In Defense Of Secular College

One of my favorite anecdotes about my experience being an Orthodox Jew in secular college is this conversation I had with a girl who went to Touro. At this point my husband and I were working for NCSY and this girl, who was an advisor, was talking to me about her feelings about secular college.

“I just don’t understand why a frum person would not go to a Jewish college. Clearly they don’t care about their yiddishkeit or the future of the Jewish people if they go to secular college and leave the fold, so to speak. That’s why I love working for NCSY. These kids need to know what going to secular college really means.”

“Okay,” I said, trying to remain as neutral as possible, “so people can’t be religious in a secular college?”

“Well, I guess you could be, but you’re not really participating in K’lal Yisrael if you’re leaving it. I mean, you know, you work for NCSY.”

“Actually, I go to FIT. Not through Stern, just FIT. I go to secular college. And I work here, I think I am contributing to the Jewish community,” I said, trying not to laugh.

“Oh,” she embarrassedly, rolled her eyes. She made up some excuse about how she needed to go somewhere else and practically ran away.   

I’m not going to talk too much about the supposed wiles of secular college. After all, I go to a commuter school where I am triple minoring and my major has less than 40 people in it. Mine is not a normal college experience. Design school is effectively trade school. But I get invited to drink, to go to parties. To get dinner. When I was engaged a seedy guy invited me to his apartment to “hang out or something”. I said no.

I don’t go, and while these people are my friends, they stopped inviting me. Because they know I don’t go out to drink. And they respect that. I purposely made the decision to surround myself with peers who were respectful of my decisions and my values.

There is this really cool thing called conviction. It’s goes something like standing your ground when you believe deeply enough in something. I have loads of it, to a fault. Since becoming religious, all I hear about is how young Jews have none.

“If you go to Rutgers you will lose your neshama.” (Verbatim Quote from a popular rabbi.)
“If you go to secular college a good frum boy won’t want to marry you.”
“How can you say no to something when everyone around you is acting a certain way?”
“What are you going to eat?”
“What are you going to do about Shabbat? About Yom Tov?”

The Jewish institutions that provide higher education in the United States are fantastic places where Jews prosper, both spiritually and academically. They are incredibly unique and without them the American Jewish community as a whole would not exist with the strength it does today.

But when I talk to people and they realize I’m a fully functional Orthodox Jew in a secular college, they make excuses as to why I’ve succeeded in maintaining my values.

“You’re a ba’alat teshuva, you knew what the real world was.”
“You’re a really special person.”
“You’re a really strong person.”
“Yeah, but most children don’t have that strength.”

And the unsaid statement there is that somehow my unorthodox Jewish education has better prepared me to be a citizen of the world while maintaining my Judaism than “frum” Jews seem to think they are providing. Which is frightening.

These are ludicrous statements. Since when have Jews not gone through hell and back for their ethno-religion? Why are we not teaching ourselves to be unabashedly Jewish in every situation, not just when it’s comfortable and easy?

Listen, if you’d like to spend the rest of your life in a Jewish bubble, that’s fantastic, if that’s what’s right for you. That being said, that’s definitely not the best choice for every single Jewish person and we have to stop telling young children there is only one way to be a successful Jew. It’s confining and rejects the reality that we are all individual neshamas put on this world to go on the path that most challenges and celebrate our talents and weaknesses.

The Jewish institutions that offer college degrees might not appeal to every Jew, and that’s fine. We should be encouraging and teaching each other to listen to our intuition and critically think about what is the best choice for us- not what the supposed “frum” choice is. We have become so petty we define religiosity by things that have nothing to do with Torah or mitzvot themselves. A person’s relationship with God is much more complicated than “I should surround myself by as many Jews as I can so I could stay religious”. Personally, I find being around other Jews spiritually draining. Being in an environment so different to my own comforts lights a fire in me.

I have lived near a Jewish college for the majority of my secular college experience and I could tell you first hand that a Jewish college does not guarantee frumkeit. A person’s personal conviction and values do. Maybe we need to stop teaching Jews that it’s institutions or communities that will keep you observant when, in fact, it’s dependent only on yourself. Communities can only exist if people are dedicated to continuing them. You cannot just show up to shul, sit in the back, talk the whole time, and call that contributing to a minyan or tefillah. There are so many opportunities across America with newer institutions like JLIC and the classic Chabad or Hillel for Jewish students to interact with a Jewish community on and around their campuses. With technology, being in touch with Judaism and maintaining a standard of talmud Torah is possible. It might be more effort than signing up for classes that you must pass, but since when do we value choices on their ease and not their potential positive impact for that person?

The same goes with throwing children into Jewish college for them only to graduate and [in some cases] need to supplement their four years of education to achieve their goals. Hashem gave me the talents to be capable of going through a four year design school program in a highly rated college, known for getting students careers. There is no amount of comfort in the world that could help me ignore that Hashem gave me these talents for a reason, that I should use them to the best of my ability. College is supposed to be an academic experience- not necessarily a social one. The average college graduate in the United States has over 35,000 dollars in student loans. College is an investment. Luxury colleges with cushy social lives packed into the cripplingly expensive tuition seem to let us forget that college is meant to further our careers and get us parnassa, not give us a social life.  

Besides for that, my college experience has made me a better Jew. Design school has made me a better critical thinker and a more compassionate person. I spend my days thinking about people’s behaviors and how I could use my talents to make their lives better. I have learned how to present my ideas and arguments in an appealing way, and how to sit through conversations with people I strongly disagree with without feeling personally offended. Finally, it has made me a better listener, which is something I have always struggled with.

The past four years of my life have by no means been easy. I spend most of my waking hours on campus, sometimes spending twelve hours a day in classes. It can feel really isolating. It wouldn’t be a normal week of college for me without panicking that I’m not doing enough for myself as a Jew. But guess what? Everyone has those moments. That’s normal. It’s a sign of growth.

Being in secular college has prepared me spectacularly for the goals I have for myself.  Unfortunately that came at the cost of certain inconveniences.  That kosher food isn’t always around, you might spend parts of Yom Tov filled with dread of how much work you’re missing. Unless you live in Israel, chances are the world around you isn’t structured for your Jewishness. And it’s manageable. And it can be powerful, to take a step back from this world you’re immersed in and realize this is really not my own. But I’m here. I’m a part of it. I can succeed here. I have the tools for said success. And above all, Hashem seems to really want me to be here.

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Thank you to Emily Zimmer for helping edit this.