By Ben Clayman
I was at minyan this morning and someone who I never met before gave me a Sholum after davening. We started speaking and he was quite shocked when I told him I am currently in a secular university. He then asked how I stayed tahor while being on campus. Having graduated university and I wanted to share some the insights, experiences, and tips for students and parents on how to strive and thrive in difficult environments in 5 easy to remember tips (Baal Teshuvahesque disclaimer: consult a Rav on any halacha and get the proper hadracha for any environment). .
1. Positive Attitude-
When I first came to university, I was negative, called a ‘grouch’ by one of my siblings. I did not want to be on campus, did not want to be out of yeshiva, and did not want to read Freud, Marx, Oedipus, or Foucault. I still wish I stayed in yeshiva and am going back the day I graduate, but once you are in a situation, thank Hashem and pray to be the best person you can be while you are there. Make the most out of your time on campus, it can be a serious tikkun hamiddos and wake you up to the needs of Am Israel. Learn what to say to an appikorus, solidify your beliefs, and practice kiruv.
2. Dress the Part-
I should preface this one by saying this worked, for me. It might not be for everyone and you might not be comfortable enough yet, but it was one of the greatest piece of advice R. Noach Weinberg zt’l gave me a few days before I started university three years ago. Be as flagantry Jewish as possible. I had a long beard and payos most of university. When I went back to Israel for the summer or was with my parents, I trimmed up but while on campus, I was “The Jew”. I could have hid my kippa or tucked in my tzitzis but I could never hide my beard. Once you wear the uniform of a Yid, you start to act more like a Yid (see Brachos 28a). This might be the toughest, but the benefits are well worth it, you can be a walking Kiddush Hashem on campus and give courage to other Yidden on campus to be more Jewish.
3. Don’t Waste Your Time-
A degree which will lead to nowhere is worthless. Listen to your passions and investigate your zeal for your interests. However, have a plan before going to college. I was able to finish in 3 years while taking the minimum amount of classes for almost every quarter by planning ahead. Take courses that will give you skills in the future or can help your emuna, I took an astrophysics course which was my lowest grade by far but was the greatest for marveling at Hashem’s greatness as the Creator of the Worlds. My chevrusa on campus was able to finish Shas Mishnayos, 5 mesechtas of Gemera and conversational Hebrew during his time in university, you have plenty of time to learn lots of sweet Torah while in school.
4. Offense is the Best Defense-
Do kiruv. As a student, you are a peer, not a rabbi or parent, who can show them that you are happy, love Torah and Mitzvos, and want to teach fellow students with no pressure. You also have the greatest social networking ability to help your campus Chabad or kiruv rabbis recruit. Volunteer with the rabbis on campus, start a chabura with the Modern Orthodox guys, become a NCSY advisor, or start a Jewish Heritage/History/Education club.
5. Experiment (Not What You Think)- I have not-yet-frum (I don’t like to say secular, frei, not frum, reform, or any other negative term) friends who speak a lot about finding themselves by experimenting in college. There are kosher ways to channel those actions. Spend a Shabbos in the frum community and go to the hardcore Hassidic community, build a Sukkah in the middle of campus with signs of “Free Gilad” or “Shake this Thing”, Take your friends to crash a random wedding (for the dancing only), spend Shabbos with professors or alumni, and question everything. The problem is not questioning, it is maintaining the resiliency to find the right answers.
I still would not recommend secular university to anyone, but if your parents insist, you are currently in the middle of university, or you are just starting to grow in Yiddishkiet, don’t despair. University is a crucible like any another that can be conquered and you can come out purified with the right amount of heat and a healthy dose of the above tips.
Originally Published in August, 2009