At the University of Maryland, home to one of the country’s largest Jewish student populations, tensions among the denominations can arise. Yet Jason Felder, president of the Orthodox student group, managed to bring folks together, and on an ordinary Saturday night, no less.
Under Felder’s leadership, the group, Kedma, rented out part of the university’s gym and invited the entire community out to play.
Time was, Felder, as a Modern Orthodox Jew, wouldn’t even have attended the University of Maryland, much less played dodgeball with Klal Yisrael, or every kind of Jew.
But these days, Orthodox students like Felder are bypassing Yeshiva University, Modern Orthodoxy’s flagship institution, for both secular and more traditional options. Enrollment at YU has fallen 8 percent between 2008 and 2011.
Lander College for Men, for example, opened in 2000 to capture the growing market of students looking for a school that was more traditional than YU. Today, it enjoys exactly that perception among many rabbis in the Orthodox world, said Josh Wise, assistant principal at the Rav Teitz Mesivta Academy, a yeshiva in Elizabeth, N.J.
“Lander’s is perceived as a little more yeshivish,” or rigorously Orthodox, he said. “I’m sure the level of learning is the same, and the scholarship of the rebbes is similar. But kids coming back from Israel [where they attend yeshivas post-high school for a year or two before college] will tell me that they will be encouraged to go to Lander rather than YU.”
As YU decreased in enrollment, Lander’s colleges for both men and women grew. Marian Stoltz-Loike, dean of the women’s school, sees her enrollment reaching 500 students within five years, from about 300 now.
“I chose here over another Jewish college because you’re not a number here,” said Ariela Moskowitz, a Lander junior who, like many of the students there, said she was drawn to the school because of its warm, intimate atmosphere.
Rabbis hand out their personal phone numbers, and several students raved about the lengths the administration will go to help them secure coveted internships. Work experience is crucial to these young women, who could become the breadwinners of their families while their husbands remain in yeshiva.
On the secular side, Orthodox students have even more choices. According to the website of Hillel, the Jewish campus organization, 98 colleges have full kosher meal plans.
Increasingly, Modern Orthodox students have decided that YU’s emphasis on beit midrash study is too similar to high school life, where they spent a full day in the classroom, said Jackie Rockman, director of college counseling at the Yeshivah of Flatbush.
“You would think YU would be more popular,” she said. “We’ve had many meetings with them to talk about ways we can enhance the relationship between our schools, but the number of students who are interested has just declined.”
Of course, finances play a role in students’ choice of college, particularly in the last few years. It cost $50,000 to live and study YU this year, compared with $23,000 at Queens College for New York State residents and about $23,000 at Lander College for Women.
Felder, now a senior at Maryland, didn’t even apply to YU, although he turned down Johns Hopkins University because its Jewish community wasn’t big enough.
The influx of Orthodox students at secular schools has created some complications. Hillel professionals have worried that the dominance of Orthodox students complicates outreach to the less affiliated, said Rabbi Ilan Haber, who runs an Orthodox Union program that helps students navigate life at secular universities. And many in the Orthodox world worry that secular education will cause its students to become less religious.
“The lack of a solid, fervent commitment to Yiddishkeit can cause many, especially those who attend secular universities, to eventually shed Torah observance entirely,” wrote Rabbi Steve Burg, who runs the Orthodox Union’s youth group, the National Conference of Synagogue Youth, in an article titled “Keeping Our Kids on the Derech [Path].”
But attending secular schools inspires many Orthodox students to take responsibility for their own Jewish lives, and those of their communities, said Rabbi Haber, who himself attended YU.
“I would describe myself as Modern Orthodox,” Felder said. “All the values I grew up with were just that, what I’d grown up with, and I wanted to find out if they would have meaning to me … I think you have more of an opportunity to do that at a secular college.”