the intense religiosity of Orthodox Judaism while also rigorously pursuing a secular education. Throughout my life, these two had always been mutually exclusive and one institution guaranteeing both was a seeming dichotomy. It was an oxymoron, mythological and the stuff of dreams. This institution was Yeshiva University.

Spoiler alert: I decided to drop the Ultra-Orthodox route and began attending YU. Another spoiler alert: it was everything I had dreamed of and more. YU synthesized the rigorous religiosity of Orthodox Judaism and the rigorous regimen of secular college into one beautiful conglomeration. Having been here for over three months now, I see the tremendous potential YU has to revolutionize Orthodox Jewry’s outlook on life; the thing is, I don’t believe YU itself sees it.

YU believes — and I believe as well — that it is “the world’s premier Jewish educational institution.” Nowhere else on planet earth can someone pursue semikhah and a doctorate under the same roof. YU is the embodiment of Modern Orthodoxy’s mantra of Torah U’Madda. However, much of Orthodox Judaism that does not identify as Modern Orthodox has drifted towards a Torah U’Madda approach, even if they may not label this mentality as such, due to its close relation to Modern Orthodoxy. Basically, more and more yeshivish people are seeking a college education.

Where does an Ultra-Orthodox Jew go to college? In my mind, the answer should be obvious: to the world’s premier Jewish educational institution. Surprisingly, many Ultra-Orthodox people are opting to go to secular colleges over YU because they feel that they can more easily retain their Ultra-Orthodox identity in a secular college than in YU. Their logic is that it is easier to differentiate between such starkly different lifestyles in a secular environment. In YU, they fear that because they have many similarities, the lines will become muddled and they will slowly drift towards a more Modern Orthodox lifestyle. This line of reasoning may have some merit, but I believe that ultimately it is flawed. I know too many people who went to secular colleges and went “off the derech.” It seems reasonable to me that a Jew would be more likely to remain frum in a frum environment. I do not have statistical evidence for this, but it seems self-evident.

What is steering these Ultra-Orthodox Jews away from YU? As an insider to both communities, I can say that it is YU. YU has identified as first and foremost a Modern Orthodox institution and then a Jewish institution. This is fascinating because President Berman himself said that YU is the world’s premier Jewish institution, not the world’s premier Modern Orthodox institution. YU is suffering from a bit of an identity crisis. As the premier Jewish educational institution, YU is in a unique position: YU has the ability and the responsibility to attract more Orthodox Jews and thus help them retain their Jewish identity.

Additionally, the lack of programming available for more yeshivish people is also steering them away. MYP has nearly double the number of students as SBMP. This indicates that there is significant interest in more religious programming. YU should actively seek to have a similar number of students in all UTS programs, and I propose that entails offering UTS programming that’s even more rigorous than MYP. By actively seeking more religious students, YU will be preventing many students from going “off the derech” and thereby strengthening the universal Jewish identity.

I said that YU should actively seek to have a similar number of students in all UTS programs. That means, on the other side of the spectrum, YU has the ability, and thereby the responsibility, to actively seek less religious and non-religious students. While YU is certainly not a kiruv organization, it is in the unique position to be one of the strongest forms of kiruv. Why would a non-religious Jew decide to come to Yeshiva University? I propose that YU should offer more scholarships and grants to JSS, which is currently their smallest Undergraduate Torah Studies program by far. By actively seeking less religious students, YU will be fostering their sense of Jewish identity and thereby strengthening the universal Jewish identity.

Why should YU care about any of this? YU should care about all of this because it can do something about it. Yeshiva University is in a unique position, the likes of which I don’t believe has ever been seen before in history. YU can unite all of world Jewry under one roof. Our people have been divided and fragmented for millennia, and YU can do something to unite us. YU already has embraced plurality in Judaism by offering four UTS programs; I am proposing adding a fifth and strengthening JSS. As evidenced by the four UTS programs, Torah U’Madda is a spectrum; broaden that spectrum to be more inclusive. Actively seek a broader student body. Forgo irrelevant labels of what denomination of Judaism we are, and recognize that we are first and foremost Jewish. With the help of G-d, we can unite all of world Jewry and bring the Messiah speedily in our days.

Photo Caption: President Berman addressing students in the Glueck Beit Midrash

Photo Credit: Yeshiva University