I’ve been told that attending a secular college is synonymous with “falling off the derech (path).” I’ve been given a bracha (blessing) that I don’t get accepted to any of the secular colleges I’ve applied to. I have weighed these ridiculous opinions with far more value than they actually hold.
In my Jewish community, students are encouraged to apply to schools that are full of Jewish life and will allow them to uphold their religious values. In other words, students are encouraged to apply to Yeshiva University and/or one of the City University of New York schools because they are considered to have thriving Jewish communities. When researching colleges, I made sure that I was deciding to apply based on where I would flourish, not where others expected me to attend. I would not allow myself to become a sheep blindly following the Jewish flock; I refused to rob myself of an opportunity that was in my best interest. This is not to insult any of the previously aforementioned schools, as all of them offer incredible opportunities to their students; this is merely to acknowledge that the stigma of attending schools outside of the Jewish bubble oftentimes deprives Jewish students of achieving their full potential.
Three major components make students excellent applicants to universities: GPA, standardized testing scores and extracurricular activities. Most students in Jewish private schools would agree that the accessibility to resources and the competitive nature fosters exceptional performance in those three components. University of Texas—Austin or the University of North Carolina—Chapel Hill are viable options for any bright student seeking an undergraduate program in business, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology may interest an intelligent student with an interest in pursuing engineering. Unfortunately, the false idea that these secular schools will compromise students’ Judaism leads promising applicants to limit their options.
While there will surely be hurdles to clear, living a Modern-Orthodox lifestyle is undoubtedly possible on most college campuses.
The overarching issue with this ongoing debate is the misconception that a secular college will cause a Jewish student’s religious observance to deteriorate. While there will surely be hurdles to clear, living a Modern-Orthodox lifestyle is undoubtedly possible on most college campuses. Some specific concerns that many feel will negatively affect Jewish life on a college campus include a lack of Jewish students and difficulty following the laws of the Torah, specifically Kashrut and Shabbos. But every college today publishes statistics about their students’ race, ethnicity, and religion; a simple Google search can show the size of the Jewish presence on certain secular college campuses. Additionally, Most colleges also have a local Hillel, a Jewish student organization that “encourages students of all backgrounds to form deep, personal connections to Jewish life, learning and Israel, through Jewish exploration, leadership, and a sense of belonging.” Hillels works to supply Kosher meals to Jewish students, if they are not already present, and engage students in celebrating Jewish holidays and Shabbos. Some schools also have additional Jewish outlets such as Chabad and Meor.
It is exhausting to hear the clichéd argument that it is too challenging to have a Jewish lifestyle on a secular college campus; many of those who make such arguments speak from a lack of experience and from speculative analyses based off of hypothetical instances. Students who enter college committed to Judaism will have the ability to continue that commitment throughout their four-years, regardless of what type of school they attend. Shielding Jewish students from the difficulties that come with living in a secular environment is not in their best interest. Teaching students to stay in their comfort-zone and steer clear of a challenge means that they will never acquire the skill set to deal with difficulties they may face in the future.
On the flipside, some may not want to go through the obstacles and difficulties that may come with attending a secular college, such as missing class for religious holidays. Many students attend colleges where the overwhelming majoring of the student body is Jewish because is it in all fairness, a comforting option.
Jewish students have to understand that attending a secular college is okay. The stigma around the dangers of a secular college is a figment of the Jewish bubble that has spread like a virus. Living as a Modern-Orthodox Jewish student is not an obstacle to overcome; it is a commitment that each individual Jew has to make for themselves.
Sruli Fruchter is a senior at Davis Renov Stahler Yeshiva HS For Boys in Woodmere, N.Y. He is the vice president of his school’s Israel advocacy club, a high school intern for StandWithUs and a fellow for Write On For Israel.