In many ways, Yeshiva University has been having a banner year: the largest incoming class, a new curriculum, a newly accredited business school. All this and more is in the works at YU, and this is truly an exciting time, both for those who are connected to YU and for those who wish to be. But a Yeshiva University experience is not for everyone. YU is a particular type of school, with an environment and goal so complicated that often the university doesn’t even seem to understand itself. And while it is a place which many students will find conducive to their academic, social, and religious needs, many others will find themselves stifled and unfulfilled. No institution can be one-size-fits-all, and YU is no exception. Before choosing to attend Yeshiva University, prospective students should be aware of what they’re getting themselves into.
YU’s greatest blessing is its greatest curse: it is a Yeshiva as well as a University. This small summation contains enough matter for discussion to fill several books (and has filled dozens upon dozens of school newspaper articles). But for the purposes of this discussion, only a few ramifications of YU’s dual identity are relevant. Firstly, one must attend some sort of Judaic studies program in the morning. This might seem like an obvious requirement, given the name “Yeshiva” University, but it is not one to be taken lightly. Many students, having attended Jewish day schools for twelve years, look forward to the prospect of being able to focus on secular academics without having to study Judaic subjects which they find unappealing or irrelevant to their lives. Not everybody wishes or needs to pursue higher-level Jewish education. Yet although YU tailors different Jewish studies programs to different types of students, the fact remains that the requirement is unavoidable. Students not interested in attending college-level classes on Bible, Talmud, and Jewish history are better off not attending an institution which makes its Jewish identity so fundamental to its educational offerings.
This relates to the second possible downside of the Yeshiva-University hybrid, which is that it is completely Jewish. There are no gentile students here (although the faculty is far from completely Jewish, let alone completely Orthodox). This means that YU lacks the type of diversity which could be found on a large secular college campus. In fairness, YU is far from monolithic. Just about every type of Orthodox Jew (and even a fair amount of non-Orthodox Jews) can be found on YU’s campus. But there is (shocking as it might be to some incoming freshmen straight out of Yeshiva) more to the world than Jews. Some people are eager to find a place in the broader world and be exposed to people from a wide variety of backgrounds, and they will not find that at YU. To be sure, growing up in Argentina or the Midwest may seem exotic to YU’s predominantly New-York-area Jews, but they not in the same league as being of a different ethnic background. Those seeking a diversity more representative of America, as opposed to Orthodox Judaism, will only find what they want elsewhere.
YU is also a small college. This comes with many benefits, such as small-classes and less competition for spots on club boards or research positions. But it also comes with downsides, such as fewer particular course offerings. YU’s education is not insufficient, and all fundamentals are covered, but there is little opportunity to explore the depths of a particular branch of a given field. There are maybe a dozen or so professors in the largest departments, so the school simply cannot offer much more than basic courses each semester. Certain specialized areas are simply not touched by the YU curriculum. Prospective students are advised to consider the course of study they wish to pursue and compare it to YU’s recent catalogues. There is a strong chance that some students may simply be unable to find what they are looking for at Yeshiva University.
YU comes with a very particular social milieu. The student body is predominantly (although, it is important to emphasize, not completely) from the New York area, which means that people will be coming from a rather limited set of schools, shuls, and Israeli Yeshivot and seminaries. Just the fact that attendance at a Yeshiva or seminary is almost presupposed by most people at YU speaks volumes. It can be a hard adjustment for somebody not used to in-town Judaism to make, and finding the right social niche can be a struggle.
There is also the fact that YU is a gender-segregated university, at least at the undergraduate level. Yeshiva College and Stern College for Women are really more like two separate institutions under a common banner than they are like the men’s and women’s campus of the same institution. Policies differ, and there is next to no official interaction between the two. Plenty of women come to YC at night for its larger library or to attend events, and plenty of guys visit Stern to hear lectures or hang out. The inter-campus shuttle is a very useful resource. But that said, students have to seek out this interaction on their own, which can be difficult for the less socially outgoing. Not to mention that the phenomenon of “marriage pressure” for which YU is mocked so much is far from absent, especially in SCW. There is some truth to jokes about every event being in part a singles mixer.
And then there is YU’s struggle to define its own religious identity. There is always some sort of scandal going on here, be it over a speaker, a statement of one of the Roshei Yeshiva, a new university policy, or something else. Nobody is quite sure what the institution as a whole stands for, and that leads to a lot of drama and anger over any issue that threatens to upset the status quo. For those who enjoy seeing defined communities play out their identities and evolve as they meet with the larger world, this can be an exciting process to follow. For those who don’t like institutional drama and aren’t good at tuning it out, YU’s constant glut of it can feel overwhelming and repulsive.
YU is not a bad university, but it is a very particular university. Certain experiences, such as those of the intellectual center of American Modern Orthodoxy, really can be had “nowhere but here.” At the same time, the conditions that make YU such a unique and interesting environment come with costs which can make it unsatisfying to many prospective students. The key is to know what lies ahead – to know what one desires from a college experience and what YU has to offer. There is no shame in attending a secular college. Yeshiva University is not for everyone.