This is how Benjamin Young spent his summer vacation: A tour of Florence. A day trip to Pisa. A museum in Venice. “It was not just a vacation,” says Young, a senior at Yeshiva University — it was his introduction to the school’s new Honors Program.
Young, a philosophy-psychology major, was among 10 YU undergraduates who spent two weeks in Italy in July as part of “The Physics of Galileo and Science and Jewish Culture in Renaissance Italy,” a five-credit course that initiated the university’s program of intensive classroom sessions and demanding writing assignments.
The program, funded by and named for the Schottenstein family of Columbus, Ohio, begins on a fuller basis this semester.
An anonymous donor has underwritten a similar Honors Program at Stern College for Women, which will emphasize leadership training.
About 10 to 20 percent of the schools’ undergraduate students will be accepted after an extensive application process, says Norman Adler, dean of Yeshiva College, YU’s undergraduate division.
The interdisciplinary program will feature built-in mentoring by faculty members, small class sizes and a mandatory senior thesis, as well as summer programs like this year’s separate courses in Italy for YU and Stern students.
“You learned things you wouldn’t learn if you were [only] on a vacation,” Young says of the summer course that included three preliminary weeks studying in Manhattan. His time in Italy included — in addition to daily prayer services and Torah study sessions — lectures, visits to research facilities and scientific exhibitions, and a private viewing at the Jewish Museum in Florence.
Each participant had to read a 5/8-inch-thick compilation of literary excerpts and scientific abstracts. The students’ requirements: A journal, two short papers, and a longer research paper.
“There was a lot of work,” Young says. “I gained a newfound knowledge of a culture.”
The course was typical of the new academic offerings in the Honors Program, which Adler calls “an institutionalization of academic excellence.”
Twenty new courses were created for the program, similar to those offered at several prominent American universities, which is designed as an enrichment of students’ educational experience and a recruiting tool for the school.
“The purpose is to recruit students who might go to other schools,” Adler says. In a videotape, and in one-on-one meetings with prospective students in this country and Israel, the school pitches the more-challenging curriculum as an attraction for Orthodox students with an eye on Ivy League schools or other prestigious universities.
“We’re trying to make Jewish intellectuals,” who combine knowledge of traditional Jewish texts with an openness to a wide range of secular knowledge, Adler says. His goal: “Roshei yeshiva [yeshiva leaders] who can quote Milton; Orthodox professors … at the major American universities.”
“The overall education of every Yeshiva College student will be enhanced by this program,” says Moshe Bernstein, an associate professor of Bible who served on the committee that designed the Honors Program.
Honors courses — which are open to students not enrolled in the Honors Program — in 1999-2000 include “Israeli Foreign Policy Debates,” “John Locke and Eighteenth-Century Literature,” and “Job, Suffering and Biblical Theology.”
The Honors Program requires 108 academic credits, 24 more than other students take, and an extra year on campus. Honors students must complete eight honors courses — basically, one per semester. A student can take more than one honors course in a semester, Adler says, but, considering the workload, “you’d be out of your mind to do that.”
“All students enrolled in the Honors Program will be expected to maintain a comparable level of excellence in Jewish studies,” according to a promotional brochure issued by the school. “Those who fulfill all requirements will have the Honors distinction noted on their diplomas.”
YU, under Orthodox auspices, requires undergraduate students to take essentially a double major, splitting time between secular-oriented classrooms and Talmudic learning in the yeshiva study hall.
Some members of the yeshiva faculty have privately raised concerns that participation in the Honors Program will diminish students’ devotion to Jewish studies or the amount of time many normally spend in Israeli yeshivot before enrolling at YU.
“Whenever you introduce an intensive program which seems to require more work … it’s quite natural that there should be some apprehension,” says Rabbi Zevulun Charlop, dean of the YU rabbinical school. “Dean Adler understands that apprehension.”
“I’m not sure that it’s all borne out,” Rabbi Charlop says of students’ diminished time in the bet midrash. “Often we are surprised that the young men rise to the challenge.”
“I’m already in the bet midrash half the day,” Young says. “My friends and I usually don’t sleep that much at night.”
“There’s enough time,” he says, to maintain his Talmudic studies and take on the added demands of the Honors Program.
The native of Lakewood, N.J., who hopes for a career in academia, says he and like-minded YU students, who also joined the Honors Program, usually “seek out the professors, the courses that challenge us.”
His honors course next semester will do that. Young will take “Psychology and the Religious Experience,” in which Adler will be an instructor.
Each student in the course has to read William James’ “Varieties of Religious Experience” this summer. The syllabus requires a two- to three-page “mini-paper” to be handed at the start of each lecture, an in-class presentation accompanied by a 10-page paper, books by Carl Jung and James Fowler, and further readings of Freud and Piaget.