Opinion: The Knock On Secular College For The Frum Student


hebrew_universityBy Rabbi Reuven Spolter, Jewish Star

Your son is ecstatic. He just received a letter granting him admission to the summer program of his dreams; five weeks at the highly prestigious summer science learning program in Maine where he’ll study with noted experts in physics and chemistry; areas of particular interest to him. You’ve been encouraging him to expand his horizons; taking him to scientific competitions and lectures for years, so you find his enthusiasm encouraging.

What about kashrut? Shabbat? Sure, it might be challenging for him to deal with religious observance over the summer. But that’s what real life is about, isn’t it? But then your rabbi confronts you with a troubling statistic: 25 percent of all Orthodox attendees to the summer program drop their Orthodoxy. Despite your skepticism, the rabbi shows you the surveys and it’s true: one-quarter of all Orthodox camp participants abandon Orthodox practice.

Would you encourage your son to go? It’s my article so I can say it: I wouldn’t. After spending so much time, effort, blood, sweat, tears and money on conveying the importance of Jewish life to my children, how could I risk it all on one summer – no matter how enriching it may be?

If you haven’t realized it by now, I’m not writing about a summer program. No, I’m writing about attending secular college.

In a symposium published in a special education issue of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah’s Meorot Journal, Rabbi Todd Berman writes about preparing students to thrive in non-Orthodox environments, specifically secular colleges. His essay focuses on important ways to mitigate the effects of the pressures to abandon religious life on campus, like sending educators from high schools to visit kids on campus; helping students form critical social bonds within the Orthodox groups on campus; and offering valuable courses both in high school and in Israel to help prepare them for college life

All of these represent good ways to help our kids retain their connection to Orthodoxy on the college campus. And yet, I wonder. Rabbi Berman himself states the numbing numbers: “one-quarter of the students who come to college as Orthodox Jews…changed their denominational identity while at college.” (Avi Chai Foundation, “Particularism in the University: Realities and Opportunities for Jewish Life on Campus,” Report, Jan. 2006)

That’s right. One quarter. If twenty students graduated this past June from your local yeshiva high school and headed off to campus, five of them won’t consider themselves Orthodox in four years – after a full twelve years of intensive Orthodox education. What causes this drop off? It’s not the intellectual pressures, by and large. No, it’s the social environment.

The campus culture, while ostensibly “celebrating pluralism,” often lacks tolerance for what is seen as xenophobic tribalism. Orthodox students are sometimes made to feel odd for maintaining religious observance at the expense of partaking fully in the smorgasbord of offered cultural delicacies.

However, both of these issues, while not insignificant, pale in comparison to the social pressures and realities of campus life. As one junior put it, “it is hard to be ‘shomer negi’ah’ when a girl sits down on your lap during orientation.” From the promiscuous parties sponsored by the university to the open support of binge drinking, to the small things like the experience of living in an openly coed dormitory, students are made to feel, as one student told me, odd for not being socially active. A former student once remarked that just as the State of Israel lowered the red line on the Kinneret Sea, pretending that the water level had not yet declined to the danger zone, so do students redraw their own red lines, or even worse, forget why they were there in the first place. It is quite difficult to describe the tsunami of social pressure crashing down on the religiously oriented student. These social pressures, and not the academic or even the cultural, are the most difficult to withstand.

We often overlook this reality by telling ourselves that sooner or later our children will have to confront “real life.” I’m sorry, but the college campus does not represent “real life.” In “real life,” women don’t do the things that go on in universities. In a normal workplace, that would constitute inappropriate behavior. Binge drinking might happen after work hours, but no one forces you to join your coworkers at the bar. In “real life” you can choose your roommates and the values you wish to maintain in your home. Can you do that on campus? In “real life” Orthodox people have the ability to avoid many of these challenging situations – something they cannot do on the college campus, where the parties take place on your floor – and probably right in your room.

Still, we satisfy ourselves with platitudes: “no solution works for every student” and “Yeshiva University isn’t the answer for everyone.”

Of course that’s true. But we then use those platitudes to justify sending our children to terribly dangerous spiritual situations. There’s a world of difference between “perfect” – or a zero percent drop-off rate – and “exponentially better than twenty percent,” Rabbi Berman writes.

More and more yeshiva high school graduates are bound for secular campuses.

I have a simple question: If a “safe haven” exists, why do parents send “more and more” of their children to “unsafe” environments? In trying to offer solutions to a glaring problem, we’re avoiding the elephant in the room, and failing to state the obvious: Secular residential college – any secular residential college – presents a serious and even mortal danger to our childrens’ well-being. It’s just not worth the risk.

Sadly, while many in Jewish education agree with me, no Modern Orthodox educator or administrator can actually say this. Parents would never tolerate an educator who, in their minds, discouraged his or her students from attending college (which they would not be doing; they would only be discouraging them from attending a residential college. Plenty of yeshiva students – both male and female – attend numerous secular colleges during the afternoons and evenings and seem to thrive both educationally and spiritually). Educators do not tell the truth for fear of losing their positions. Even Rabbi Berman seems to play this game.

“It is incumbent upon the community to empower our students to succeed in the college environment,” he writes. “We can achieve this goal if we keep several issues in mind: the positive social networks in place in high school or Israeli yeshiva should be maintained through developing programs for our alumni, refocusing our expenditures of energy on what is happening on the campus, promoting key social networks in college, and being realistic about what we expect to accomplish.”

Which is it? Can we achieve this goal of empowering our students to succeed in the college environment? What then does it mean for us to be “realistic about what we expect to accomplish”? What’s a realistic drop-off rate for Orthodoxy? Fifteen percent? Ten percent?

It’s time for Jewish educators to start speaking the truth: We cannot “achieve this goal.” The college campus promotes values antithetical to Orthodox Jewish life. Those are simply the facts, and we permit ourselves to pretend otherwise at the expense of our children’s spiritual well-being.

So I’ll say it: Please do not send your child to a secular residential college – even one with a strong Hillel and Orthodox community on campus. It’s not worth the risk, and certainly not the benefits. The options truly abound. He or she can attend YU, or Lander – or even college in Israel; he or she can live at home or study in a yeshiva and attend college at night, and still gain admittance the most exclusive graduate schools in the world. Many, many Jewish kids have and continue to do just that.

And while the numbers aren’t perfect, the vast majority of them still consider themselves Orthodox today.

{The Jewish Star}

{Matzav.com Newscenter}


  1. What I am most impressed about Rabbi Reuven Spolter article above, is that he is a Modern Orthodox/Young Israel Rabbi who courageously acknowledged all that he wrote about college.

  2. Why is it that most Americans feel that it is acceptable to have their eighteen year old kids move away from home to study at university? Saying eighteen year olds are emotionally prepared to live away from home is lunacy. Here in Canada people normally stay at home while studying for their undergraduate and even, their graduate degrees. Regardless of whether one is frum or even Jewish, I think having people under the age of twenty-two live away from parental guidance is unwise. I’m telling my kids that if they want to live away from home for university they can, just don’t look for help from me.

  3. This seems to be the wrong forum for this article though. It should be aimed at the more modern orthodox (and being that it first appeared in the Jewish Start, that’s where it indeed was aimed). Matzav.com is more of a “Yeshivish” spin on things, and I doubt the average reader of this site cares to send their children to a secular college (or to any college) at all.

  4. Who says that YU is the answer. Look at the latest events over there What is wrong with living off campus. In many of these University towns there are very welcoming and warm jewish communiites who invite students etc ….

  5. The million dollar question is what took so long to realize what the author of this article correctly points out.

  6. Thank you for stating the obvious. After addressing this loss of Yiddishkiet in the secular halls of Zinus and Tayvos, lets address the issue of Minus and Aprikursus that is taught in these wonderful hedonistic centers of education!

    Modern orthodoxy has many issues of halachah that we dont discuss. It starts with tznius, mixed social gatherings for teens 9and adults), and goes downhill from there.

    Lets say the truth. follow the Halacha. We have Torah true Judaism, or everything else….. giving hem names such as reform conservative traditional chassidic litvish or modern orthodox is truly meaningless. It is Al Pi Torah or not. NO Compromising allowed.

  7. Thank you very much for this article. I did go to a residential college (with a large orthodox population), coming from a “YU”ish background. I certainly didn’t feel the percentage of those leaving orthodoxy was as high as you say, but the percentage of those whose values were lowered, and/or corrupted is probably much higher than 25%. Many students are very involved in “orthodox circles” on campus so they’re not under so much pressure to conform to what’s going on around them. Their friends are usually other frum Jews. But they’re exposed to many things they should never be exposed to, especially at a young, impressionable age.

  8. Thank you for posting this article. As a campus Kiruv Rabbi at Rutgers U in New Brunswick, NJ, I can attest to much of what R’ Spolter wrote about. However, it is unrealistic to expect most (left wing) Modern Orthodox parents to be content with sending their children to YU as this contradicts the (left wing) Modern Orthodox approach to embracing the secular world. Nor would Rebbeim in Modox High Schools be allowed to tell them not to go to secular colleges as they would be fired for doing so. Imho (as I write an article to appear in a modox Jewish paper next week)the Kiruv world needs to get more involved with these students.

  9. Rabbi Spolter,
    Very well written. Yasher koach, you are a source of nachas for your relative (father? uncle?) the honest, hard working talmid chochom and ba’al koreh from Maryland zt”l.

  10. Just curious, with all the kiruv of Chabad on campus and other groups, do they pick up 25% of non-religious students and turn them out religious? Another point: what is the end goal of secular college? Is it to make a better parnassah to support a Torah lifestyle, or is it to enter a prestigious and glamorous career? This would probably make a difference in outcome.

  11. The survey is far too vague to be particularly meaningful, but there’s no question that college campus social life can be (not necessarily must be) very difficult for an Orthodox person to handle, particularly one from a more sheltered “yeshivish” background. While I make no claim that my own college experience was typical, I did not see any of my Orthodox schoolmates go off the derech, with the possible exception of one who was “questioning” his religious philosophy well beforehand. There were certainly personality changes and hashkafic shifts, but I wouldn’t necessarily call those going off the derech (indeed, one of those shifts resulted in a marriage that B”H has been going strong for almost 15 years now)

    There’s no “one size fits all” approach: parents need to be aware of what their children can expect to be exposed to on campus, assess their abilities to handle it, and provide a support network to help them meet the challenges.

    Parents who plan on sending their children to college also need to send them to high schools that can prepare them for it. I personally think that we have a very serious chinuch problem if somebody can’t be expected to spirutally survive a year on campus after 14 years of yeshiva education.

  12. The whole issue is a red herring. if your emuna and bitachon can’t stand up to any real life challenges, what’s it worth? i have a better statistic, in 1700 Poland about 100% of the jews were observant, in 1900, less than 20%. It was not binge drinking or promiscuous girls on campus.
    My point is if it’s not one thing it’s another. Unless you think Yiddishkeit can only survive in isolation, let’s stop blaming outside influences and start trying to strengthen ourselves. The point of the Torah and Torah education, is precisely to know right from wrong and to be able to say “no” under pressure when it’s hard.

  13. #3 I agree with you but what about our young boys who are expected to leave home after bar-mitzvah to attend mesifta’s and what goes on in those dorms!

  14. Don’t be such a pessimist!

    Yes, 25% go off – but 75% stay on the derech!

    I, for one, don’t plan on going to Touro or RIETS when I get out of beis medrash

  15. #19, there it is rewriting history to somehow justify what logic wont. ONLY after WWI did polish jewry face these challenges, yet much more than 20% held on

  16. #21 – has an excellent point. If it’s dangerous to send away eighteen-year-olds, kal v’chomer to send away fourteen-year-olds, even to a yeshiva. How much supervision can there be in a dorm? How can the boy learn proper midos and hashkafos from other kids who are only his own age? And what kinds of trouble can a kid get into without good adult supervision? Drugs are on every street corner, and available in the “nicest” towns, let alone alcohol.

    And then there’s the insanity of sending an eighteen-year-old to Eretz Yisroel to live unsupervised in an apartment with other bochrim. I’ve heard stories…. but then again you’ve probably heard better.

    Young people belong at home with their parents and siblings, not somewhere in a dorm with only other kids their own age for support and guidance. Bring the kids home.

  17. I consider myself an open minded Chassid. I studied in one of the great Chassidic Yeshivos in Israel and I currently attend a prestigious Law School. I’m married with two children B”H, so I run home every night.
    I strongly believe that any Jewish kid who stays frum after four years of college is a miracle. College is the the complete opposite of Torah. We pray every day in davening “Val tiviyanu lo lidai nisyon vlo lidai bizayon” Dear G-d do not bring us to a situation where we would be tested; or to embarrassment. Chassidic Rebbes explain the connection between a test and an embarrassment is that when g-d tests someone it will usually end in embarrassment. Great tzadikim feared a nisayon – a test. The greatness of Avraham Avinu was that he withstood great tests. Mere mortals should not place themselves in a situation that tests their faith- less they be embarrassed. While an education today is a necessity to make a living; living on Campus or attending college before marriage is spiritual suicide.

  18. Correlation does not imply causation: the fact that 25% of Orthodox Jews who go to secular college does not have to mean that going to college is the cause of this; rather, it may just mean that the type of Jews who go to secular college are ALREADY prone to dropping out b/c they’re so liberal to begin with..it’s generally left wing modern orthodox jews who go to secular college

  19. By the way, in halachaik parlance you can call this a “siman” (symptom) vs. a “siba” (cause)..the dropout rate of these students is just a siman of their religiosity to begin with, college is not the siba, not the cause

  20. Re #1 “Judaism & College”

    It’s funny folklore but poor theology.

    The same author, Yosef, wrote
    additional extreme opinions.
    More than bash college and secular
    studies in a cohesive curriculum, he
    even denounced the study of the English

    “Everyone agrees that it would be a
    higher level if we would not have English
    even at HS level.” (Yosef, the author
    posted that on this website 12/9/09.)

    No, it is not true. Everybody does
    not agree with that.

    In fact, most normal people think
    it is a very bad idea. Indeed, most
    people think it is contrary to the
    principle of Torah And Derech Eretz.
    (Halachic authorities prescribe learning
    the language of the country. See
    BT Sotah 36b; Sanhedrin 17a; Menachos

    It is interesting to note that
    Rabbi Hai Gaon among other Gaonim
    taught their children languages.
    (In fact, R. Hai Gaon paskened that
    secular subjects should be taught in
    the yeshiva; others disagree, ruling
    in favor of secular instruction outside
    the yeshiva) Joseph in Chumash,
    Mordechai in Megillat Esther and
    Chachamim of the Sanhedrin were fluent
    in numerous languages.)

    Rabbi Shamshon Rafael Hirsch
    paved the way for us by establishing
    a Jewish day school system which
    combines Torah and secular studies
    within a coherent and consistent
    curriculum. (#1 Yosef in his article
    selectively cited one statement made
    by Rema SH Yorah Deah 246 which
    apparently opposes studying secular
    subjects formally and systematically.
    That ruling might be relevant for
    a Bar-Bay-Rav or a Ben-Torah—not for
    balaybatim. There are other sources
    that favor serious study of secular
    subjects—at least for practical

    Rav Hirsch was “bah-kee” in
    kol haTorah koolah and he mandated
    systematic secular education, which
    would be subservient to Leemud
    HaTorah. (Rav Hirsch explicitly wrote
    about the cultural advantages of
    knowing secular subjects—without
    lewdness and anti-Jewish or
    anti-religious content.)

    We need more religious schools
    offering higher education to our young
    people. For those who attend secular
    schools, there are valid concerns about
    the liberal subculture which promotes
    lewdness and undermines traditional
    values. The Hirschian and Torah Umadda
    approaches, while people can disagree
    about their merits, do not envisage or
    favor the liberal “shmootz”.

    This is why, from a political
    perspective, it is essential to
    conservatives. (Not all Republicans
    are true conservatives.) Of course
    not all conservatives are “tsadikkim.”
    But many of them oppose the same
    “shmootz” in education and society
    which Orthodox Jews loathe.

  21. Yup, it’s right there in the Shma. And yes, I went to Penn (University of Pennsylvania). Question: Who says college is good for anybody, Jew or non-Jew, religious or not? Campus life is antithetical to Noachide law!

  22. 19, in the old days, people got taken in by the philosophy. Now, in a much more superficial age, there are other attractions. Regardless of when, where, and how our kids go to school, we have to make sure that the hometeam is positive, life affirming, and infinitely more attractive than whatever temptations are out there.

    And 25, good for you, but not everyone has the luxury of waiting till they’re married (forget about having two kids) till they embark on serious work towards parnasa.

  23. These dangers can be mitigated by first and foremost keeping people away from living on campus and liberal arts programs and optimally getting married first. I speak as a college student myself.

  24. I am chasidic, married for 10 years i learned in kollel for 5 years, I am attending a secular college for my masters degree i regret that we dodnt have more frum colleges available I would like to see even a frum dental and medical college what happened with the mitzvah of teaching your son a parnassah .I regret going to college without any frum jews.

  25. Living on a campus/dorm is disasterous and a presciption to a life without mitzvah observance. There are many universities that can be attended after a yr in Israel, by living at home or near the school.

  26. We cannot expect teenagers who were thrown into an immoral enviroment to continuously make the right decisions. It is naive to think that teenagers will not be affected from decay and decadence because they grew up in a religious household. Not everyone is Yosef Hatzadik. Even adults can be harmed spiritually when they are surrounded by shmutz a whole day.
    We need more local (no need for campuses) frum
    insitutions that provide more degree options than social ed. and teaching.

  27. Rabbi Spolter has data on the percentage of Orthodox Jews who leave Orthodoxy while in college, but his speculation about the reason(s) is just that–speculation. Why is it that writers of essays such as these (which appear every few years)always blame features of the university or the social environment, or the inability of the students to resist temptation? Perhaps many young people are Orthodox only because of social pressure–perhaps they do not believe in the theology, or they are turned off by the many social problems in the Orthodox world? There are many reasons one might leave Orthodoxy, and early adulthood is probably the first chance one gets to choose his or her own lifestyle. If you think young people are old enough to get married and be parents at 18 or 19 or 20, they are old enough to make their own theological and social decisions.