By: Yoni Mayer  | 

A Yeshiva As Much As A University

Yeshiva University’s reputation has been denigrated by the media. If one were to read popular publications reporting on our university from the past few months, it would be hard not to feel shame and contempt. Our university has been painted as a villain; it has been portrayed as an institution that looks to deride and discriminate against its students. Furthermore, the Supreme Court is deliberating on the very essence of our University: whether or not our Yeshiva can be classified as a religious institution. In this piece, I wish to counterbalance this misguided narrative. I hope to put some good faith back into our university and illustrate how the Yeshiva and University exist as one. 

To be clear, I am not taking a position on YU’s current legal proceedings. I merely seek to demonstrate that even though Yeshiva University is not coded as a “religious institution,” Judaism and its culture, spirit, lifestyle and beliefs are interwoven into every fiber of this university. The media outlets are commenting primarily on the negative qualities which are borne through Yeshiva University’s decisions to conduct itself in line with Jewish law and are remiss to mention all the positives that this ordinance engenders. 

YU advertises itself as the “world’s premier Jewish institution for higher education,” but there is a tacit aspect to this jargon that Yeshiva University employs to attract its students. There are the visible aspects of the dual curriculum, high-level Torah learning, and the constant presence of the top rebbeim in the world, which make YU a de facto “Jewish” university. However, these elements do not properly illustrate the undergraduate culture and experience on campus. There is more than just the utilitarian Judaism that Yeshiva University provides; Judaism is interwoven through everything that we do.  

There is an acute sense of kinship and shared purpose amongst the student body. Whereas in other universities, you might connect with other students in your major or extracurricular activities, in Yeshiva University there is an underlying bond between all the students: we are all Jewish. We all relate and connect to the Jewish people. This may be expressed in different ways; some students express their religiosity more than others, some students are ardent Zionists and others have never been to Israel, some students become leaders in their Jewish communities while others are passive about their Jewish identity. However, one thing is undeniably clear: every student identifies as a Jew. When news befalls the Jewish people, whether good or bad, this becomes the talk of the university. When our star basketball player garners media attention, it is the fact that he is Jewish that headlines all the articles. When Israel is under threat, the topic of conversation turns to our Jewish homeland. There is a shared narrative between us: we are all Jewish, whether we're proud of it or not, and this binds us all in ways a secular university would be incapable of. We are all brothers-in-arms, and we have an immediate connection regardless of our course of study. There is a shared language, culture and experience that breaks down the typical college wall of social exclusivity and places each student on an equal playing field. Socializing is easy if the ice has already been broken.

For those who grew up in the Modern Orthodox world, there is a peculiar sense of homecoming. Yeshiva University is a campus that teleports you back in time, to all the transformative experiences you’ve had in your life. After years of losing touch, you take an economics class and find yourself sitting next to the person you played intramural basketball with back in sleepaway camp. Your summer program coordinator's little brother is asking you for help with an essay in your English class. Your next-door neighbor’s close family friend is now tutoring you for an exam. It’s not an unfamiliar experience for anyone in the Jewish community; Jewish geography is a game we all play when we meet another Jew. However, there is no place where it's easier, no place it feels more natural and normal than at Yeshiva University. And in an odd way, it's comforting; college isn’t a grand venture into independence but a return to the community to which you’ve always belonged. Yes, you’ll make new friends and have normal college experiences, but you’ll also find comfort in the familiarity of people you’ve known your whole life.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, a Jew can exist fully as a Jew. This takes on two meanings. Firstly, as compared to the pugnacious nature of the student body at secular colleges, Yeshiva University provides the much-needed ease of being a Jewish college student in the United States. There is no threat of BDS or anti-semitism within YU. It's easier to breathe knowing that we're safe from that kind of harm. Secondly, the university’s Jewish identity narrates the undergraduate tenure in a ubiquitous way. Judaism is ingrained in the infrastructure of this university. It reminds me of Israel, where streets are named after biblical figures, public buses display "Chag Sameach'' on their LED indicators and anyone you'd pass by in the streets would know how to respond to a friendly “Shabbat Shalom.” Israel is home to the Jewish people because you can’t take one step without being reminded of your Judaism in some way.  It's the same at Yeshiva University — Judaism is felt in everything that we do and is accessible throughout the day. If you need to go to a minyan, you have dozens of options. The cafeteria is completely kosher. There is high-level learning at every point in the day in the Beit Midrash. Shabbat is hosted on campus, not by a Hillel or Chabad, but by the university itself. These are fundamental aspects of Jewish life that flow through the veins of the institution. However, even the more esoteric parts of being a Jew exist on campus. There are sichot mussar throughout the week, chagigas during the chagim, and great Jewish figures who come to lecture. There are mezuzahs on every door and signs reminding you to say Asher Yatzar outside certain bathrooms. The style of conversation is Jewish, the humor is Jewish, and the spirit is Jewish.

Yeshiva University may not have filed itself properly as a religious institution, and that was a mistake for which YU is suffering the consequences. But to claim that our school, our Yeshiva, is not a Jewish institution is misguided. Our university would lose its identity and soul if it were to no longer identify with Judaism. We are a Jewish institution not because of the Jewish curriculum or the way that we are (or are not) filed publicly, but because Judaism is interwoven through every single aspect of this school. 

No one is fundamentally questioning whether or not Yeshiva University is a religious institution; the Supreme Court proceeding is dealing with technical legal issues, but no one could deny our school’s Jewish identity. It is not a Yeshiva separate from a University in which each half focuses on its own respective goals. It isn’t a place that teaches secular subjects and also happens to teach Jewish subjects. Rather, they could not exist without the other. Judaism illustrates and outlines everything that we do at this school. It presides over our daily interactions and influences our classroom discussions. It is the life path to which this institution subscribes. It is a Yeshiva just as much as it is a university. 

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Photo Caption: Yeshiva University students celebrating Yom Ha’atzmaut

Photo Credit: Yeshiva University