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On 75th Anniversary, Yeshiva College Faces Challenge, Benefits of Diversity

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Before enrolling at Yeshiva University two and a half years ago, Sammy Samuels had never been to the United States. At the time, says Samuels, 23, there were just eight Jewish families in his country — Myanmar, formerly known as Burma — in addition to employees of the Israeli Embassy and a handful of Jews from America.

Samuels’ family served as caretakers for the beautiful local synagogue, where getting a minyan was no easy feat. But he began looking outside Myanmar for educational opportunities after a student revolution shut down local universities.

After meeting an American professor, who gave Samuels frequent-flier miles for the trip to America, Samuels landed at Yeshiva University, the flagship school of modern Orthodox Judaism.

Though it’s difficult to be a Jew in Burma, members of the community keep their Jewish identity and heritage.

“We celebrate all our holidays,” Samuels says. Still, he admits, “In Burma, it’s such a small community you don’t have a real sense of the holiday. But here you do.”

As Yeshiva College — Y.U.’s undergraduate college of arts and sciences for men — celebrates its 75th anniversary this year, the school’s student body is more geographically diverse than ever.

“There were kids in my class from Montreal,” says Rabbi Yosef Blau, spiritual adviser to Yeshiva College undergraduates and to rabbinical students, who was a freshman at the college in 1955. “That was the international character. Now there are kids from around the world.”

Fifteen years ago, five percent of the college’s student body was from abroad, the school says. Since then, that number has doubled.

Today, some 10 percent of Yeshiva College’s 773 students are foreign. Among them are 34 Canadians, 11 French, seven Moroccans, five Israelis and two students each from Australia, South Africa, Austria and Russia. There also are students from Hong Kong, Germany, Brazil and Italy, among other places.

By comparison, 4 percent of undergraduates at New York University are foreign, as are 3 percent of undergraduates at the Jewish Theological Seminary and nearly 11 percent at Columbia University.

The geographical diversity is “all to the good because it keeps us nonparochial,” says Norman Adler, the college’s dean. “We’re citizens of the world as well as citizens of yiddishkeit.”

But school leaders say the diversity creates challenges.

“Yeshiva always struggles with what it means to be a big tent,” Y.U. President Richard Joel told JTA. Students come from divergent backgrounds intellectually, religiously and socially, he says, and Yeshiva must serve them all.

“We’re used to being a minority that breaks up into lots of subparts,” he says. However, “there are different pressures placed on the institution when one hosts” students from diverse geographic backgrounds.

Yeshiva must be concerned with issues of acculturation, loneliness, separation from family and familiar culture, something Joel calls “real challenging.”

Nevertheless, he says, “At a place like Yeshiva, where you come specifically to grow in your Jewishness, there is a kind of unspoken bond that creates an opportunity for closeness.”

Before coming to Yeshiva College, Gabor Lowy had little experience studying Talmud in his native Hungary.

He went to a Jewish day school until the eighth grade, then entered public high school. There, an American rabbi introduced him to Gemara — the compilation of rabbinic discussion and commentary on Jewish civil and religious law — and members of Hungary’s Chabad community helped Lowy with Judaic studies as well.

Still, says Lowy, now a student at Y.U.’s rabbinical school, “I had no experience” when I got to the college.

“I had to get the experience,” he says — something that makes him just “an average guy at Y.U.”

The college — which will hold its commencement ceremonies May 26 — has embarked on a yearlong celebration of its anniversary, during which time it has established two new classes to mark the milestone, one on Jewish New York and another on modern Orthodox thought.

It also has launched fund-raising campaigns to update the school’s science and communications labs and has organized a series of class reunions.

The school recently ran two large alumni walking tours of Manhattan’s Lower East Side, once a predominantly Jewish neighborhood and Yeshiva’s original home base. In late February the school hosted a conference on fundamentalism.

On Sept. 21, the college will host a celebratory dinner on the Intrepid, a retired aircraft carrier docked in the Hudson River that now houses a museum and plays host to parties and other events. At the dinner, the school will honor longtime faculty members and the first two chairmen of its board, university trustees Marvin Bienenfeld, Yeshiva College class of 1953, and Jay Schottenstein.

In addition, the school will compile a series of some 75 essays by college graduates and faculty — pieces that appeared periodically throughout the year in the student newspaper — about their experiences at Yeshiva. The essays will appear with historic photographs in a coffee-table book to be distributed to guests at the September dinner.

Yeshiva College has graduated more than 9,000 students since its founding. Graduates live in more than 30 American states and some 20 foreign countries, and almost 10 percent of college alumni live in Israel, the school says.

A geographically diverse student body helps the college achieve one of its major goals, Blau says.

“One of our understood goals is that graduates of Yeshiva will play leadership roles in the Jewish community,” he says. “The broader their understanding of that community, the more they have to contribute.”

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