Tensions of Torah Tours

By: rami levin  |  December 6, 2022

 By Rami Levin

“No irresponsibly hitting hot-button issues,” the document read. Dov Pfeiffer (YC ‘24) and I had just gotten our respective Torah Tours assignments, which included a list of community-specific rules. This particular rule was for Pfeiffer’s assigned community in the Midwest, which appeared exceptionally wary of firebrands. 

After Yom Tov was over, I texted Pfeiffer to ask how many “hot-button issues were hit”, despite the document’s caution. “All of them,” he said, and explained how at every meal, his hosts would ask him about controversies plaguing Yeshiva University. “I managed to get into YU controversies you’ve probably never even heard of”, Pfeiffer added. He laughed, I laughed, and we mostly forgot about it. It was a minor rule and Pfeiffer wasn’t the one to bring up the topics, anyway. 

But it was a rule. Someone in charge felt it was important not to discuss “hot-button” issues, created a rule prohibiting them, and ultimately, it failed because it was unenforceable. 

There is an old saying: rules are meant to be broken. On Torah Tours, it seems, that some rules are hardly relevant at all. Sometimes, like in Dov’s case, it’s harmless. Other times, however, it is downright dangerous.

Official Torah Tour by-laws require all participants to abstain from drinking anything alcoholic over the two days of Chag. It’s an understandable rule, with certain notable abuses previously occurring. It also just wasn’t followed. 

I’ve talked to several Torah Tours participants about this. Some admitted to having a l’chaim at kiddush. Others mentioned meals where alcohol was generously served. And in at least one circumstance, there was a case of underage drinking.

The anti-alcohol rule was violated, but there will be no repercussions, backlash, or punishment for the students, community members, or Yeshiva University leadership. No one is interested in making a fuss. 

Students, myself included, are unwilling to “snitch” on each other. Community members either are unaware or indifferent. And the YU leadership wants to maintain the pristine image of Torah Tours participants as righteous, chaste, and pure-hearted volunteers who are there to sing and dance (and promote YU as a college option). Chas v’shalom, God forbid, that news should come out that should tarnish the reputation.

YU is willing to accept Torah Tours participants drinking– quite a lot of drinking, really. Until somebody becomes seriously ill, and it is a matter of when, not if, students can keep drinking all Yom Tov long.

In hindsight, this should have been obvious from the beginning. The Torah Tours orientation, despite strict warnings against alcohol,  fell short of addressing an issue I’m sure everyone faced: what happens when (not “if”) a host offers alcohol? For me, it was at every meal. My hosts would repeatedly offer me alcohol to make Kiddush on. I internally panicked, trying to quickly recall what the official Torah Tours policy was on Kiddush drinking. I couldn’t remember– because there isn’t one. It was an issue that was entirely glossed over, in favor of just threats against drinking in general.

I cannot imagine this was ignorance. It’s impossible for the Torah Tours leadership to have simply forgotten a scenario like this. Was there a deliberate policy decision to not have any guidance for students who have hosts offering alcohol? Suggesting so feels like a conspiracy theory, and suggesting not feels like a sharp accusation of gross negligence.

YU can continue to parade Torah Tours as an ideal of modern orthodoxy, an example of the Core Torah Value™ of Chesed, and the paradigm of religious human volunteering. But for students like me, there is no amount of marketing that can wash away the tensions of Torah Tours.