Panel discusses Jewish life on secular college campus

Panel discusses Jewish life on secular college campus

TEANECK – College campus life presents serious challenges to young adults nurtured in modern Orthodoxy. Yet it is possible to meet and "consume" those challenges and even emerge as stronger Jews, said Bergenfield native Rabbi Gil Perl at an Orthodox Union symposium held at Cong. Beth Aaron here Sunday morning.

A product of The Frisch School, the University of Pennsylvania, and Harvard, Perl teaches Jewish history at Yeshiva University and is director of admissions at its boys high school.

In his keynote address to parents and high school juniors and seniors, Perl presented four areas he sees as crucial to successfully meeting those challenges in an atmosphere that is neither culturally nor ideologically neutral and often at odds with traditional lifestyle and beliefs.

Carefully select the school, looking not only at academics but also social and religious life. Spend time on campus; visit campus Hillel Websites and How far are you willing to walk to get kosher food or religious services? Is there something about the Jewish life on campus that excites you? Are you a leader who can do with less infrastructure and fewer peers, or a follower who needs the reinforcement of a large Orthodox presence? A peer group is of great value in staying religiously observant.

Spend a year studying in Israel before starting college. While there are no guarantees, a year off before college is, at least, a maturing, anti-burnout experience that Harvard’s admissions board encourages. At best, the Israel experience can deepen a student’s convictions and understanding of Judaism.

Familiarize yourself with potential hazards in the sensual/social and intellectual realms. Drinking games and sexual activity are a large part of campus culture. Most campuses have a liberal social outlook; Orthodox students may become uncomfortable expressing their viewpoints on topics such as homosexuality. Presentation of the Bible as a human-authored document contradicts the Orthodox belief in divine authorship. Coping with these issues successfully takes awareness, knowledge, and conviction.

Once on campus, take initiative. Get involved in positive, reinforcing activities such as community service, social/Israel activism, and Jewish study programs. Passivity is the greatest deterrent to Jewish growth.

One such "reinforcing activity" is Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus, sponsored by the Orthodox Union in coordination with Hillel International and Torah MiTzion, an Israeli outreach organization. It is partially funded by Englewood residents Harriet and Heshe Seif.

JLIC places young Orthodox couples on campus to expand on the largely social opportunities offered by Hillel. Started about six years ago, JLIC now operates at Brandeis University, Brooklyn College, Cornell University, New York University, Princeton University, Rutgers University, UCLA, University of Florida, University of Illinois, University of Maryland, University of Pennsylvania, and Yale University. Both husband (usually a rabbi) and wife offer classes, counseling, one-on-one learning on all levels, and Shabbat programming. They are available as role models and friends for Jewish students from all streams.

JLIC Rabbi Yehuda Sarna at NYU said Orthodox students come to college with unique strengths — their appreciation of community and of education outside the classroom. "They’re motivated to recreate their community experiences — camp, youth groups, shul — on campus," he said.

Englewood native Rabbi Yehuda Seif at University of Pennsylvania related that as an undergraduate at Columbia in the 1990s, he and six classmates traveled daily to Yeshiva University to attend rabbinic lectures, yet four of them are no longer observant. The key is finding peers at school, he said.

"People need to find a way to matter on campus," Seif said. "If you’re doing things that only .01 percent of the other students are doing, you need to surround yourself with others doing what you do."

He underlined Perl’s suggestion to take initiative, since there is much free time in a college student’s life that can be filled with meaningless/self-destructive activities or meaningful/enriching ones. In answer to a parent’s question about pro-Palestinian activism on campus, he said there’s not much at Penn, but at campuses where there is, it serves to rally the Jewish students to be more involved in pro-Israel activism.

Sarna and Seif pointed out that a secular campus offers opportunities for cross-denominational socializing and programming within a Jewish context, broadening everyone’s experiences. Local resident Dov Sebrow, the Orthodox president of Columbia University’s Jewish community, described a recent Sabbath afternoon meal where scores of students of every denomination ate and sang together.

Rabbi Ilan Haber, JLIC national director and a Yeshiva University graduate, said college years are critical for identity development, and because "the overwhelming majority" of students educated in modern Orthodox day schools opt for secular universities, these schools "are just as much an incubator for the future of modern Orthodoxy as Y.U."

Why is that the case?

Four often-stated reasons and one rarely stated reason, said panelist Rabbi Jack Abramowitz, director of programs for the Orthodox Union’s youth arm, NCSY. "One, state schools, such as Rutgers, are cheaper. Two, secular colleges offer more majors. Three, students believe a degree from a secular school increases their potential to get into a good graduate school. Four, there is a belief that ‘adversity is good’ to test one’s Judaism."

The unstated reason, he added, is that "lots of kids are attracted to the hedonism of the secular campus."

Ultimately, the panelists agreed, many students can indeed grow in their Judaism on a secular campus, but Orthodox high school students should do an honest self-evaluation and determine if it may be wiser for them to opt for the all-Jewish environment of Y.U. or Touro.

Attendees were offered a copy of "Choosing a College: A Guide for Observant Students" by Rabbi Joseph Polak, the long-time Hillel rabbi at Boston University. The guide, updated in ’00’, costs $3.50 and may be ordered from

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