Monday, February 17, 2014

YU made me who I am today

The other day, I had a conversation with someone about all of the great Torah options available in Toronto for university students. That person wasn't wrong; our own Beit Midrash offers a very flexible "Chaverim" opportunity for students to fit in learning around their university studies, and other, more structured options are available around Toronto as well. More than a dozen university students spend significant hours in our Beit Midrash each week, and I am regularly impressed by the way they make time and design their schedules around learning.

Nonetheless, no part-time program built around a university schedule can compare with the Torah opportunities at Yeshiva University in New York – and while that sentence won't surprise anyone who went to YU, I want to take a minute to spell it out further, because I don't know that I have ever thought through fully the ways in which YU is responsible for the Torah I learn and teach today.

First, in terms of the educational experience:
  • The Mazer Yeshiva Program required a daily morning seder of study from 9 AM to 12 PM, followed by shiur from 12:45 PM to 2:30 PM. Having this schedule, every day, regardless of midterms and papers, trumps any part-time learning program I can imagine – and that's before the night seder which was voluntary, but which was taken as normal.
  • I studied under true talmidei chachamim every day, so that I had the opportunity to learn their Torah as well as see how they conducted themselves.
  • The Beis Medrash, augmented by the Gottesman Library, has a collection of sefarim superior in scope and depth to most batei medrash.

Second, in terms of the community of learning:
  • There were hundreds upon hundreds of us. People point out that in such a large group of students it's easy to become lost, but it is also true that in such a large group you are apt to find some truly outstanding minds, who can help you learn and who can serve as role models. I was fortunate to find excellent role models.
  • The sheer number of people learning creates an atmosphere which is inspirational, motivating greater diligence.

Third, in terms of the future it gave me:
  • Being in YU, I was able to build connections with rebbeim I would feel comfortable contacting years later when I had questions.
  • I was not a social person, at all; I am hard-pressed to remember more than a dozen or so names from my shiur. And yet, somehow, wherever I go, I meet people who were classmates of mine, or who knew me, and I have an instant YU network.

But perhaps most of all, the advantage I gained at YU was in the expectations that I came to set for myself:
  • Because of the tools: When your rebbeim are top of the line, and your beis medrash is top of the line, and you have all of this time given to you, then you expect yourself to truly accomplish.
  • Because of the community: When you are one of several hundred who are learning for five hours each morning/afternoon, as well as night seder, then your expectations are high, because they are calibrated based on the people around you.

When I was in college, I was not terribly self-aware, so that I didn't consciously set expectations of look for role models. Nonetheless, I somehow found them without knowing it, and long after I left YU they stayed with me, demanding that I do more.

I know well that enrolling at YU doesn't mean that all of these benefits will accrue automatically; you do need to be self-motivated in order to really take advantage of the opportunities that YU offers. And in truth, my experience in Kerem b'Yavneh was at least as strong an influence for me; I was in YU for a year before I went to Kerem b'Yavneh, and there is no comparison between what I did before and what I did after.

But having said that, I still conclude this: I could have gone to another university and made time for Torah when I wasn't in class, and I wouldn't have done half-badly. But there isn't a chance that I would have had the life I've had since then. In a very real sense, YU made me who I am today.


  1. It's very hard - almost impossible - for us to imagine what our lives would be like had we taken significantly different paths than we did. At some point, the path we did take begins to seem inevitable - a part of who we are - and, of course, it is.

  2. Sadly, significant segments of the MO community opt for higher tier universities under the argument that a kid can stay frum and learn in such environments (e.g., Columbia, Harvard, Penn, Princeton, U. of MD., etc.). I think your post exposes the shortcomings of such arguments. Thanks for such a meaningful post. It should be shared with every high school senior contemplating attending a secular college. Unfortunately, the issue in the MO community is a sense of priorities that doesn't accord with the views of its leadership.

  3. Unfortunately, not all YU products are so Torah-oriented as Rabbi Torczyner. (The joke in one of the 1986 Commentator editions was that Mordecai Kaplan thanked YU for making him who he was, seeing as he went to Etz Chaim which YU proudly touted as it's original incarnation). In any case, I'd have some trepidation about sending my kids to YU given the level of various activisms going on (in no particular order, homosexual activism, Bible criticism, students thinking YCT is a viable option after graduation, Stern magazine writing about pritzus, etc.)

  4. Tesyaa-
    Agreed; for that reason, I hold back from suggesting that the way I am is the best way I could be, doing as much as possible for the world, and so on.

    Anonymous 12:57 PM-
    I agree that priorities are a part of the problem, but there are also other factors - including expense, ignorance, and individuals whose lives demonstrate that maximizing one's learning is not the sole determinant of a solid religious identity or healthy personality.

    Reb Yid-
    I hear. But what's the alternative that will provide the positive qualities of YU?

  5. May I post this on the site I began for Rabbi who want to express their memories of and gratitude to YU?
    Moshe Rosenberg

  6. I have always thought that graduates of YU are some of the most well mannered and intelligent men that I have ever met, whether they are Rabbis or professionals.

  7. send this to HH

  8. SuperRaizy-
    Wow. Talk about setting expectations!

    Sorry, but I have fallen off the HH wagon. It's one of the decisions I made when it came to deciding whether I had the time to continue blogging.