By Yaakov Weinstein
About eight months ago there was a post on Beyond BT about life at a secular university (non-YU, Touro). At that time Steve Brizel (someone I have never met personally but have been fortunate enough to become acquainted with via the web), suggested that I also write a post on the subject. While I was unable to do so at that time, I am happy to now have the opportunity to fulfill his request.
For this post I assume that much of my audience is familiar with the challenges facing students on secular campuses. Thus, I will include only a few short paragraphs on these challenges and then suggest some strategies for meeting these challenges. I will not include possible merits of attending secular universities. Some of these were addressed in the previous post on this subject. In addition, I can safely assume that a number of readers became ba’alei t’shuva at secular campuses at least partly with the help of other students. Finally, those interested in my personal experiences may enjoy a column I wrote in the YU Commentator concerning the community I was fortunate to be a part of at MIT. This column was in response to a previous piece by a YU student who spent some time at MIT.
The original piece is here:
My response is here:
I would like to divide the challenges facing students on secular campuses into three parts: sensual, intellectual and ideological. Each of these deserves a study in and of itself but for now I’ll just provide just a few highlights.
Some readers may remember the university atmosphere of the 1960s: rebellion against authority, free love, drugs and the like. College campuses no longer resemble what they were in the 1960s – they’re worse. All that the rebellious students of the 1960s fought for have become de rigueur on campus. There is a laundry list of statistics on alcohol consumption, sexual activity and drugs on campuses which are easily found on the web (for fun try a google search of – hookah in the sukkah – and note some ‘Orthodox’ sponsorship of smoking). Intellectual challenges can be found in many places on campus. Obviously, courses in Judaic studies, religion, and history will assume multiple, human, authorship of the Torah. But teachings genuinely antithetical to Torah may also be found in courses of psychology and biology. The issues raised in these courses go way beyond the ‘historical’ question of whether evolution occurred. The real challenges are the assumed denial of a supernatural being and the obvious equivalence of man with animal. Ideological challenges on campus can range from hatred of the state of Israel and anti-semitism to deconstructivism (and its accompanied rejection of anything not written by a professor) and the relativty of the terms ‘good’ and ‘evil.’ These are not to be confused with intellectual challenges which attack with certain assumed or understood facts. Ideological challenges attack a student’s attitude towards authority, religion and morality.
Of course, real life challenges cannot be nicely fit into one of these boxes. Generally, a given challenge will include elements of each of the above categories. I like calling this the “b’nos Moav syndrome.” As we are told the Jews only worshipped the idols of Moav as a means of attaining the Moavite women (Rashi Bamidbar 25:2, Sanhedrin 106a). Put into a modern situation, if it allows you to flirt with your gorgeous non-Jewish classmate, it is much easier to believe the human authorship of the Torah. Additionally, challenges on college campuses come at a very impressionable age and at a time when students may be living only with others of this age (i.e. tremendous peer pressure and limited people with life experience with which to talk). The gmara in Kiddushin 30a (according to the second opinion in Rashi) suggests the proper time to chastise and thus teach a child is from 16-22 or 18-24. Increasingly, ‘children’ in this age range find themselves away from home in what may be a religiously hostile environment.
What are some strategies that can be used to face challenges on a secular campus? The strategies I list below are a conglomeration of my own thoughts and experiences and results of conversations I have had with many, many people on this subject. I’ll divide strategies into three parts:
1) strategies for a rebbi, teacher or shul rabbi,
2) strategies for parents with kids on campus
3) strategies for students on campus.
But before getting to this list there is one ‘strategy’ that is most important – Know yourself/ your child / your student – some students perform best in a structured setting. Some do best when they do not have to be a leader. Others do best when faced with adversity. They step up when the going gets rough, but may not even bother if things are catered to them. There is NO way personal advice can be given or a proper decision can be made without this knowledge (if I can add a personal interpretation to a well-known discussion: Chazal discuss the spiritual stature of Noach. Some say that he was a great man and had he lived at the time of Avraham – where there were others worshipping the true Deity – he would have been even greater. Some say he was great for his generation but would not have been much had he lived at the time of Avraham – see Rashi Breishis 6:9. I suggest that this discussion actually relates to the personality of Noach rather then his spiritual stature. The latter opinion believes that Noach was the type of individual who needed the challenge. The natural rebel against what is popular. Thus, he excelled specifically in a generation of evil).
To Be Continued