By: Kelly Jemal Massry
In today’s tight job market, higher level education may be more valuable than ever before. Because resources are scarce, executives want to hire only the best – and that means those with the strongest resumes. For those hopeful high school graduates driven to succeed in the business world, college can be an exciting and financially rewarding option. Concurrent with this belief, though, is the fact that secular colleges represent a major challenge to traditional Jewish standards. From kashrut to seniut (modesty), both student life and even academics are completely misaligned with Torah practices and values. So how is a young man or woman to reconcile this tension between the desire for the education and career training of colleges, and our religious responsibilities?
Simple: Enroll in a Jewish college.
In our last issue, we described local college programs which modify their secular curriculum to bring it in line with Torah values. Conspicuously absent from that report were two of the largest and most well-known Jewish institutes for higher education: Touro College and Yeshiva University (YU). Both these institutions have, for decades, been providing an uncompromising college education within the framework of a yeshiva environment.
Though there are significant differences between Touro and YU, they also share a number of similarities, the most defining of which is offering a yeshiva and a college under the same roof. Far from being simply a Jewish friendly environment, these institutions provide a high level yeshiva education, in a beit midrash atmosphere, under the tutelage of first rate rabbis, until 3pm every day. By attending these institutions, students are not simply trying to avoid compromising religious standards while pursing a degree. Many attendees are students who have completed a traditional post high school yeshiva bet midrash program, and now wish to pursue a secular education while seeking to continue growing in Torah and yirat Shamayim at the same time.
Founded in 1886, Yeshiva University pioneered the idea of combining Torah learning with a university degree. Dr. Hillel Davis, YU’s President of University Life, stoutly emphasized the difference between YU and secular institutions. “We don’t accommodate Jews,” he said with firm conviction. “We build Jews.” He continued: “We are training and preparing our students to be leaders of their community. All of our students are obliged to engage in both secular and Jewish studies because we think it’s their obligation to continue to learn limude kodesh.” In a clever play on words, Yeshiva University President Richard Joel put it another way: Students are prepared to be leaders in “klei kodesh and lay kodesh.” Hedy Shulman, Director of Media Relations, explains: “The concept is that every Jew has the ability to bring sanctity into the world whether they are religious figures or leaders in their communities.”
Regarded by many as the most public representative of Orthodox Judaism, YU has, not surprisingly, often been the subject of intense scrutiny on all fronts. Over the years, some of the ideals which drive certain hashkafic principles at YU – the details of which are beyond the scope of this article – have tended to clash with traditional haredi philosophy. These important differences notwithstanding, one of the leading Gedolim (Torah leaders) in Lakewood recently advised the Rosh Yeshiva of a boys’ high school, that students resigned to seeking a college education should most certainly be encouraged to choose YU over other options.
An All-Encompassing Academic Institution
YU is both an undergraduate and graduate institution. Three thousand students are enrolled in the undergraduate program, and 3,000 – 4,000 learn in its graduate programs in social work, psychology, law, medicine and Jewish studies. The student body is a community within itself, with students coming from all over the country and a variety of religious backgrounds. Though the vast majority of the students are Orthodox, the student body also includes youths from Conservative and Reform households.
The university defines itself as an educational academic institution that expects a rigorous commitment from their students, even as they balance the curriculum with a serious Jewish studies program. A year of study spent in Israel is amply rewarded, both from a religious perspective and even for its purely academic value, because, as Dr. Davis says, “the analytic and cognitive skills [students] gain in Israel are unparalleled and a great help to them in their life going forward.”
Female students at YU’s Stern College for Women, situated in Midtown Manhattan, take up to eight courses per day, including both religious and secular classes. The men, whose campus is located in the Washington Heights section of Northern Manhattan, learn in religious studies programs from 9am until 3pm, after which they take on a full college course load, from 3-8pm. Students who come to the college with limited background in Jewish studies are enrolled in a preparatory program called Mechina that introduces them to the Hebrew alphabet and to Jewish traditions and teachings. Already in their second or third year in the program, many students are caught up to their yeshiva–educated peers, and some even become rabbis.
Needless to say, the YU student body is a rigorous bunch, with very little spare time, but even the few hours they do have to themselves are often spent productively. Driven to go beyond their learning and make a difference in the real world, some students engage in service learning programs, where they are challenged to lead a variety of admirable missions. Students have gone to El Salvador and built latrines. A group recently went to Israel and learned in its bate midrash, spending one half of the day studying the laws of Shabbat and the other half examining how the laws are kept by different sectors of Israeli society, like soldiers and doctors. A third group of students interested in socialized healthcare traveled to both Washington, D.C. and Israel to study the way the different countries approached the topic. Finally, a fourth went to Omaha, Nebraska and studied the way Jewish life is carried out in a small community setting. From the extraordinary expeditions taken by YU students it’s clear how the college approaches education – it’s not just about learning, but about application.
TouroCollegeis named for the father and son Isaac and Judah Touro who, driven by the inspiration they received from President Washington’s revolutionary address at Touro Synagogue in 1791, donated generously to both Jewish and non-Jewish institutions. It is in that spirit that Touro College thrives – in appreciation of the secular world and its knowledge, but also with the fierce desire to uphold Jewish life and traditions. After opening with 35 students in 1971, Touro is now a renowned international institution, boasting 29 schools with 17,500 students, on campuses as far away as Russia, Germany, Israel and France. Although Orthodox in its philosophy, the college has earned strong credibility within the secular world. With national campuses in NY, California, Florida and Nevada, Touro holds the rare distinction of having received degree accreditation in multiple states.Its graduate programs in physical and occupational therapy, education, medicine, law, nursing, business and psychology give the aspiring Jewish professional numerous fields in which to pursue a degree.
TouroCollegewas founded by Rabbi Dr. Bernard Lander z.t.l., a renowned Jewish scholar and public figure who passed away this past winter. At the funeral, his son, Rabbi Daniel Lander, spoke of the motivation that drove his father to establish this landmark institution: “My father was highly troubled by the dangers of secular colleges … and the dangerous risk to the spiritual health of our youth.” Rabbi Menachem Genack, CEO of the Kashrut Division of the Orthodox Union, where Dr. Lander served as Honorary Vice President, said his colleague believed secular colleges to be “the crematoria of Jewish religious life.” As such, Touro’s pioneer made sure that, in today’s secular-oriented world, the devoted ben or bat Yisrael wouldn’t have to worry about sacrificing his or her Jewish identity or devotion. The college conveniently puts accommodations in place that cater to the Jewish way of life.
Jewish Convenience, Accommodations and Support
Mr. Gary Steinman, chairman of the biochemistry department at Touro’s School of Osteopathic Medicine, speaks proudly of the college’s observant-friendly practices. “For a shomer missvot Jew, the medical school, in particular, is a dream come true,” he says. For one thing,all food served at the school – whether it be at a school function, in the vending machine, or in the cafeteria – is kosher. Secondly, the school operates on the Jewish calendar, closing on the eves and days of all Jewish holidays; the students don’t have to worry about making up work or missing an exam due to religious observance. Classes end at 2pm on Fridays, giving students ample time to get home and prepare for Shabbat. The medical school hosts a minyan every afternoon for minha and proudly adorns a mezuzah on every doorframe. In addition, says Mr. Steinman, both the faculty and student body contain large numbers of Jews, with many graduate students coming from Yeshiva University and Stern College. There is something tremendously reassuring about secular and religious forces being in agreement, not having to combat one another for recognition and permanence. Thanks to the foresight of Dr. Lander, both peacefully co-exist at Touro College: the college is sensitive to Jewish observance while still holding academic excellence to the highest standard.
To several of the deans across Touro’s New York campuses, the accommodations mentioned by Mr. Steinman are “a given.” Their appraisal of the way the college melds the secular and the religious goes even deeper. Rabbi Moshe Krupka, Senior Vice President for College Affairs, says of Touro: “The school is a vehicle by which to fortify one’s Jewish values, obtain higher education and accomplish one’s career goals.” Dean Robert Goldschmidt of Touro’s College of Arts and Sciences adds: “We make sure that we orient the faculty to be sensitive and supportive to Jewish values. Students come to us from a variety of yeshivot and high schools and we help them to continue their Jewish lifestyle; they don’t have to compromise their [beliefs].They are studying in an environment where their values are respected instead of attacked and criticized.” In that vein, students are encouraged to spend a year in Israel post-high school, and in most instances are given a year’s worth of college credit for their religious studies in Israel.
The dean describes the College of Arts and Sciences as “a community-based school with a Jewish college environment.” Centrally located in Flatbush, in the heart of one of the largest Jewish communities in the world, the Ave J campus in Brooklyn opened in 1995 to an enrollment of 1,000 students. Since then, the student body has expanded exponentially, with 25 reputable majors available for study. Students go on to study at leading graduate schools in medicine, business, dentistry, pharmaceuticals and therapy, allowing them to embark on successful and fulfilling careers.
The Men’s Campus
Similarly, Dean Moshe Sokol of Touro’s Lander College for Men in Kew Gardens Hills, Queens, proudly states that his school provides a “full yeshiva program combined with a fine academic education.” Matriculated students enroll in one of six Jewish tracks and participate in a 9am-3pm intensive Torah learning program, as well as a night seder that goes from 8-10pm. Secular studies start midday and run from 3-7:30pm. Various courses in history, math, the sciences and English are offered, equipping students with proficiency in the Western intellectual tradition. Dean Sokol proudly describes his students’ focus on both their career goals and their religious studies, noting with admiration their ability to manage the grueling dual curriculum. The constant interchange between Jewish and secular studies is important to them, says Dean Sokol. “Otherwise, they wouldn’t be here.”
The Lander College for Men sits on a beautiful seven-acre campus in Kew Gardens Hills, a pretty suburban neighborhood in Queens. Ninety-five percent of the students live in the college’s dormitories, and the well-appointed accommodations make for a homey, residential student-experience. The students enjoy garden apartments with balconies, living rooms and full kitchens. They also have many opportunities to enjoy outdoor life in the campus’ basketball and tennis courts, baseball diamonds and soccer fields. Many of the faculty members live nearby, making for a close relationship that continues inside the classroom. Class sizes are small, helping to ensure that every student receives the personalized attention he needs. Students graduate from the Lander College for Men with a firm grasp on how they want to pursue their religious and secular careers. And, as with all of Touro’s college students, they have excellent chances of gaining acceptance into the graduate programs of their choice.
Dean Marian Stoltz-Loike of the Lander College for Women describes her school as a place “where the idea that you are an Orthodox Jewish young woman receives a great amount of support.” The curriculum is sensitive to both Sephardic and Ashkenazic backgrounds. It also provides a range of Jewish Studies courses, so that women can come from yeshiva high schools or seminary in Israel and continue their Torah learning. They enjoy weekly classes on the parasha, Purim and Hanukaparties and other school-wide festivities. They also receive a high-level education and graduate with a rich combination of both secular and religious knowledge. In keeping with Dr. Lander’s vision, all of Touro’s students, in the NY area and throughout the world, emerge spiritually fortified, ready to engage with the world and enjoy fulfilling careers.
Practical Job Education
Touro even opens its doors to non-traditional college students – those who never planned on attending college, convinced they didn’t have the aptitude or skills for university learning. Esther Braun of Machon L’Parnasa speaks with pride of Touro’s division in Boro Park, especially made for these men and women, many of whom have weak writing abilities and a beginner’s level of reading comprehension. Some aren’t confident enough to complete the school’s two-year program, but those who stick it out are rewarded with an associate degree. For many, the challenge at first seems overwhelming, but the staff walks the students through each stage, taking them by the hand like a proud parent, until the students have become collegiate. Fueled by success, pride and ambition, some even obtain Bachelors and Masters Degrees, becoming actuaries, medical students, therapists, accountants and other professionals. The college offers its students the invaluable opportunity to compete in the job market and earn a respectable parnasa upon graduating. Machon L’Parnasa exemplifies the realization of Dr. Lander’s dream – offering a spiritually safe secular education to every Jew, regardless of his or her level of religious observance.
The Future of Orthodox Education
Now more than ever, Torah observant Jews are increasingly seeking out a college education. At the same time, between the rise of anti-Israel sentiment on many campuses and the increasingly liberal leanings of many professors, the general atmosphere at secular universities across the country are reportedly becoming less hospitable to Orthodox students. This alarming trend further underscores the importance of those select institutions that provide not only an accommodating environment – but also foster continued spiritual growth.