Like many of his classmates at Frisch, a Modern Orthodox high school in Paramus, N.J., Gil Perl continued on to an Ivy League education. But Perl, now 25 and completing a graduate degree at Harvard, says that when it comes time to send his own children to college, he's not so sure he'll opt for a secular university.
Perl and fellow graduate student Yaakov Weinstein are generating a buzz in the centrist Orthodox community with their attention-grabbing monograph titled "A Parent's Guide to Orthodox Assimilation on University Campuses."
The 11-page guide, posted last month on the Internet, warns of something it alternately describes as "ominous," "tragic," "pernicious," and a "disease": the challenges secular universities pose to Orthodox students.
"A significant number of our children are entering secular universities and despite having received the best our day school system has to offer, despite having had Orthodox values emphasized in their homes, and even despite a year or two of intense Torah study in Israel, no longer consider themselves Orthodox Jews by the time they graduate," Perl and Weinstein write.
Their manifesto--which is being widely discussed among Orthodox rabbis, educators and other leaders--is another sign of the long-simmering fissure in the Modern Orthodox community between those who lean toward the more isolationist approach of the fervently Orthodox and those committed to interaction with the broader Jewish--and non-Jewish--world.
The debate comes six years after five Orthodox Yale students grabbed national headlines for refusing to live in the college dorms because they believed the environment to be immoral.
It also takes place as Orthodox enrollment at secular campuses is believed to be at an all-time high and as Orthodox groups are stepping up their presence on campus.
The OU, which has devoted much of the upcoming issue of its magazine, Jewish Action, to campus life, is also developing materials to prepare parents and students for the political, philosophical and lifestyle challenges of secular campus life.
Ironically, the monograph, which is peppered with examples of licentiousness and other challenges on the Harvard campus, comes as that university has appointed its first Orthodox Jewish house master, a faculty member who lives in the dorms and serves as a residential adviser.
As the monograph (www.people.fas.harvard.edu/~perl/pgindex.html) describes it, the problems on campus include:
Campus Hillels, which the authors claim "often place Orthodox kids in un-halakhic social situations," promote "moral equivalence" about different practices within Judaism, are "inattentive to the religious and spiritual needs of Orthodox students," and foster an environment that "often leads to inter-denominational dating and, as in numerous recent cases, inter-denominational marriage."
While the authors don't say outright that secular universities should be avoided, they suggest that parents and community leaders prepare themselves for campus challenges and encourage children first to study at a yeshiva in Israel.
The pamphlet also urges parents to consider delaying their child's attendance at a secular university until graduate school, when students are less "impressionable," and to think about sending them to a college close to home.
"Students considering public halakhic deviance may think twice in an area in which they are more likely to be recognized," the authors write, "in contrast to those who are off on their own."
Perl, who is writing a dissertation on 19th century Jewish history, freely acknowledges that the pamphlet is not a scientific study but based heavily on the duo's own observations and those of their friends.