By: Yehuda Dov Reiss  | 

How YU Can Better Implement the Five Torot and Transform the World

​The more time I spend in YU, the more I appreciate the ways it can benefit its students, the Modern Orthodox community, the broader Jewish community and the world. YU is uniquely positioned to effectively address many of the most serious and pressing issues of our community and beyond, and while it already does so much to do so, I believe that there are several practical steps that need to be taken in order to fully address some of our students’ and society’s most pressing concerns. I believe that these measures can be effectively organized by the Five Core Torah Values. Many of these suggestions can easily fit into multiple Torah values; this should be expected and desired, as each value can only be genuinely expressed when seen as an aspect of a connected whole. 

Torat Emet

Better Marketing and Adjustments For Torah Programs

There are many would-be YU students that feel that despite YU’s amazing Torah offerings, the intensive college requirements that fill up students’ afternoons and the culture that they generate are incompatible with a full yeshiva experience. Even many of the more serious bnei Torah at YU are clamoring for a more Torah-centered experience and are turned off by the sacrifices they have to make in their learning, resulting in more and more of our best learners leaving the YU community and sending their children to other yeshivos. While YU isn’t for everyone, our unique community should not have to come at the expense of more Torah learning — and it doesn’t. It’s just that YU doesn’t really do a good job at marketing its opportunities for a more Torah-focused experience, even among students at YU.

​I’m referring to two programs that YU provides which largely answer the above problems: the Undergraduate Chabura and the All Day Learning Program. 

The Undergraduate Chabura is a program designed for the YU student who wants to learn three sedarim a day, spend less time on classes, and still earn a college degree. By allowing students to spread out their college classes over four years instead of three, with the fourth year being tuition-free, students can have a daily afternoon seder in halacha b’iyun from 4:30-6:15 (with some flexibility). In addition, students who wish to complete semicha afterwards can complete it in a year fewer than they would otherwise, thus making up for the extra year of college. I participated in the program for my first two years as an undergraduate, and I found it immensely rewarding. 

​The All Day Learning Program (ADLP) is, as the name implies, a program for students who do not want to pursue college yet and want to learn all day in YU. While typically meant to be a one- to two-year program before students transition into the college, there’s little reason it shouldn’t be made available to people uninterested in pursuing a BA with YU — making the BA a post-requisite isn’t going to convince anyone to do it and may simply alienate people who would otherwise be happily exposed to the Torah and hashkafos of our yeshiva. Perhaps students should be given the option to pursue one of YU’s online certificate programs instead.

​Despite the fact that both of these programs would seem to provide much of the solution to disenfranchised current and would-be talmidim, I believe that they are very poorly promoted; most students barely know enough about them to give them serious thought, if they’ve heard about them at all, and I suspect that many would-be students would give much more thought to YU if they knew more about them. Furthermore, it can be very difficult to do the Undergraduate Chabura together with some of YU’s more intensive majors, like computer science; UTS might consider making alternative versions of the program where college is spread out over five years and/or a shorter afternoon seder is allowed in order to enable these students to participate. In short, YU needs to recognize the great demand that there is for these programs and do more to promote them both in recruiting as well as within YU, while also adjusting them to meet the needs of many more would-be participants.

Update YUTorah

Beyond strengthening the Torah learning opportunities within YU, a simple step that can have significant impact beyond the beis midrash is to update YUTorah. This is a known need; the current issues with it, including lag, difficulty finding particular shiurim, outdated layout, etc., don’t require elaboration here. I only wish to remind and urge the RIETS administration to allocate the necessary resources to make it happen. A good model to copy might be Har Etzion’s VBM website, which besides being more functional and aesthetically pleasing, features a wide collection of text articles and series of written courses which one can subscribe to by email.

Shiur Klali

YU’s Torah studies model is undoubtedly one of the best in the world, offering four different morning programs and hundreds of classes and shiurim to meet each talmid’s individual needs and preferences. This great strength, however, is also one of its greatest weaknesses: If everyone is doing their own thing, how can we form a sense of chevra, of a united group of bnei Torah? Such a sense of community can help students motivate each other to grow more, take greater responsibility for each other, and better appreciate the strength of the Torah of our yeshiva. It can also carry over into a greater sense of achdus as part of a YU Torah community outside the walls of the beis midrash. In addition, a sense of unity is in some ways even more critical as many weaker students feel disconnected from the YU beis midrash community and in some cases never end up seeing themselves as bnei Torah. Students also miss out on exposure to the programs they’re not in or the amazing personalities that teach within them, missing out on many tremendous learning opportunities and relationships. While the administration has always attempted various initiatives to deal with these issues, it seems they’ve only been marginally effective. There’s simply no room in the pre-existing program structures for much inter-shiur or inter-program interaction. 

​​Perhaps the best ways YU could at least partially address these issues are simple, tried and true methods that yeshivos everywhere do. Specifically, the first thing that comes to mind is a weekly shiur klali.

​Shiur klali gives students a chance to all learn and discuss the same Torah ideas. No matter what shiur a student is in, if they went to shiur klali, they would easily be able to discuss it with students from any other shiur. However, to really make this effective, it has to be something regular — having yeshiva-wide events and shiurim a few times a zman, and even weekly mussar schmoozes, is simply insufficient in order to promote a sense of unity.

​Making a weekly shiur klali has the added benefit of giving talmidim greater exposure to the Torah of our roshei yeshiva. By alternating speakers every week, the talmidim will learn to appreciate the different ways of thinking and presenting Torah that all our rebbeim have to offer, strengthening an appreciation for our yeshiva while also exposing struggling students to a rebbe that might be better for them. The shiur klali can be given to both YP and BMP students from 11 a.m. to 12 p.m. with different speakers in all batei midrash, thus giving an opportunity for these two morning programs to share more common ground.

​Obviously a challenge of implementing a regular shiur klali is that different shiurim may be up to very different places in the mesechta, but this can be overcome by topic selections that cover broad topics related to what the yeshiva is learning or inyanei diyoma

Yemei Iyun

Another more innovative idea the yeshiva might try to promote achdus and exposure to different YU personalities would be to establish monthly yemei iyun. Instead of one’s normal morning program, all students would sit in on a variety of classes and shiurim taught by other rebbeim that day, including those in different morning programs. This would have the added benefit of giving students a newfound appreciation and respect for what goes on in programs other than their own. In addition, if it would logistically make sense to have these events open to the public, it would also serve as a way to spread more of YU’s Torah to our broader community.

Torat Chessed

Inter-Program Chavrusas​

Continuing from the previous point, a third — and perhaps most practical and meaningful — step that the yeshiva can implement is something Rabbi Neuburger’s shiur did for years: establish weekly chavrusas with students from a different morning program. If every shiur at YU had weekly 30-40 minute chavrusas with guys from another program, that could create a much stronger sense of unity throughout the yeshiva. Of course, this does not preclude the additional step UTS could take to encourage learning with students in other programs outside of seder, but nothing would compare to the effects of establishing yeshiva-wide learning. It must be acknowledged that RIETS has attempted to do this sort of thing before, with reportedly little success in fostering a meaningful experience. Rather than tossing the whole idea, however, I think this is worth revisiting to see how it could work better, at least with a trial group. 

A brief clarification: While I have put this suggestion under the rubric of “Torat Chessed”, that should in no way imply that learning with someone from a different background should be seen as an act of mercy or benevolence. Chessed, in its truest sense, means to expand our definition of self to include other people; the way we treat and feel towards close friends and family should, to some degree, reflect how we treat and feel towards all people, especially fellow talmidim in our yeshiva. Thus, all efforts to enhance achdus and mutual understanding among people should be seen as the ultimate fulfillment of chessed

Diversify Shabbos Programming

In that vein, another major step the yeshiva could take in making all talmidim feel welcomed and part of the yeshiva is to diversify its Shabbos programming. When discussing this article with the students in the BMP chaburah I led last year, their number one point was that the Shabbos programming seems exclusively catered to YP guys, and that they and their peers in other programs feel that the Shabbos experience on campus is just not geared toward them. 

It wasn’t always this way; in fact, pre-COVID, there was a lot of regular Shabbos programming geared toward these students, including the Klein@9 student-run minyan and Jeopardy games. Restoring programs like these could make Shabbos at Yeshiva feel much more attractive to many talmidim. In addition, one of the students in our chaburah suggested that having meals and Q&As led by rebbeim and roshei yeshiva exclusively for IBC students (or BMP or JSS) could make them feel much more welcome and connected to those rebbeim; otherwise, the dominance of YP guys can unfortunately have an alienating effect. Similarly, YU could offer a platform to pair RIETS couples and rebbeim with students from IBC and JSS for meals, as many of these students don’t like the Caf’s YP-dominated atmosphere.

Torat Adam

With so many different Torah shiurim, classes, clubs and opportunities, YU gives each student virtually endless resources to discover and actualize their potential. However, many students come to YU without the ability to properly navigate these opportunities for growth and never really find their place as a Torah Jew. Through teaching in BMP, I have first-hand experience with the struggles many students face in feeling spiritually connected or achieving independence — or even motivation — in learning. If we really care about ensuring that every student’s potential is fully maximized, we have to figure out how to do more within YU’s framework to help every student grow and find themselves. 

More Mashgichim

One thing that can be done is have the mashgichim take a stronger proactive approach. I know that sometimes one or two of the mashgichim will visit and speak to some of the shiurim two or three times over the course of a semester, which is great, but if this was done on a far more regular basis, with all the shiurim and UTS classes, it could be a lot more effective. In addition, it might be a good idea for all students to have mandatory semesterly meetings with a mashgiach. While this will require additional effort from our mashgichim who are already spread too thin, it might be worth investing in additional mashgichim

Bring Social-Emotional Learning to Yeshiva

Another big step YU can take is to offer rebbeim training and resources to employ more social-emotional learning (SEL) in the classroom, especially through Torah approaches like Rabbi Dov Singer’s Lifnai V’Lifnim program. Social-emotional learning is essentially what it sounds like, using the classroom framework to not only cultivate cognitive skills and knowledge, but social, emotional, and spiritual skills as well. A major part of achieving this is simply fostering an environment where students and their rebbeim openly talk and reflect about their issues and how they might improve, and do exercises to promote self-awareness about specific areas of growth. Rabbi Singer’s approach essentially connects these methods to learning Torah sources as a starting point for reflection. 

These approaches have been shown to be widely successful and a major part of students’ as well as teachers’ development in elementary and high schools, and should be an important part of every student’s learning experience at any age. They also don’t necessarily require a lot of classroom time to implement on a day to day basis. I did a lot of SEL in my BMP chaburah and I have found it extremely critical for the growth of my talmidim. While undoubtedly many rebbeim will be uninterested in the time and effort learning and implementing such strategies would entail, I hope that many will see how it could be highly beneficial for their students and, with the proper support from YU, be willing to try it out. 

Yeshiva Mentorship Program

​My friend Ari Rosenthal, in addition to contributing many other insightful suggestions for this article, suggested that the yeshiva run a spiritual mentorship program between students in different divisions of UTS (Ari himself has run a mentorship program in YU primarily for students to help other students academically, to great success.) Mentors would be given resources to help guide and coach their fellow students on whatever spiritual goals they choose, with weekly meetings, virtual check-ins, and program-wide events. This could either be a volunteer program or maybe it could be incorporated into my suggestion for weekly inter-program chavrusas. Each chavrusa could also be a mentorship pair, thus further strengthening yeshiva-wide achdus and a sense of responsibility for each other. 

Gemara Boot Camp

Finally, YU can help the many students who are turned off or turning off from learning Gemara simply because they never really developed the skills, and the many more students who may have basic skills but would benefit a lot by strengthening them, through its Gemara Boot Camp. Rabbi Radner’s Gemara Boot Camp, which consists of semi-weekly Zoom learning sessions in small groups designed to systematically teach and strengthen Gemara skills across a variety of levels, has been wildly popular among all ages of learners outside of YU. However, in YU, most students have never even heard about it. When I raised the possibility of introducing it to students, one faculty member expressed doubts that anyone would be interested in it, even if it were offered for free. However, if YU treats it as a standard aspect of their curricular offerings and rebbeim recommend it to their talmidim who need it and devote shiur or seder time to be devoted to it, and/or even made it as a standalone IBC class, I believe it could be made into a very attractive option for many students.

Torat Chaim

Address the Issues, Not Just the Ideals

Rabbi Berman has emphasized many times how YU students are uniquely situated to bring our Torah values into the world and integrate them in every aspect of life. Our community has a unique hashkafic perspective which seeks to elevate every aspect of the world with Torah. 

​However, the reality is that this is not the lived experience of many YU students, who understandably struggle to see past the problems and contradictions that attempts at such integration inevitably lead to; there is a significant gap between the university culture and the yeshiva culture that is difficult to fully bridge with such a diverse faculty and student body. While there are several recent forces at play to help address some of these issues, including the new Judaic Studies core at Sy Syms (which will hopefully become more available to YC) and class offerings by the Straus Center which do more to integrate the Torah Umadda worldview in the humanities, the gap is often still jarring. A related issue is that there’s a predominant culture at YU which feels overwhelmingly pressured by the materialism and individualism which pervades our community and broader society. Many students elect not to pursue careers in education because of materialistic concerns, even as our community desperately needs more educators. While such concerns are not always illegitimate, they used to be given less pride of place and people were more willing to make personal sacrifices for their values.

​While these pressures and the lack of idealism are difficult to fully address on an institutional scale, I think it’s very important that they are talked about more. While derashot and schmoozes about values can be inspiring and uplifting, to be really effective they have to directly address the practical issues and concerns that are holding our community back from achieving them, and the primacy of mesiras nefesh and sacrifice in actualizing Torat Chaim. There have been rumors that Rabbi Berman would like to start a course on the Five Torot; I think this could be an excellent vehicle for having serious discussions about these issues, in addition to more public lectures and discussions.

Torat Tzion

More Israel

While Rabbi Berman has expanded the idea of Torat Tzion to refer to the redemptive spirit that Eretz Yisrael personifies, by far the most effective and important means to this spirit is tapping into Eretz Yisrael itself, and I commend YU for launching a full undergraduate program in Israel for next year, which is critical for YU and the broader Jewish world. In addition, YU can bring a greater taste of Torat Eretz Yisrael to New York through regular zoom shiurim by our Gruss rebbeim, more Nefesh B’Nefesh programming, Israel-themed yemei iyun, Israel advocacy programming within Yeshiva (while there is YUPAC, it’s not really integrated into the beis midrash culture), and increasing YU programming in Israel during the winter and summer breaks.

Conclusion: Why You?

While the yeshiva will hopefully consider implementing all of these suggestions, change takes time. In the meantime, I ask the reader to consider the question our yeshiva stands for: Why You? My father posed this question in a mussar schmooze in the beis midrash. In his case, he was asking each of us to ask ourselves, “Why are you here? Why are you in a yeshiva with such a diverse student body?” He argued that each of us has a responsibility to make all of our fellow students feel that they are a welcome, valued and integral part of Yeshiva. While there may be many things the administration and rebbeim can do to help promote achdus and warmth among students, ultimately it comes down to us. Many students who do not normally walk into the beis midrash feel that it’s a cold place where they’re judged for being different or they’re just ignored. If a student is learning in the beis midrash and sees someone who looks a bit different, going over or even raising your head and saying “hello” with a smile can do a world of good. It doesn’t take that much time or effort and there’s very little risk, but it requires a basic sensitivity and appreciation of other talmidim. In this case, I ask Why You? In a slightly different sense. Why did you just read this terribly long article if it’s almost entirely about administrative policy, which you have little control over? If any of these suggestions resonate with you, then there’s plenty of things you can do to help implement them on a smaller scale: If you know someone who would benefit from speaking to a mashgiach or enrolling in Gemara Boot Camp (based on my experience, YU will probably/hopefully waive the fee for students), help make the shidduch. If you think your class or shiur might benefit from SEL, speak to your rebbe about it. If you think your shiur would benefit from a mashgiach being more involved, speak to a mashgiach about it. If you’re a YP or BMP student who may be interested in an IBC or JSS chavrusa, or vice versa, reach out to Rabbi Dan Cohen, the IBC mashgiach — he’s happy to help pair people up. Finally, you can always reach out to your student council representative or write to an administrator or The Commentator to help advocate for the changes you want to see. Ultimately, no matter what YU does, it’s up to each of us to take responsibility and do our part to make YU the best it can be.


Photo Caption: The Five Torot

Photo Credit: Yeshiva University