Yeshiva vs. University: YU’s Institutional Identity Crisis

By: Molly Meisels  |  September 19, 2019

By Molly Meisels, Editor in Chief

Last week, a high-ranking YU faculty member referred to me as an outsider. In describing my position as Editor in Chief of the Observer, he characterized me as a stranger to the system that YU is built on. He said that compared to my predecessors on the Commentator and Observer boards, I am an outlier — I did not attend a Modern Orthodox day school, I did not attend seminary in Israel, and I am not a YU legacy student. He stated that since I grew up Chasidic, attended YU soon after graduating from high school, and am a first generation student, I do not understand how YU works, as I am not part of the YU community. 

I beg to differ. I am very much part of the YU community. 

While YU may have once been a homogenous institution, that is no longer the case. People tend to debate Torah u’Madda, focusing on the controversy of the possibility of combining the religious and the secular. But a more pertinent debate for YU is the Yeshiva vs. the University. These two versions of an educational institution do not work towards the same goals. 

What the roshei yeshiva, administrators, donors, and trustees masquerade YU as, is not what YU is. Yeshivas are prone to being homogenous. They tend to focus on specific religious community-building and many of the individuals who attend belong to similar, if not the same, groups of religious life. While yeshivas focus on making a profit, they are selective in how they do so, as their main goal is to foster their version of religiosity. 

Universities are vastly different. Universities are never homogenous, as they are focused on profit, and capitalism does not foster homogeneity. When you run a university, your goal is to sell degrees. Universities may focus on community-building, but that comes second to growing a student body and growing financially. 

YU is attempting a balancing act between these two institutions. The Yeshiva side represents the roshei yeshiva and the religious figures who exert way too much influence over a Jewish school with declining homogeneity — a Jewish school that should acquire religious figures from across the Jewish spectrum, instead of a narrow portion of it. The current roshei yeshiva have a vision of what YU is — a Modern Orthodox, Religious Zionist institution, which is homogenous in student population, religious life, and social values. But the University represents something else. 

The University promotes itself as a “premier Jewish institution for higher education.” Nowhere in its mission statement does YU state itself to be Modern Orthodox and there is a reason for this. If YU advertised itself as a Modern Orthodox institution, tipping the YU balance to the Yeshiva side, they would lose a large chunk of their applicant pool. To avoid this, and to gain as much profit as possible (as all universities do), they accept those from diverse Jewish backgrounds. But when students who do not identify as Modern Orthodox arrive on their respective YU campuses, they are forced to acclimate to a Modern Orthodox mold or be deemed an outsider. This is the Yeshiva taking root. 

YU is not one thing anymore. It has evolved from the small yeshiva it was over a century ago to become a Jewish institution for higher learning. Yet the Yeshiva is still a dominant factor in the decision making of the institution. So while the University is accepting applicants from all religious backgrounds, the Yeshiva fights back, and the atmosphere at YU becomes one of hostility towards those who did not attend a classic Modern Orthodox high school and whose parents are not in the YU world. 

This cannot sustain itself for long. YU needs to decide. Will it become the University with a yeshiva theme, evolving to meet the advancements and diversification of its student body? Or will it become a Yeshiva, with a university theme, beginning to reject students who do not suit their ideal version of Modern Orthodoxy? Whatever the decision, it will need to be made soon. YU is not what it was in the 70s, 80s, or 90s. YU is is not the institution of its founders anymore. Modern Orthodoxy may have built YU, but it is no longer defining all of the YU population. 

Photo: Image of the early years of Yeshiva University