June 17, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

Response on College Guidance

I have tremendous respect for Michael Courtney, longtime college guidance counselor at SAR and hard worker on behalf of Jewish students at colleges everywhere, regardless of their high school. In his leadership role in CAJUE (Counselor Advocacy for the Jewish University Experience) he has helped in myriad ways to make more colleges more accessible to Orthodox students, from arranging for the SAT to be held on days that were more convenient to Yom Tov observers to rallying opposition to antisemitism on campus, and everything in between. Many times I have sought his advice or help on behalf of my students and he is always generous and forthcoming.

I also agree with a lot of what he wrote in last week’s article, “Insights from College Guidance in the Wake of October 7” (November 30, 2023). Jews have every right to a “seat at the table” at selective universities. We have our share of superior students and they certainly have no less of a right to the outstanding education and opportunities offered at our most prestigious universities. As a teacher of U.S. history, I have dreamed of the opportunity to sit in a class taught by Eric Foner at Columbia or James McPherson at Princeton, and I have always encouraged my school’s alumni at universities such as those to take advantage of those learning experiences.

Michael is also correct to be proud of the institutions created on college campuses such as Chabad, Hillel and JLIC, who serve our children and make Jewish life possible at the campuses where they operate. They do a great job, but their continuing effectiveness requires a steady stream of active Jewish students to lead their efforts and enliven their programs, and so Michael is also correct in fearing their demise if our community decides to no longer encourage its students to enroll at their campuses.

The positive effect of Orthodox Jewish presence at universities, led in many places by SAR alumni in whom Michael is justifiably proud, is undeniable. We should acknowledge and celebrate the Kiddush Hashem created by their presence there, in their frequently successful efforts to improve the campus and learning experience for their peers, Jew and non-Jew alike.

Michael’s most compelling argument, to me however, is that if we choose to abandon secular university then the antisemites win. They will have successfully driven the Jews out. And therefore, he argues, now more than ever we should be sending our students there to stake their claim and assert their rights.

And yet this is exactly where I disagree. Despite everything he says, I cannot get past the fear of using our most precious assets, our young and impressionable teenagers, as shock troops in this struggle. Why must they be subject to the trauma experienced currently on so many campuses? Why must they fear to walk with a kippah on the quad, or even to display a mezuzah on their dormitory doorpost? Why must our demand for equality and our fight against antisemitism be carried on the backs of children? And even if the current wave of antisemitism wanes, there will always be challenges that make Jewish life on campus difficult at best.

And regarding the positive effect of our students on the campuses they attend, I am reminded of the powerful analogy suggested by the incomparable Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, zt”l. I was present when a student at a yeshiva in Israel asked him whether it would be a good idea to attend a secular university in order to be a good influence on the non-Jews and non-religious Jews there. He said this was similar to the instructions offered at the beginning of a flight. The attendants always instruct that in the event of a loss of cabin air pressure there will be masks that fall from the ceiling to provide oxygen. Those who are traveling with children should make sure that their own mask is properly secured before attending to their children. Similarly, argued Rabbi Sacks, young adults should first secure their own Jewish education and community before attending to the needs of others.

Yes, let’s demand the right of all interested and qualified Jewish students to attend the most selective universities. And yes, let’s support those who enroll and do what we can to make life for them as happy and comfortable as possible. But let’s not encourage them to take advantage of the opportunity. Instead, let’s advise them to spend these four critically formative years in the embrace of a friendly and nurturing environment and leave the “real world” to when they’re a little older and they’ve had a chance to grow a thicker skin.

Murray Sragow

Director, College Guidance

MTA/YUHSB

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