I am seven years post my undergraduate career at YU. I will be attending graduate school at Northwestern next year, pursuing a two-year Masters degree in Teacher Leadership, and feel that now is an appropriate time to reflect on what I gained from my college experience.
Upon graduating high school, my guidance counselors urged me to attend one of the schools they had selected for me. Kenyon, Colgate, Bard, Vassar, University of Michigan and University of Chicago all made the list. For those not in the know, these are some of the top liberal arts programs in America, as my passion was English Literature. I was very torn about which college to attend and was leaning towards the University of Chicago, to which I had applied and been accepted. I felt convinced that I ought to attend that school. However, my father convinced me that I should at least give YU a shot. Reluctantly, I showed up at YU in the fall, having told my parents that if I was unhappy there I would transfer to UChicago.
My first few months at YU were very hard. Every other student in my grade was spending their year in Israel. I knew one other person at YU - and that was it. I did not have many relatives in New York. I spent Shabbat after Shabbat on campus, finding this experience both lonely and isolating. I did meet one person in a shared Brookdale elevator because her father had told her about me. But my life at YU really began the Shabbat the Chemistry Club sponsored Shabbat at Stern and I met three kind people who invited me to join them for pizza on Motzei Shabbat. These people turned into close friends and slowly my circle expanded.
At YU, I was lucky enough to participate in the FTOC (First Time on Campus) Program, Honors Program, Israel Club, Medical Ethics Society, write for The Commentator and serve as Editor-in-Chief of The Observer. I was able to forge strong relationships with my professors, rabbis and mentors, attend lectures on topics I found profoundly interesting and branch out in many ways. I studied sociology, the rise of the novel, ancient medieval philosophy, psychology and had an internship at The Forward that counted for college credit among other adventures. I attended student driven programs created by Simcha G, now a PhD candidate at Yale in Judaic Studies, Gilah K, now an assistant rabbi at Kehilat Jeshurun, Dr. Stuart Halpern, Assistant Director of Student Programming & Community Outreach at Revel and noted scholar and the list goes on. I met a wide variety of students, some of whom were observant and many of whom were not. These students each manifested unique talents and abilities and were diverse in their interests. For example, Max T now runs Roots and Crowns, an herbal apothecary, out of Portland, Oregon while Sarah M is one of the founders of the Open Tent Theater Company in Manhattan. Marc F works at the pluralistic Presentense group and facilitates a cohort of Jewish Educators who want to use technology to improve day school education. Ben Greenfield is getting semikha from YCT and recently ran a seder on Riker's Island for Jewish convicts. Yaelle F is earning her PhD in Jewish History from NYU. Rabbi Ari N has served as the JLIC director at the University of Maryland for the past three years and has now accepted an assistant rabbi position in Ohio. This is aside from the more typical array of students who attended top ranked medical, dental, law and business graduate programs.
I went to YU and I was not trapped within "a ridiculous dating world plaguing Modern Orthodoxy." My husband found me because he appreciated my writing. He wrote to me and we became friends. We eventually decided to try dating, it worked, and after a beautiful proposal he married me.
I went to YU and I do not have a closed minded view of the world. I have worked at one of the best known pluralistic schools in America, the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School, and have a deep appreciation for the views and ideas of others. I am certainly not skeptical of science, nor is Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, a role model of mine, who wrote a book about that. I consistently talk to people of many different backgrounds, with a special emphasis on my Uber drivers, many of whom are immigrants who have had fascinating experiences in both their past and present lives. I teach Judaic Studies at a Modern Orthodox day school, something I would not be doing had I not attended YU. Instead, I would likely be a teacher of English Literature or possibly a professor, and while that would be important work, I do not believe it would be the most valuable contribution I could make to my community. I am going to study gifted individuals this year and my hope is to assist the Jewish day school community in determining best practices when serving the gifted population. I hope to become a leader in that field.
Attending another university would certainly have helped me to grow in a myriad of ways. That is what I realized when I spent a Shabbat as a prospective student at UChicago. I would likely have been deeply involved in Hillel, led my community in a number of ways, interacted with extremely brilliant individuals and learned assiduously and eagerly. But I would not have been able to make my way within the field of religious study with mentors and teachers who were role models in addition to fonts of knowledge. I know because I sat in on some Bible classes at UChicago and was disturbed by the mockery in each teacher's approach. I did not feel that the teacher needed to believe the Bible was true but I did feel it was inappropriate to mock a text considered sacred by so many, and of course by me. I also formed some of my closest friendships to individuals I met either within my YU environment or in New York. Additionally, I became exposed to what is beautiful in Haredi Judaism, something that would not have happened anyplace else.
YU is what you make of it. It is appropriate for some students and not the right choice for others. Certainly it is possible for people to choose to stick to what they know and refuse to consider another's point of view, but that is a phenomenon that can occur anywhere. It is not limited to YU. Personally, I was glad to attend YU, felt that I met a wide variety of people there, and certainly encountered endless numbers of fascinating individuals on the New York subway (much like Brandon Stanton). I made friends with homeless people and random strangers in Starbucks alike. I grew, I learned, I loved, and I became a person who wanted to work in the field of Jewish Education due to my exposure to truly thoughtful Jewish educators (I'm looking at you Rabbi Dr. Mordechai Cohen and Rabbi Dr. Sid Z. Leiman). Thank you, YU, for what you gave me.