Students Respond to the Question: Is YU a Yeshiva or a University?

By: Aaron Shaykevich  |  December 20, 2021

By Aaron Shaykevich, Opinion Editor

This month, the YU Observer sent out a survey collecting the thoughts of YU undergraduates regarding the question: is YU a Yeshiva or a University? A total of 187 students filled out this survey. Quotes were edited for grammar and punctuation. Excerpts of some quotes were taken for length and consistency

If there’s one thing Yeshiva University is famous for, it is its dual identity. As its name implies, YU simultaneously contains characteristics of both a yeshiva (place of Torah study) and a secular university. This evokes a broader question: what exactly IS Yeshiva University? Is it more of a yeshiva, more of a university, or unequivocally both? This is a multifaceted question and one that requires much discussion. The purpose of this article is not to answer this question  but rather to provide some insight into how students feel about YU as an institution, its identity, as well as their thoughts, opinions, and beliefs on what the school is doing correctly versus what may need to be changed.

At YU, undergraduate programming is spread across two separate campuses: Beren and Wilf.   For the women on Beren, there is only one general Judaics program. All core religious and Hebrew classes are taken under the Rebecca Ivry Department of Jewish Studies, which also contains a separate track, called Mechina Pathways, for women to whom “Hebrew language and textual study” may be relatively new. 

For the men on Wilf, there are several different religious learning programs to choose from. Men can join the James Striar School (JSS), the Isaac Breuer College (IBC), the Stone Beit Midrash Program (SBMP), or the Mazer Yeshiva Program (MYP). While the educational directive of JSS and IBC is more inclusive of Tanakh, philosophy, and Jewish history, the SBMP and YP programs on Wilf place a larger emphasis on the study of the Talmud and offer almost exclusively shiurim (Torah classes) in Gemara. The biggest difference, however, between the IBC and JSS programs compared to the MYP and SBMP tracks is the learning structure. IBC and JSS are both classroom-based with discrete courses taught in different subjects throughout the morning from different rebbeim or professors. SBMP and MYP on the other hand are restricted to a single Rabbi and focus more on a chavrusa (learning Torah in a pair) style of learning, which is then reviewed and expanded upon in shiur. The fact that YC offers both programs like JSS and IBC along with programs like SBMP and MYP suggests that YU itself is aware of the different needs of its students. YU recognizes that some are more likely to perceive YU as primarily a university or primarily a yeshiva 

In response to the YU Observer’s survey sent out to students regarding this debate, the majority of students did agree upon one thing: finding meaning in their Judaic courses. For the Wilf campus respondents, 84.9% of students responded that they found meaning in their Judaics courses, while 15.1% responded that they found meaning sometimes. No Wilf students indicated that they found no meaning at all, suggesting a campus-wide appreciation for education in Judaic subjects. There was, however, still some critique for how Wilf handles its Judaic classes. One anonymous IBC student conveyed a feeling of disconnect between the teachers and the students’ needs and commented that “the Judaic classes are not guided towards the students as well as their religious futures. They are simply a stage for the teacher to preach with no regard to the students’ questions or understandings.” Many other students voiced their frustrations that their Gemara shiur does not count towards the Jewish studies requirements. Six students wrote some variations of the plea to “allow YP and BMP to fulfill Judaic requirements.” 

For the Beren campus respondents, the responses were more diverse: 41.5% of Beren students said they found meaning in their Judaic courses, 43.6% said they did sometimes, and 9.6% said they didn’t find any meaning. The remaining 5.3% had other responses about finding meaning in their Judaic courses. The Beren students also had differing opinions on the Judaic courses offered. One anonymous second-year student expressed that she wanted for her Judaic classes to be worth “more credits and [that YU should not] combine them into one class on [my] transcript since [Beren campus students] have to attend three separate classes and want that to be acknowledged.” It should be noted that the policy for Judaic courses requirements has recently been modified and that this anonymous student is referring to the old system. Others disagreed and asked for the classes to be “l’shma [for the sake of learning]” instead of classes having tests, assignments, and grades. Racheli Gottesman (SCW ‘24) expressed that “a seder/shiur structure is really lacking at Stern. This structure allows both relationships between students and teachers [and]. It’s really unfortunate that it isn’t an option.” 

When asked outright, many students had opinions on whether YU is more of a Yeshiva or more of a University. 45.4% of students answered that YU is both a Yeshiva and University, 34.6% answered that YU is a University, and 13% answered that  YU is a Yeshiva. The remaining students gave other responses. A few of these outlier responses highlighted that Beren students and Wilf students have different environments. “I think Yeshiva College is a Yeshiva and Stern is a University,” wrote Gila Linzer (SCW ‘24).

When asked for comments to explain their rationale, many diverse opinions arose. Aaron Singer (YC ‘22) wrote that “it seems that more people suffer through Judaic classes in order to get a degree than suffer through their secular classes in order to learn Torah. Therefore, YU is foremost a University, not a Yeshiva.” This opinion highlights that the question of whether YU is a Yeshiva or University is subjective to each student rather than an objective fact. The Jewish courses and the Judaic core requirements may be considered a burden for some and a blessing for others. This sentiment was shared by another student who expressed, “Multiple factors go into it. Such as what morning program one is in, how seriously each student takes their lemudei kodesh [holy studies], and does the student view their morning program shiur or classes as a primary focus, or is it viewed as something that one is obligated to do because of the institution that he or she attends.” 

Others, however, felt that the matter is much more objective. An anonymous student (SCW ‘23) shared that “having transferred from a public college, I am both exasperated and amused by student objections to Stern’s comprehensive Judaic Studies requirements… YU is nationally acclaimed for its unsurpassed Judaic Studies program. We are the only institution of our kind, and we all had the option of bidding farewell to Judaic Studies upon graduating high school. Let us wear our choices with pride.” This student strongly felt that Yeshiva University is not solely a University and that Judaic courses are an integral part of YU. Eli Schloss (SSSB ‘24) mentioned, “I believe that there are decisions made by the university which have ramifications on the Yeshiva, but the vice versa is not true.” Schloss clearly expressed that YU can be split into a Yeshiva and University, but that the University part of YU is given priority. 

Overall it seems that there is no true consensus between students regarding the question of whether Yeshiva University is more of the former or latter. It appears to some students that YU itself has an identity crisis. As Zachary Notkin (YC ‘24) wrote, “Yeshiva University has never known if Judaic studies synthesize with secular studies or are independent.” At the end of the day, however, the undergraduate students at YU all did indeed choose, for one reason or another, to attend YU. Therefore, most students can acknowledge something within YU that is unique in comparison to other colleges. Yeshiva University exists for students to experience the combination of Judaic classes and secular classes. This topic clearly requires more discussion between peers, Rabbis, teachers, and faculty so that the YU community can try to visualize a clear future for YU.

Survey responses can be found here.