This past Shabbat, a Jerusalem parking lot just across the road from where I was staying, and which was open on the holy day, drew approximately 500 haredi demonstrators. One of the people caught in the demonstration was a secular Israeli friend who drove to see me with his wife and children. The demonstrators called his wife a shiksa.
Little did they realize that this former student of mine from Oxford gave up lucrative opportunities to make aliyah and contributes mightily to the Jewish state. I was not surprised, therefore, when some of the eight Israeli soldiers embedded in the Mayanot-Birthright group I am leading voiced distaste for Judaism and hostility to Orthodox Jews. Haredi Jews who call a Jewish mother a shiksa in the presence of her two tender children are religious frauds and an abomination to Judaism.
Truth regardless of consequencesWhich is why I am increasingly turning to Modern Orthodoxy. This year I will have three children studying at Yeshiva University in New York. The institution is a miracle, a place of academic learning committed to Jewish life, observance, and influence. So why do so many Orthodox Jewish students not even consider YU?
To be sure, I have always been a Jewish universalist. We Jews ought to be immersed in the world, spreading our values and influencing its cultures. But that can’t happen if we don’t first internalize an impregnable Jewish identity, and this in turn only comes with total immersion in a Jewish environment in our formative years. In essence, to be a universalist you must begin as a provincial. No man or woman who plans to have an impact on the world as a Jew can do so quite as effectively as when obtaining a top education in a holistic Jewish environment.
I am blessed to serve as a rabbi to both Jews and non-Jews, spreading Jewish values to a world at twilight. But I could never do what I do had I not first spent many years immersed in Jewish academies of higher education, in my case a Chabad yeshiva.
My children will choose their own paths, but I wish for them to remain observant and committed ambassadors of their people. And that’s why I send them to Yeshiva University, to obtain a Jewish education that is uncompromisingly Torah-based yet forward-looking.
So why do so many bright, committed, even Orthodox Jews reject places like YU and pursue Harvard, Yale, or Princeton instead? The majority would argue that the Ivy League is second to none. But a university is only as good as the students who attend. If the top Jewish students did not immediately dismiss a Jewish institution, it too would be in the very highest ranks. And Yeshiva University is already widely respected.
I suspect there is something else at work – one of our foremost failings: the unending search for non-Jewish legitimacy.
Whatever issues we have with our own identity are curiously compounded when it comes to academic life. Sigmund Freud famously told his Jewish disciples in Vienna that he had to make Carl Jung his successor or psychoanalysis would be dismissed as “a Jewish science.” Einstein may have helped establish the Hebrew University in Palestine, but he resisted all entreaties to leave Princeton and teach in Jerusalem instead.
I remember a strange conversation that took place between me and Yitzhak Rabin, of blessed memory, a year before his assassination. I had traveled to Israel to book him as a speaker for our Oxford L’Chaim Society. He asked me who was inviting him, the mainstream Oxford students or the Jewish students? It was a question I had not been asked by the countless non-Jewish luminaries honored to be my speakers, from Mikhail Gorbachev to Prof. Stephen Hawking to Australian Prime Minister Bob Hawke.
The Jewish community subdivides, in general, into three camps. There is the assimilated-secular, the insular-observant, and the modern-committed. The vast majority of those halachic Jews who compose the third camp call themselves Modern Orthodox – Jews who thrive in secular society. But the only way the model can work is if it is grounded not only in Jewish commitment, but in Jewish self-respect.
When I was the rabbi at Oxford there were many passionately observant Modern Orthodox American students. Yet a great many took off their yarmulkes after just a few weeks. They felt marked, different. So what was the big deal about removing an identifying symbol as long as they kept kosher, came to shul, and studied Torah? But they were wrong. The removal of the symbol was invariably followed by a weakening of observance. What they discovered is that while their Jewish hearts beat passionately, their Jewish spines were still rickety. A considerable number went on to become world-famous, but are no longer involved in Jewish life. Had these students simply been given a few more years in a Jewish environment, they would have been ready to go into the world without being compromised by it.