By: Zachary Ottenstein  | 

I Never Thought I Would Be Here, Let Alone Miss This Place

If you had asked me when I was a senior at TABC where I was planning to go to college, the answer probably would have been anywhere but Yeshiva University. This was not due to anything personal against YU, but simply based on the fact that it was not on the radar for someone who was descended from many baalei teshuva who had gone to other prestigious universities. I vividly remember sitting down in the living room with my Cambridge-educated grandmother a”h and her asking me where I was applying in the end. I rattled off a list of colleges, both private and state-run, that did not include YU. My grandmother looked at me incredulously, and, in her perfect accent, a unique mix of Austrian and English, said “How come you are not even applying to YU?” When Granny Susi, as she was affectionately known to me, asked a question in that manner it was her way of being subtly disappointed, but as an overly confident high school senior, I did not think twice about it and ultimately did not apply to YU. I applied and was accepted into what I thought was my first-choice college, a small liberal arts university in the Boston area.

As the Yiddish proverb wittily states, a mensch tracht un Got lacht, man plans and G-d laughs. But my eventual journey to YU was less G-d laughing than His inspiring me to laugh at myself, something I feel happens quite frequently. Along with virtually 100 percent of my high school classmates, I embarked on a year of yeshiva study in Israel. Being that I was not the most conventional or well behaved teenager, a long-haired devotee of various rock bands, I was motivated to find a “brand” of Judaism that was deep, intellectually rigorous and encouraging of individual creativity. It was at Yeshivat Eretz Hatzvi, an institution to which I am eternally grateful, that I found such a form of Jewish learning and practice. As my year of yeshiva progressed, I realized that there was nothing I enjoyed more and found more meaningful than deep immersion in limmud hatorah. As late teenage years are times when many question their values and life choices, often leading to the rupture and reconstruction of their personas, I realized at this time that attending this other college would not further my goal of deep immersion in Torah. Without hesitation, I withdrew.

As any good yeshiva student without a plan for the future would do, I “kicked the can down the road” by deciding to spend another year in yeshiva. It was in my second year of study that I started to contemplate a future at YU. I initiated contact with Rabbi Jonathan Cohen from YU’s Israel Office. Before I knew it, I had filled out an application, been accepted to and enrolled in Yeshiva College. Even before I had set foot on YU’s New York campus, I felt a sense of connection to the luminaries that have graced its halls. Rav Soloveitchik, Rav Lichtenstein, Rabbi Lamm and countless other gedolei Torah were no longer just larger than life figures that crafted my personal religious ethos from afar via their writings –– I started to view them as my rebbeim, sages who shaped the character of the yeshiva that I was to attend. 

As I look back on my three years at YU, a few distinct images remain in my mind as representative of my Yeshiva University experience. I vividly remember my foray into the Glueck beit midrash on my first day, when the overwhelming sound of chavrutot deeply engaged in their study filled the air. Naturally I had seen batei midrash before, but one of this size and grandeur was a sight to behold. Obviously, beyond the buildings themselves are the hours I spent in YU’s various batei midrash and the people I spent them there with. I am eternally grateful to all of the rebbeim, mashgichim and chavrutot who pushed me to think, to learn and to connect with the mesorah as it has been passed through the generations from Har Sinai onward. 

In a similar vein, the sight of coming down to daven in the basement of Morgenstern Hall and seeing Professor Barry Eichler wrapped in his tallis and tefillin is one that resonated with me deeply. Seeing my professors not only as academics, but also as Jews, epitomizes YU’s values and my experience here. Later that day I would sit in Professor Eichler’s class and discuss the densest of Ancient Near Eastern texts with the same person with whom I had davened that morning. He was not simply a professor, but a role model for life as an intellectually curious and committed Orthodox Jew. I vividly remember his telling me at the end of one class that he heard from Nechama Leibowitz herself that “Torah is a prism –– a singular set of texts with each style of interpretation, academic or traditional, being one color that is refracted by the original texts.” With that one sentence of his I felt that I had made the right choice by coming to YU to see for myself the “prism” and all of the “colors” comprising it.

Naturally, there are many more members of the faculty that I would like to thank for making my YU experience the meaningful journey of Torah Umadda that it has been, but there is not enough space in this short vignette to express my immense gratitude to all of them. However, I will end by saying that as I embark on my own career as an educator, I hope to imbue my future students with the lessons and skills that I have gained from my invaluable time at Yeshiva University.

Photo Caption: The Glueck Beit Midrash

Photo Credit: Yeshiva University