It’s Time for YU To Make Aliyah
In March 1928, a revolutionary moment hit New York City. The first liberal arts college for Jewish men was founded in the Lower East Side, shortly before it moved to its current location in Washington Heights. It was called Yeshiva College.
Less than 20 years later, that college would become a university, and in 1954, it would set another landmark in history: Yeshiva University would be home to two Jewish liberal arts colleges, one for men and one for women. Thus, Stern College for Women was born. The Sy Syms School of Business would be built in 1987, completing the trifecta of its undergraduate schools.
We may not consider this timeline to be particularly laudable, but the truth is that those milestones were unprecedented. It took vision and grit to create a Jewish university that could sit beneath the banner of Torah Umadda, and look at what we have today: a top-ranked university with unmatched Torah-learning opportunities and a thriving Jewish environment. What has already been created is extraordinary, and it does not need to stop there. YU has the opportunity to mark another historic stone in its journey, one that could reroute the course of the Jewish story.
Earlier this year, Dean Karen Bacon announced the university’s Torat Tziyon Pilot Program, a new initiative that allows qualifying undergraduate and graduate students to take classes in Israel, just as if they were in YU. The program will begin this fall and is currently only available to Stern and Syms students, as well as for select graduate programs. This can be more than just a passion project — it can finally bring YU to Israel.
There is a wide gap in the market of Israeli higher education. While there is no shortage of Israeli colleges and universities, none can claim to be Torah institutions. YU set a new standard for Jewish students in America: They need not sacrifice their secular studies or their Torah studies to attend college. The State of Israel was founded 74 years ago, and an institution parallel to Yeshiva University has yet to find a home there. If we see the importance of YU here, why can’t we see it there?
Over 27,000 Jews made aliyah in 2021, 4,000 of whom were from the United States. More than half (55%) of all immigrants were under 35, reflecting a very young pool. These numbers only include Jews who formally made aliyah, not the many who live and work in Israel without citizenship. Beyond those already in Israel, there are others who are making their way there, whether as post-gap year students, post-college students or young couples. Think about what a YU in Israel could offer them.
The Torat Tziyon program is replicating what makes YU such a novelty: high-level courses, serious Torah study and a Jewish environment. The first batch of students will be small, likely around 40 undergraduates split evenly between Beren and Wilf, but being based in Jerusalem will make that community even larger. Torat Tziyon is doing something extraordinary.
On April 1, 1925, Rabbi Abraham Isaac HaKohen Kook, the chief rabbi of Israel, delivered a historic speech at the inauguration of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He declared that the day’s ceremony was “on a reduced scale — the living fulfillment of the holy vision of this prophecy,” referring to Isaiah 60:4-5, which speaks of the Jewish People’s redemption. Rav Kook’s eloquent words and formulation told the crowd of thousands what they likely felt: They were in messianic times. Despite that high praise, Rav Kook noted that Hebrew University could not be the end goal.
“It must be understood that the Hebrew University by itself cannot fulfill all the educational requirements necessary for the success of our national life,” he emphatically proclaimed. “We must realize that, first and foremost, it is the great Torah yeshivot, those that now exist and those to be constructed that are worthy of the name … that uphold the spirit of the nation and provide for its security.”
What would Rav Kook say if he saw Yeshiva University today?
We need not destroy YU in America to build YU in Israel. (Though I concede that, as a die-hard Zionist, I would be happy for us all to move together.) Setting aside the language barriers, Jews already face an uphill battle in making aliyah. The pay is cut, the culture is different and the community is new. Throw in the complicated academic and professional factors and the trek can seem hopeless for most. If we had a Yeshiva University in Israel, imagine what it could offer. Imagine the opportunities it could provide, the aliyot it could inspire. The Torat Tziyon program is the seedling of a great tree that is growing, a vision of tomorrow never before seen in Jewish History. There is so clearly a need for an Israeli institution that brings together Torah and madda, and we have a tried-and-tested model that works. Torat Tziyon is giving YU the chance to revolutionize the future of the Jewish state. We should seize the moment. It is time for the flagship Jewish university to make its way to Israel.