American Orthodoxy

The Great Reckoning: Is It Time to Rethink Higher Education for Jewish Students?

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Editor’s Note: Israel is at war, and the suffering is difficult to bear. To better appreciate this transformation and the pressures of this moment, we have assembled a symposium of community leaders and thinkers to address the effect of the crisis on Diaspora Jewry.

Erica Brown

We are at that anxious time of the academic year: when seniors in high school are panicking about college applications. They are fixing their essays, trying to impress, and figuring out who they are and what they want in the process. Those in their gap year in Israel are considering whether or not to stay for another year and defer (or change) colleges, and what night of the week would be best to have “that conversation” with their parents. 

It’s a time of transition, creativity, agitation, and excitement. There are so many choices out there, and each will create a different trajectory, some by degree and some by order of magnitude. Despite the pressures, it’s also a beautiful time of questioning, discomfort, and development; these gorgeous young souls are forging their own way, individuating from parents and friends, and taking risks on the path to self-discovery. 

But this application season in particular will be a time of even greater bewilderment than usual. Nursed on dreams of high achievement and its attendant rewards and burdens, many Jewishly observant young people who want a break from the routine of Jewish day school to see the ‘real world’ will be rethinking choices. These students may feel their wings clipped by the recent wave of hate on many—but not all—college campuses in the United States. 

It is precisely because of this new tension that it is time for students in the throes of this important decision to have some candid and brutally honest conversations with those currently in college to mine their experiences. We can no longer afford to hear only what we want to hear to confirm our preexisting choices and biases. We have to be open to painful truths.

Axiomatic to centrist Orthodoxy is the belief that one can live a Torah-saturated lifestyle and valorize and participate in the larger world of ideas while contributing to that world intellectually and through acts of service and justice. To that end, many have encouraged their children, consciously and subconsciously, to study at secular institutions of higher learning, especially elite universities, as preparation for this integrated future. They do so because they value the quality of instruction, the social integration, the cache of the degree, and the professional doors such degrees open in terms of employment possibilities. They also believe that our children have an important Jewish voice that should be freely expressed and influential on college campuses. They—we—have long been aware of the potential dangers of exposure but, for the most part, have decided that the benefits outweigh the costs. 

It may be time to interrogate these suppositions. 

The costs right now may be too great. The threatening landscape of many college campuses for Jewish students today should make us pause and question the value of an American university education, at least temporarily. There are excellent alternative options in the United States and in Israel where students can live fully and authentically as religious Jews and Zionists while advancing intellectually and professionally. But, if we believe that despite the many costs today, it is still worthwhile to promote secular colleges, we need to prepare students for new realities because our current crop was woefully underprepared for this tense historic moment. 

For the sake of argument, let’s present two scenarios from a student’s perspective, analyze them, and then discuss pragmatically how we can better equip our high school students to more confidently and comfortably manage the challenges of higher education in this moment. 

Best-Case Scenario:
You are studying at a secular college, getting a stellar education, continuing to learn and pray daily, and growing spiritually. You feel safe and respected as a Jew. You’ve made wonderful friends on campus, both Jewish and non-Jewish, and you feel informed enough to challenge the settler-colonial narrative about Israel that you’ve encountered on the quad. You are well prepared to educate your non-Jewish friends and classmates that intersectionality has been dangerous for Jews, and that antisemitism is the only microaggression—actually a real aggression—that’s currently tolerated by the university’s DEI committee. Your non-Jewish friends are interested and growth-oriented and show up with you and for you at rallies to offer support against injustice. They are not silent. You help those friends understand what “from the river to the sea” actually means. You do not find identity politics distracting. You went to college to learn to think critically and have many opportunities to do so.

Worst-Case Scenario:
You are studying at a secular college. You do not feel physically or emotionally safe owning your Judaism or showing others on campus your religious/ethnic identity through outward symbols. You’ve walked past pro-Palestinian rallies several times in a kippah or star-of-David necklace and have been told that you are vermin by those praising jihad and the intifada. They tell you without shame that rape and murder is justified and that you do not belong. You see classmates and even friends at those rallies. You find yourself quietly shrinking as a Jew and as a human being from any attention whatsoever. You are afraid to tell your Friday lab partner that you are leaving early because of your Sabbath commitment. You are now spending more and more time with Jewish friends—especially those you knew from beforehand—because post-October 7th, few (if any) of your non-Jewish friends have acknowledged your pain. Their silence is deafening. Your favorite professor made overtly political pro-Hamas statements in class and no longer makes eye contact with you. Your college president waffled when confronted with Jew hate on campus and those who call for genocide. You are shocked by how quickly your comfort level at college has changed. It only took a few days. You have chosen not to share these feelings with your parents because you picked this college yourself after an expensive college tour. They are footing an enormous tuition bill.

Where to Go From Here:
This worst-case scenario is no exaggeration. It is a composite of observations culled from actual college students I’ve been in contact with or read about since October 7th, when assumptions they made about the world as they knew it collapsed. 

There are institutions of higher learning—mostly coastal—where Jewish students have been spat at and screamed at with a rhetoric and a rancor unrecognizable. They have been taunted in texts and locked into libraries and kosher cafeterias, and some of them are afraid to go to class. In rare instances, they have been humiliated by professors. It is exhausting and punishing to learn under these conditions. It will be instructive to see what happens to the grade point averages of these Jewish students now that we’ve closed this semester. We can expect many Jewish students to carry considerable post-traumatic stress syndrome, even though we are not post-anything just yet. 

Many of their college presidents made tepid statements that, if they revised, were edited due to fear of the tsunami of donor disgust they received and not out of some sudden moral urgency. Check the dates of these letters relative to October 7th, just to be sure. Some presidents of the most prestigious institutions in this country have made dramatic errors of judgment that showed their true colors.

Yet, despite this, there are some parents within our Orthodox community who are still doing the dance of cognitive dissonance. They express disbelief, send angry emails of outrage to their alma maters, and question the weak or inadequate response of its leadership. They recognize how different their own university experience was from those waging the war of identity politics now on campus. They defend the right of Jews to attend these universities so that their children can speak out, protest, and secure Jewish safety on campus for all Jews in the future. If Jewish students leave, we’re giving in to the enemy, they think. They are still encouraging their children to apply and attend these institutions of higher learning because, although this is happening, it is an aberration from the norm. And it is. But this is our reality right now. With this thinking, we risk deceiving ourselves about the psychological dangers to these young people. These are environments that not only challenge our core values, but they are also places where our children feel threatened.

A child’s intellectual and emotional wellbeing is not up for grabs. It is not some kind of sacrifice made to prove a point or promote some elusive societal good. A child’s soul is precious. Where anxiety lives, learning cannot live. Maybe it’s time to wait until the identity politics of intersectionality has breathed its last so that our observant Jewish students can stand proudly with their convictions. Maybe wait—as I did—until graduate school for exposure to that big, wide world. Make no mistake. Our students, for the most part, are simply not informed enough right now to fight this fight. The lion’s den is filled with menace. 

To this point, it may be high time for the leadership of all Jewish high schools to revisit the curriculum for seniors. In many schools, senior year is the weakest year of learning, although the tuition is the same. The second semester experience is typically thinner on content and meaningful educational development and could be enhanced through intensive coursework and practical training in the following arenas:

  1. Students should have a course on Zionism and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. They should know the history and the major thinkers of the movement and situate their own beliefs within this framework.
  2. Students need to leave high school having read about, discussed, and debated the philosophy of Torah u-Madda and what it really means to live an integrated life. What might their contributions to broader society entail? What is their ongoing responsibility to improve a world that has, of the moment, betrayed them? What filters should they put in place to protect their Jewish values while exposing themselves to alternative lifestyles, different ethnic and religious commitments, and competing beliefs?
  3. Students also need to complete a comprehensive, historical, and contemporary survey on antisemitism so that they can define it, identify it, and fight it.
  4. Students should be given training in the mechanics of political activism. Religious activism, like prayer and singing, is important. So too is attending rallies, voting, and writing letters to political officials.
  5. Students need to learn civics and more about the executive, judicial, and legislative branches of our government and how they can participate in the political process.

Our students are facing a moment for which they are utterly underprepared. A curriculum rich in Jewish texts but weak on how to live as a Jew in today’s society will not serve our high school graduates well. We must train our students more explicitly for life on campus, no matter where they are going, because this will also serve them well in the offices and boardrooms of the future.

This is not a moment to retreat from society. Yet, if we have learned anything from the events and the aftermath of October 7th, it is to question some core assumptions about the world as we know it and possibly wait until it is safer for our students to embrace a world that is shunning them now. After October 7th, when people both say and demonstrate that they want to harm us and endanger Jewish lives on campus, we must believe them. College should be a time of enlightenment, intellectually and socially. It should not be a time of fear and anxiety. This should be an educational inflection point for the Orthodox community. Let us point to October 7th as a time that changed us for the worse and also changed us for the better.

Erica Brown is the Vice Provost for Values and Leadership at Yeshiva University and the founding director of its Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks-Herenstein Center for Values and Leadership. Her most recent book is Staying Human: Wartime Fragments of Anguish and Hope (Maggid). Erica was a Jerusalem Fellow, an Avi Chai Fellow, the recipient of the 2009 Covenant Award, and is a faculty member of the Wexner Foundation. She has written 13 books on the Hebrew Bible, spirituality, and leadership, co-authored 2 books, and co-edited one anthology. She has been published in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Tablet, First Things, and The Jewish Review of Books. She wrote a monthly column for the New York Jewish Week and is a consulting editor for the journal Tradition. She currently serves as a community scholar for Congregation Etz Chaim in Livingston, New Jersey. She is the proud mother of four children, four in-law children, and five beautiful grandchildren.