“It’s times like these that I wish I went to Stern,” my friend Laura says, referring to Yeshiva University’s Stern College for Women. I’m confused. Laura has one side of her head shaved, the other dyed pink. She’s majoring in women’s studies with a minor in sociology. That is to say, she hardly fits the mold of the typical Stern girl: denim skirted, physical/occupational therapy major, enthusiastically – if naively – Zionist, thinks of herself as modern because she’s up to date with Grey’s Anatomy, named Sarah/Chava/Rebecca, depending on which part of Teaneck she’s from. I ask her which part of the Stern experience she suddenly feels she is missing out on in our bucolic public state school.
The homogeneity? Or perhaps the religious paternalism?
“The chagim, dude, the holidays.” Laura explains: “I have two choices here: I can either go to my classes, stay up to date with my work, and maintain friendships that don’t exclusively revolve around Chabad or Hillel. That way I get to be a real student,” her eyes sparkle a little, “almost a real American even.”
“Or?” I ask.
“Or,” Laura says, the spark her eyes held fading, “I can go to shul and avoid the guilt. I can avoid lying to my parents about keeping Chag. I can actually have a meal in the Sukkah. With all the Jews.”
Classic PDSGD – Post-Day School Guilt Disorder.
But in seriousness, the dilemma Laura and I face is not uncommon. For all observant Jewish college students, this season is one of reckoning: Am I a student or an observant Jew first? How much school work can I comfortably miss or delay? How much can I compromise on my observance?
Though difficult, these questions encapsulate the experience of being an observant Jewish student at a secular university, bringing to mind the Soloveitchikian notion of ‘dialectics without synthesis.’
What is a college student to do? Sadly, many have taken the easiest path: totally sacrificing one identity for another. This response is intellectually and morally cowardly – no matter which singular lifestyle you choose.
But the battle cry of balance has lost favor, leaving the proponents of harmony between Torah and this worldly obligations few and far between. On an institutional level, there are those who argue that the move to the right in Modern Orthodoxy has given up on the notion of balance. The Modern Orthodox flagship institutions, critics claim, have prioritized Torah over Mada and Derech Eretz, privileging religious insularity over scientific study and intellectual honesty.
Yet the quest for harmony reigns on among young observant students at secular universities. It would be simplistic and too convenient to dismiss Laura’s and my dilemma as the battle between assimilation and Yiddishkeit. In other words, I think the questions and decisions Laura and I face every day are real and worthwhile.
True, upholding traditional observance during this season is often academically taxing. Tishrei is not very conducive to keeping a good attendance record. The tension in values is palpable. But the quest for balance is nothing new. As Tevya claimed, each of us is in a precarious position, fiddling away on a rooftop, trying to scratch out a pleasant, simple tune without breaking his neck.
I value being an observant college student in a secular university – it’s an incredibly rewarding experience. The mere fact that my struggle concerns whether I should go to class (to learn about the construction of gender in 19th and 20th century Europe), or go to services and lunch at Chabad, is mind blowing, given the scope of Jewish history. Previous generations likely couldn’t comprehend the privilege we take for granted in having access the world of academia, ideas, and knowledge.
More so, the tension is often enriching. To struggle with Jewish and this worldly responsibilities and aspirations represents the complexities of an honest, thoughtful, ultimately meaningful approach to both Judaism and modernity.
Michael Snow is a junior at Binghamton University where he is studying philosophy, English, and Judaic studies.