Describing college life for seniors at the Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School, Rabbi Yisroel Porath reached for an extreme example: the raucous end-of-the-year carnival and concert known as RutgersFest.
And while the all-day partying is not a typical Friday at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, it does symbolize the culture clash that many graduates of the Modern Orthodox day school will face when they attend college.
Fellows of an Orthodox educational program on the Rutgers campus, Porath and his wife, Shoshana, spoke to Kushner students on May 4 about that clash and how they might navigate between their religious observance and secular college life.
So what’s a nice Jewish kid from yeshiva to do?
The Poraths don’t advocate rushing to enroll at Yeshiva University or Stern College. Rather, they urge seniors to make healthy choices.
The growth in Jewish commitment may be even greater for students in a secular university than in an all-Jewish environment or in Israel, said Shoshana, “because you are not observing Judaism publicly but for yourself, because you really believe in it. To go to minyan at Rutgers, you have to drag yourself out of bed. No one cares. Everyone else is sleeping. To do that is worth 50 minyans in a religious environment….”
The Poraths provide a haven for observant Jewish students at Rutgers as fellows of the Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus. Sponsored by the Orthodox Union, in partnership with Rutgers Hillel, the program offers classes, Shabbat meals, and fellowship for Modern Orthodox students.
‘Anathema to values’
For many of those students, college will literally ask them on a constant basis, to “go against the flow,” said Yisroel. On Friday nights, when the entire campus seems headed toward the football stadium, observant students will just have to say no.
Others, however, might walk to the game and avoid spending any money or otherwise violating the rules of Shabbat.
But, said Yisroel, that approach raises the question: “Is the challenge to try not to break Shabbos, or to really keep Shabbos?”
Sometimes, retaining an Orthodox identity takes some creativity. Yisroel described one student who created a popular Monday night “shiur and beer,” turning one campus ritual into an opportunity for Torah study. “You can be very creative about how you commit to Torah, to mitzvas, to Hashem,” he said.
The Kushner students — especially those headed for secular schools — had plenty of questions of their own. “What’s your take on interacting with non-Jews on campus?” (Answer: It’s very tricky.) “What about fraternities and sororities?” (Answer: They do some noble things but also some that are “anathema to Torah values.”)
One student challenged Yisroel’s approach to Friday night football, asking what’s wrong with going to a game if in doing so one doesn’t violate Shabbat rules. Isn’t a game “part of the social experience” at college, the student asked.
“You have to decide: Is your identity a Jew at college or a college student?” said Shoshana.
But the student pursued the issue, asking why he couldn’t be “a Jewish college student.”
“It goes back to are you really keeping Shabbos or just trying not to break it?” said Shoshana. “Do you really understand what Shabbos is about and ideally what kind of experience it’s meant to be?”
Some students, like Stephanie Shulman of Springfield, who will attend Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh in the fall, said they thought carefully about most of these issues while choosing a college.
“I’ve thought about these questions frequently, especially kashrut and being able to keep Shabbos and being able to keep the level of Judaism I am keeping now,” she told NJJN.
Another, like Ben Butler from Short Hills — who will spend a year in Israel after graduation and then attend either the University of Michigan or the United States Military Academy at West Point — described himself as more of a seeker. He said he is “looking to find more answers” and wasn’t sure what kind of Jewish life he’d pursue on campus.
For David Amster of West Orange, who will attend Binghamton University-SUNY in New York after spending a year in Israel, the talk was eye-opening. “It showed me there’s a huge culture difference,” he said. “I hadn’t really thought about any of this before.”