Opinion: The elephant in the room
The knock on secular college
By Rabbi Reuven Spolter • The Jewish Star
Your son is ecstatic. He just received a letter granting him admission to the summer program of his dreams; five weeks at the highly prestigious summer science learning program in Maine where he’ll study with noted experts in physics and chemistry; areas of particular interest to him. You’ve been encouraging him to expand his horizons; taking him to scientific competitions and lectures for years, so you find his enthusiasm encouraging.
What about kashrut? Shabbat? Sure, it might be challenging for him to deal with religious observance over the summer. But that’s what real life is about, isn’t it? But then your rabbi confronts you with a troubling statistic: 25 percent of all Orthodox attendees to the summer program drop their Orthodoxy. Despite your skepticism, the rabbi shows you the surveys and it’s true: one-quarter of all Orthodox camp participants abandon Orthodox practice.
Would you encourage your son to go? It’s my article so I can say it: I wouldn’t. After spending so much time, effort, blood, sweat, tears and money on conveying the importance of Jewish life to my children, how could I risk it all on one summer — no matter how enriching it may be?
If you haven’t realized it by now, I’m not writing about a summer program. No, I’m writing about attending secular college.
In a fascinating symposium published in a special education issue of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah’s Meorot Journal, Rabbi Todd Berman writes about preparing students to thrive in non-Orthodox environments, specifically secular colleges. His essay focuses on important ways to mitigate the effects of the pressures to abandon religious life on campus, like sending educators from high schools to visit kids on campus; helping students form critical social bonds within the Orthodox groups on campus; and offering valuable courses both in high school and in Israel to help prepare them for college life
All of these represent good ways to help our kids retain their connection to Orthodoxy on the college campus. And yet, I wonder. Rabbi Berman himself states the numbing numbers: “one-quarter of the students who come to college as Orthodox Jews…changed their denominational identity while at college.” (Avi Chai Foundation, “Particularism in the University: Realities and Opportunities for Jewish Life on Campus,” Report, Jan. 2006)
That’s right. One quarter. If twenty students graduated this past June from your local yeshiva high school and headed off to campus, five of them won’t consider themselves Orthodox in four years — after a full twelve years of intensive Orthodox education. What causes this drop off? It’s not the intellectual pressures, by and large. No, it’s the social environment.
The campus culture, while ostensibly “celebrating pluralism,” often lacks tolerance for what is seen as xenophobic tribalism. Orthodox students are sometimes made to feel odd for maintaining religious observance at the expense of partaking fully in the smorgasbord of offered cultural delicacies.
However, both of these issues, while not insignificant, pale in comparison to the social pressures and realities of campus life. As one junior put it, “it is hard to be ‘shomer negi`ah’ when a girl sits down on your lap during orientation.” From the promiscuous parties sponsored by the university to the open support of binge drinking, to the small things like the experience of living in an openly coed dormitory, students are made to feel, as one student told me, odd for not being sexually and socially active. A former student once remarked that just as the State of Israel lowered the red line on the Kinneret Sea, pretending that the water level had not yet declined to the danger zone, so do students redraw their own red lines, or even worse, forget why they were there in the first place. It is quite difficult to describe the tsunami of social-sexual pressure crashing down on the religiously oriented student. These social pressures, and not the academic or even the cultural, are the most difficult to withstand.
We often overlook this reality by telling ourselves that sooner or later our children will have to confront “real life.” I’m sorry, but the college campus does not represent “real life.” In “real life,” women don’t sit down on men’s laps. In a normal workplace, that would constitute an inappropriate sexual advance which would be addressed immediately. Binge drinking might happen after work hours, but no one forces you to join your coworkers at the bar. In “real life” you can choose your roommates and the values you wish to maintain in your home. Can you do that on campus? In “real life” Orthodox people have the ability to avoid many of these challenging situations — something they cannot do on the college campus, where the parties take place on your floor — and probably right in your room.
Still, we satisfy ourselves with platitudes: “no solution works for every student” and “Yeshiva University isn’t the answer for everyone.”
Of course that’s true. But we then use those platitudes to justify sending our children to terribly dangerous spiritual situations. There’s a world of difference between “perfect” — or a zero percent drop-off rate — and “exponentially better than twenty percent,” Rabbi Berman writes.
Without a doubt, Yeshiva University remains for many a safe haven; yet more and more yeshiva high school graduates are bound for secular campuses.
I have a simple question: If a “safe haven” exists, why do parents send “more and more” of their children to “unsafe” environments? In trying to offer solutions to a glaring problem, we’re avoiding the elephant in the room, and failing to state the obvious: Secular residential college — any secular residential college — presents a serious and even mortal danger to our childrens’ well-being. It’s just not worth the risk.
Sadly, while many in Jewish education agree with me, no Modern Orthodox educator or administrator can actually say this. Parents would never tolerate an educator who, in their minds, discouraged his or her students from attending college (which they would not be doing; they would only be discouraging them from attending a residential college. Plenty of yeshiva students — both male and female — attend numerous secular colleges during the afternoons and evenings and seem to thrive both educationally and spiritually). Educators do not tell the truth for fear of losing their positions. Even Rabbi Berman seems to play this game.
“It is incumbent upon the community to empower our students to succeed in the college environment,” he writes. “We can achieve this goal if we keep several issues in mind: the positive social networks in place in high school or Israeli yeshiva should be maintained through developing programs for our alumni, refocusing our expenditures of energy on what is happening on the campus, promoting key social networks in college, and being realistic about what we expect to accomplish.”
Which is it? Can we achieve this goal of empowering our students to succeed in the college environment? What then does it mean for us to be “realistic about what we expect to accomplish”? What’s a realistic drop-off rate for Orthodoxy? Fifteen percent? Ten percent?
It’s time for Jewish educators to start speaking the truth: We cannot “achieve this goal.” The college campus promotes values antithetical to Orthodox Jewish life. Those are simply the facts, and we permit ourselves to pretend otherwise at the expense of our children’s spiritual well-being.
So I’ll say it: Please do not send your child to a secular residential college — even one with a strong Hillel and Orthodox community on campus. It’s not worth the risk, and certainly not the benefits. The options truly abound. He or she can attend YU, or Lander — or even college in Israel; he or she can live at home or study in a yeshiva and attend college at night, and still gain admittance the most exclusive graduate schools in the world. Many, many Jewish kids have and continue to do just that.
And while the numbers aren’t perfect, the vast majority of them still consider themselves Orthodox today.
Who is Rabbi Spolter? He's a leading member of the RCA: