By Talya Hyman, Managing Editor
As a high school senior, I was all about big dreams and big plans without thinking too much about the practicalities of those big dreams and big plans. Yeshiva University was a far away place in my mind while my sights were set on small, artsy schools to help me achieve my then-goal of becoming a fashion journalist. The technicalities of keeping Shabbat and kosher at one of these colleges? I’d figure it out later. One day, I received what I regarded as a rude awakening when before halacha class, my favorite rabbi declared with a knowing grin, “Talya, you’re going to end up at Stern.” I scoffed. But in my heart, I knew he was probably right.
What was it about hearing my rabbi’s words that set my teeth on edge, that made me so adamantly feel the need to prove him wrong? Perhaps it was a need to prove myself wrong. Because to my 18-year-old self, with a limited view of YU culture, the assertion that I was perfect for Stern meant that I was a “Stern girl,” and becoming a “Stern girl” meant fitting the stereotype; a stereotype that echoed through my “out-of-town” high school’s walls. “If you go to Stern all you’ll want is an MRS degree. If you go to Stern you’ll look the same as everyone else. If you go to Stern you’ll be sacrificing a good education just to be around other Jews.” I wanted so much more than to be put in a box, for someone to assume they knew me simply because they thought they knew the university I chose to attend.
What I have come to recognize, however, is that the only box that existed was the one I put myself in. It wasn’t the YU stereotype or others’ judgements of me that I was so desperately seeking to escape. I was seeking to escape my own thinking, my own limited belief system of what I thought becoming a YU student meant: conforming to the crowd and not being able to form my own outlooks, with finding a husband being the loftiest of personal goals. These negative yet skewed associations were what I assumed YU to be. In reality, they were the only true barriers separating me and my goals from my potential. Now, with those barriers and guards down, I am excited to share the YU that I have come to know and love.
Being a Yeshiva University student means being a part of the legacy of our Torah teacher and religious guide Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik zt”l. Being a Yeshiva University student means spending our evenings learning in the beit midrash, or in shiurs led by passionate, learned roshei yeshiva. Being a Yeshiva University student means chanting “mi’shinachnas Adar marbim b’simcha” in the stands of a basketball game, and wearing a yarmulke while dribbling down the court. Being a Yeshiva University student means meeting fellow Jewish students hailing from Teaneck, Venezuela, France, and everywhere in between. Being a Yeshiva University student means opting for more ma’ada than Torah, more Torah than ma’ada, and sometimes achieving an equal share of both.
While YU’s philosophy may be Modern Orthodoxy, it is not a one-size-fits-all model. The Beren and Wilf Campuses are homes of diversity, with students representative of all walks of life, each with their own set of outlooks, values, and expectations for themselves as YU students. Some of my favorite campus memories are moments of displayed friendship between students, regardless of religious leaning and personal affiliation. Women studying together in the caf over coffee, one in a skirt, the other in jeans; men sharing a joke while walking to class, one carrying a stack of seforim, the other without a yarmulke. This is the authentic, expansive YU experience. Yet from my high school vantage point, 117 miles away from the Beren Campus and many more miles away in mind, I was unable to discern the nuances of religious diversity that permeate 34th Street of Midtown Manhattan and the 185th Street plaza in Washington Heights. Modern Orthodox may be the medium descriptor of Yeshiva University’s identity, but make no mistake: it is not the mode. Being a Yeshiva University student, at the end of the day, also just means being a Jew. For that label, there will never be a box big enough.
It is primarily for these reasons that the label of “Yeshiva University student” is now not one that I view as confining to my potential, but imperative to my personal growth. After three years on campus, I feel blessed for the religious opportunities I have had the chance to experience, the fulfilling friendships I have developed, and my personal connection with and to Hashem that I have strengthened. All the while, I have taken challenging, mind-stretching classes, developed analytical skills, honed my writing abilities, and taken part in meaningful extracurriculars.
Reflecting back on that pre-halacha class chat four years ago, I believe that Hashem was grinning right alongside my rabbi. For I can now understand that the declaration that I would become a YU student was not a jab, but a vote of confidence in me as a young, observant Jewish woman. He was not trying to limit my potential, but expand it, at the institution where he knew my personal and religious potential could flourish.
It is only when I stopped resisting the offerings of the institution I would inevitably attend, that I began to believe in myself; as a Yeshiva University student, as a servant of G-d, and yes, even as a “Stern girl.” So, in my final moments of being labeled a YU student, the following is one last sentiment I hope to impart to my readers: The limits you believe to be in place, preventing you from being able to meaningfully move forward to experience your potential, may in fact be self-placed. Boxes, at the end of the day, are only limiting when we grant them power, when we willingly put them over our own heads.
There’s a certain satisfaction I receive in being able to wrap up literature papers and other writing pieces with bows. My conclusion paragraphs are often too-perfectly wound up with one final question for the reader to ponder; a punny phrase or double-entendre driving my final point home. But as I look back on my YU experience while looking limitlessly into the future, I am learning to accept that not all conclusions require neat endings. Not all experiences are assigned with enough ribbon in which to be tightly wound in a perfectly afixed bow. There is so much more to who we are, to what we should be hoping to accomplish for ourselves as YU students, as Jews, and as human beings, than to await that perfect one-liner, that perfect moment when everything sparkles in its clarity.
Maybe, just maybe, the bow is best left untied.