Reprinted with permission from The Jewish Week

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.

Chabad recently received funding to expand the number of shlichim, or emissaries, it sends to campuses, and the Orthodox Union-supported Jewish Learning Initiative has placed young Orthodox couples on six campuses to promote Torah learning and serve as "lifestyle role models."

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:

  • "The Onslaught of Ideas," such as that "the Genesis story is a myth," ancient Israelites were never enslaved in Egypt and anti-Zionist sentiment;
  • Jewish studies, in particular scholarly biblical criticism that suggests the Bible was written by humans;
  • An abundance of sex, drugs and alcohol. Harvard residences halls, for example, host "lingerie study breaks" and "pornography clubs."
  • 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.

    "My greatest hope is by doing this, we'll encourage people to go out and study this and prove us wrong," Perl said in a phone interview from his home in Bergenfield, N.J. "We're not out to cause trouble, but from what we've seen, we feel if people study this they'll see there is a real trend here."

    Weinstein is studying physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

    The two young men's views are generating a range of responses.

    Richard Joel, the former international director of the Hillel movement and the newly installed president of Yeshiva University, called Perl and Weinstein's pamphlet "alarmist" and said he strongly disagreed with its characterization of Hillel.

    The pamphlet "approaches with the philosophy that the outside world is dangerous and beware. That's never been my philosophy," Joel said, adding that he disagrees with the notion that "chances are if you're Orthodox and go to [a secular] campus, you're going to end up becoming a secular humanist."

    Yeshiva University, Joel said, should not be seen as a haven from the dangers of secular university. Instead, it should be a place for those who "believe that during the college years it's important to have a very focused curriculum devoted to increasing Jewish learning" and see "a particular value in continuing to surround yourself with people who primarily share your worldview during the undergraduate years."

    "If a person decides he doesn't want to put himself in an environment where Jewish learning is at the center, then I think there are campuses where you can maintain your lifestyle and get many benefits of university life," he said.

    Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, executive vice president of the Orthodox Union, conceded that the pamphlet might be "a little alarmist," but said there is "no question that we're dealing with a significant problem [among] Orthodox kids with strong Orthodox day school educations and post-high school experiences, [whose] commitment is eroded when they get to the college campus."

    Should Orthodox students only attend Jewish institutions like Yeshiva University?

    Rabbi Weinreb demurred, saying college is an "individual choice" and that there are pros as well as cons to secular universities.

    "Realistically we're not going to see thousands of kids from our community who choose secular colleges...give that up. It's incumbent upon us to provide the support system necessary to respond to those kinds of challenges."

    Rabbi David Lebor, a teacher at Yeshivat Shaalvim, a post-high school yeshiva program in Israel, said the pamphlet should be "required reading" for parents and students.

    "Everyone would agree that this is clearly a dangerous religious and spiritual situation," Rabbi Lebor said. "No parent would complacently put his child in a clearly dangerous physical situation, why do the same in a dangerous spiritual situation?"

    But Jonathan Stein, a doctoral candidate at the University of Pennsylvania who lives in Manhattan now, said the pamphlet's authors seem to expect college students to be more virtuous when it comes to prayer attendance and sobriety than the average Orthodox adult is.

    "From my perch here on the Upper West Side, I would venture to guess that not more than 10 percent of Modern Orthodox Shabbat morning shul goers show up at a daily minyan," Stein said, adding that "the same goes for drinking in a community where shuls have to consider banning hard liquor because the adults in their community can't drink responsibly."

    Adam Katz, a senior at the University of Maryland who is a graduate of the Hebrew Academy of the Five Towns and Rockaway, said that attending a secular university "enhances" his beliefs because "I know I can keep up my Judaism but in a different environment."

    "I love the university, and it also gives you chance to talk with people from other religions," he said. "They're not going to change me--they wouldn't, but you get to learn about other religions, similarities and differences. It's a great experience."

    Although he said "everyone bends a little bit" at college, the only people he has seen leave Orthodoxy are those who were never very enthused about it in the first place.

    "For a lot of kids, when they're growing up their parents want them to go to a Jewish high school and observe the laws, and when they come to college and are on their own, they just don't want to do it anymore," Katz said. "I haven't seen kids who were really into Judaism and then came to college and forgot about it."

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