By Cayla Muschel
Most of us are familiar with the beloved and often controversial YU and Stern Confessions Page, a student-run Facebook page that has ingrained itself into student life here at YU. A few weeks ago, I saw a confession on the page that read, “I’m a FTOC [first time on campus] girl and I feel like everyone’s either way more frum th[an] me or way less and I’m being judged on both sides. How do I fit in?”
That confession stayed with me. I’ve often felt like my niche, my particular brand of Orthodoxy, was subject to judgment from other members of the student body–as one friend put it, it’s as if I had to “perform my hashkafa (level of religious observance)” to prove that it was there. I didn’t want to be seen on campus wearing pants, for fear that my religious classmates would assume I was less religious. I also didn’t necessarily want to use religious language that I generally do use, for fear my non-religious classmates assume I was more religious than I was. Clearly, I am not the only student to feel this way.
The balancing act we perform as participants in an Orthodox university results in some inevitable divisions between more religious and less religious students; those on the right and the left. The very existence of an Orthodox university is a tall order. Orthodoxy is not a precise mold, and the school is bound to attract people from different walks of life who will not agree on how we should be living life as Jews. Yet these differences of opinions do not have to result in a polarized campus.
We are a university; we are not homogenous. That is not a bad thing. YU should not be an extension of the Modern Orthodox high schools many of us attended. These high schools (my own beloved alma mater included) can serve as safe cocoons of growth in an insular religious setting, but when we graduate, we graduate from that cocoon as well. Attending YU is an opportunity to receive a college education in an environment that promotes Torah values. College should be a place of freedom and exploration, and university-level education comes with necessary exposure to the outside world.
One past YU Observer article asked if YU will become “….the University with a yeshiva theme, evolving to meet the advancements and diversification of its student body? Or….a Yeshiva, with a university theme, beginning to reject students who do not suit their ideal version of Modern Orthodoxy?” I say we can do both; maintain the crucial values of the institution (which may not always align with our own) while still recognizing that this is a university, and attending university means welcoming diversity of practice. We can be open minded–not necessarily toward people’s religious customs, but toward people.
If one searches for the word “frum” on the aforementioned Confessions page, the results yield mostly speculations and judgments of others’ “frumkeit” (often associated with potential matches). We have inherited a culture of judgment based on perceived “frumkeit”, but who are we to evaluate the religiosity of others? What are our criteria? The way someone dresses, the way someone speaks–these are not reliable measures of a person’s connection with God. Our religious values also include community, middot (moral upstanding), and engagement with Judaism. On the university website, there is a section called “Visions and Values”, enumerating five “Torot”, or principles. YU’s third principle states that we believe in the “infinite worth of each and every human being.” Our frumkeit is worth less when we violate the commandment of v’ahavta l’reiacḥa kamocḥa (love your fellow as yourself), and engage in destructive and judgmental behavior. Just as God accepts us, so too should we accept one another.
Let us continue to work on forming a cohesive community while embracing our differences. We are a spectrum, but we are united by our desire to learn and our desire to engage with Judaism. It is remarkable that so many of us hail from different parts of the world, different communities, and come together. We have beautiful libraries and Batei Midrash (spaces designated for studying Torah) filled with people learning–even during a pandemic! It is evident that our shared religion has the potential to unify us, not divide us. Let us allow it to do so. Isn’t that why we’re at YU?