A YU Centrist Orthodoxy Guide to College

About two years ago, when I started this blog a document appeared on Torahweb (a website dedicated to the values of the influential Centrist Orthodox Roshei Yeshiva) that is a great primary document about the opinions of a solid plurality of YU in the last decade. The document reflects the tension between the Centrist Torah lifestyle of study, Yirat shamayim, and family on one side and the needs to have a solid upper-middle class well-paying career on the other. The document is 20 pages long, so here are just excerpts- here is a pdf. I am surprised that in the interim no one has gone beyond mere mention and picked up on for definition or fully discussed the document. I see the document as extremely important for understanding certain segments of the community. (I was reminded of it because I went for mincha yesterday to a group that both produced and is reflective of the document, wonderful people).

A Ben Torah’s Guide to Parnassa

The goal of this publication is to share with current talmidim the insight and experience of bnai Torah who are, b’ezras Hashem, succeeding both in their profession and in other aspects of life. They discuss how to prepare for and succeed in their profession, as well as how to strike a proper balance between hishtadlus forparnassa and other mitzvos. We hope that this will give current talmidim the information they need to avoid the trap of spiritual mediocrity.

Hashem is perfectly capable of making things work out for us. However, He requires that we play by His rules, i.e. we must make a realistic hishtadlus, keep our priorities straight, and trust that He will bless our efforts with whatever success we are allocated each year on Yomim Noraim. One who thinks that it is in his hands to earn a living (“kochi v’otzem yadi” – Devarim 8:17) is delusional. At the same time, one who does not play by Hashem’s rules and expects things to work out on all fronts is severely misguided. Of course, our hishtadlus is not limited to parnassa! We must also make a realistic hishtadlus for having learning time and family time.

Invest in Your Future
There is a common, and unfortunate, desire among bnei Torah to “patter up” college as quickly and as easily as possible. This desire, when examined in the context of a life-long pursuit of shleimus in avodas Hashem, must be seen as nothing other than a powerful atzas Yetzer Harah. The modern economy awards those with higher levels of skills and training. One whose goal is to “patter up” college generally chooses an easy major in college which may not provide professional skills that would be in high demand in the economy.

One who wants time to learn, parent, and properly perform the other duties of a ben Torah, is looking for a better than average work situation and must therefore have better than average qualifications and training. One who “pattered up” college and did not go to graduate school will not be in high demand, and the odds are that he will have to work long hours for the majority of his career to make ends meet, thus eliminating learning time, parenting time, etc. Similarly, in tough economic times, it is easiest to fire lower-skilled employees, as they are easily replaced once the economy picks up again.

The Yetzer Harah dresses himself up in the clothing of “tzidkus” and “hasmada,” telling you that you need to over-extend your learning time for the three or four years you are in college by “pattering up” college. But in so doing he undermines your avodas Hashem for the rest of your adult life.

A talmid who seeks shleimus should invest the time to get the higher level of skills and training that will enable him to command a better work situation and thus more time for learning and other mitzvos. This means taking college seriously and, more often than not, going to graduate school.

Of course, one must also spend long hours in the beis medrash during his college years. After all, if one does not learn to correctly balance learning and college, how can he be confident he will balance learning with working, parenting, and more? A talmid in Y.U., for example, should strive to have at least a full morning seder,shiur, and a significant night seder, coupled with serious college studies that are relevant to his parnassa.

Priorities and Lifestyle
It is the priority of a ben-Torah to follow the will of the Ribono shel Olam as outlined by the Torah and interpreted by Chazal. Our priorities have an enormous affect on all of our life decisions: what occupation to choose, whom to marry, and where to live. As early as high school we start making priority-based, career-oriented decisions that will significantly impact our avodas Hashem, be it our bein adam lamakom (learning, tefillah btzibbur, etc.) or our bein adam lachaveiro (being a good spouse, parent, etc.).

Our priorities determine the lifestyle we would like to live and that lifestyle will heavily influence our choice of occupation. WordNet defines the term “lifestyle” to mean “a manner of living that reflects the person’s values and attitudes”. If our true priority in life is to serve Hashem, we will choose a lifestyle which will deemphasize physical luxuries and allows us time to learn and be good parents. If we choose to work long hours for a high salary while sacrificing growth in learning and time with our children, our lifestyle makes a clear statement (especially to our children) about our real priorities, all lip-service to the contrary notwithstanding.

In order to avoid a spiritually bankrupt lifestyle we must differentiate between comfort and luxury. We need to know what is necessary for the level of yishuv hadaasthat will allow us to optimally serve Hashem and know when we have crossed the line into a pursuit of luxury that will pull us away from serving Hashem.

Personal Accounts
In this section bnei Torah in different professions share their own experiences and approaches to balancing work and other mitzvos. Their accounts include both general advice as well as personal reflections. The general advice gives the reader the facts and insights he needs to make informed career decisions. The more personal reflections provide a glimpse into the decisions these bnei Torah made and into the role of yad Hashem in their careers.

So now, instead of working at a prestigious big firm job with a nice window office in midtown Manhattan with a secretary and access to paralegals and junior associates, I work for a company in a windowless office in a boring office park in suburban NYC and I make my own copies. But I usually get home by 7 pm to help my kids with their homework and put them to bed. At my law firm job, working late into the night was routine. For my in-house jobs, it is a rarity. There is no question that my in-house jobs have provided more time outside the office for family and learning than the big law firm jobs. Not being in NYC also helps since the commute is shorter and there are far fewer people in the office that have made their work their life.

Computer Science
1. Live reflectively. Have a daily mussar seder and some kind of daily reminder (ex – daily alarm on your phone) of why/how you work. Otherwise, you are in great danger of “going with the flow” of the corporate culture. The culture of corporate America is a secular religion, and you need to be strong in your real religion to not get sucked in.
2. If possible, learn daily in a yeshiva. Once “grown up”, one is less likely to accept spiritual mediocrity for himself if he is consistently exposed to the ruach of a yeshiva.

One of the first things I had to get used to was being called by my English name, which I rarely used in the previous 21 years of my life. Although today, with many other minorities having non-English names as well as many frum Jews deciding to use their Hebrew names, going by one’s Hebrew name is much less of an issue now than it was 15-20 years ago. I would highly recommend keeping your Hebrew name since it goes with my overall theme of maintaining your Jewish identity and not being bashful at all about it. (In fact, as you will see, you will be treated with more respect.)

1. You only have one chance to make a statement about how important Yidishkeit is to you. Once you cross the line, it is almost impossible to go back. If you give-in once, you are doomed. I remember interviewing on a Friday afternoon for my current position, the series of interviews dragged on and the fifth one that day, with my prospective boss, was cutting into my driving home time to make Shabbos. After realizing it is now or never, I politely apologized and informed him that I needed to leave for sundown. He completely understood and was actually a bit embarrassed that he might be infringing upon my Sabbath. After I got the job, he mentioned to me what strong moral courage it took to do this and it was one reason why he hired me.

Medicine 1
In addition, given the length of time spent in training, you should not view these years as time to get through as quickly as possible. Typically you will spend your late 20s and early 30s in training. This a critical time for your personal, family, limud hatorah, and ruchniyos development. During this time you will likely see your family begin to grow, and you will be making decisions that will impact you and your family throughout your working life. The portion of your time outside of classes and clinical activities should center around your family, your shul, and/or your frum friends.

People who have successfully [from the point of view of shmiras mitzvos and yiras shomayim] navigated the long training period in medicine have had their social and family life anchored by individuals and institutions who share values they wish to reinforce. Conversely, people who developed their primary friendships with individuals whose values are not defined by Torah were rarely successful in staying frum.

1. Develop a relationship with a rav or poseik with whom you can freely turn to ask sheilos. These will be numerous. Issues ranging from Shabbos to Yichud toMaacholos Assuros and even end-of-life questions will come up. Patients will turn to you with questions that have halachic ramifications. Make sure you pass them on to a poseik.
2. One of the secrets of getting through medical school and post-graduate training and remaining frum is to develop as many connections as possible with thefrum community. If you are male, tefilla betzibur whenever possible is critical. If there are regular shiurim or chavrusos available, take part. Nowadays, if you don’t have a local chavrusa available, set up a telephone chavrusa. If you are a woman, daven in a shul on Shabbos and Yom Tov. Go to shiurim.

Physics / Engineering
“What’s a good Jewish boy going to do as an engineer/physicist?” I cannot tell you how many times I heard variants of the above question from various relatives and friends throughout my years in high-school and college. Now, more than 15 years later, I still hear the same question.

Read the Rest Here and as pdf file here.

10 responses to “A YU Centrist Orthodoxy Guide to College

  1. Yehudah Mirsky

    I know I’m being almost self-parodying here, but I can’t help but note the career options they omit: Jewish education (it’s a career and a profession too), Jewish communal service (ditto), academia (aside from, oddly, physics), public service-gov’t, the arts, and needless to say, Aliyah is just not on the table.
    it’s not only because those alumni are not going to grow your endowment fund. For years I’ve been saying that YU’s fundamental de facto mission is creating an American Orthodox middle class. That’s not dishonorable, but it is what it is. It’s a mix of Litvak ideology (with the intellectual etc strivings channeled in that direction) and Hirschian sociology (without Hirsch’s moral pathos).
    That being said, much of what they write here is sensible, and even, as far as the frameworks go, humane.

    • I agree that this is sensible and humane, and for its audience it probably very good. But I have to say it makes me want to throw up as well. Honestly.

  2. Yehudah Mirsky

    Indeed. By chance today I’m looking again at Heschel’s books on the Kotzker. Enough said.

  3. This document is centrist, but represents the right wing of YU where careers are ultimately about lifestyle and money, and intellectual development and creativity are supposed to find expression in ones religious pursuits and nostalgia for yeshiva. Hence the lack of academia, public service, the arts, etc.

    It also reflects a sense that even day school->yeshiva in Israel->YU leads to significantly different religious trajectories. Some people end up not religious, some end up thoroughly modern orthodox, and only some gravitate to the lifestyle of the yeshiva boy out in the world who evaluates his religious life by the yardstick he was handed in yeshiva (and all three types come out of the same “good” yeshivas, the same majors, etc.) This document speaks to the guy who wants a good job but fears ending up like peers whose religious lives he considers far from ideal. (I assume Jewish ed was left out because that career is thought to involve lifelong religious engagement).

  4. The way I read the document, and its emphasis on taking college and career advancement seriously (as opposed to “pattering up” – has YU become THAT yeshivish?), I see it as an attempt to respond to the phenomenon of kids from centrist families choosing places like Touro, Landerer, and particularly Ner Yisroel, without considering the long term consequences. For that reason, academia, the arts, etc are not considered, but neither is a BTL.

  5. I grew up at a time when there was a sense of fun and high spirits in the culture, in part because of the opposition to the Vietnam War and the general leftist student ferment that was taking place in many countries. I thought, naively perhaps, it was possible to combine parnassah, learning and adventure, and sail through life having a fine time. In the fast track MO world of today it appears even the very smart brilliant people don’t think of play, adventure and excitement; it’s responsibility all the way down. Is this because of an anxiety left over from the post war refugees and survivors of not having everything settled and orderly, or is it a certain pessimism about possibilities? Whatever the cause the externalities to this superego crunch are enormous.

    These straightjacket attitudes carry over to their occupational choices. There is no mention in this document of big bucks, no aspirations to become a Rothschild or a Sassoon, though the document is about parnassah. Business, entrepreneurial adventures, real estate, trading and finance are not foreign to today’s chassidic community, have always been part of traditional Jewish occupations and allow plenty of time with the wife and kiddies. But they lack the same bourgeois cache as a doctor, the job security of an actuary or the respectability of a lawyer. And the outcome is uncertain…they all contain an element of gambling, play and adventure. Tracking people so they never have to take a chance is to my way of thinking bad advice.

    • EJ-
      Welcome back, you have be quiet for long time except for a comment or two about 12 days ago.
      AS- you too welcome back. Home for Pessah?

  6. I have never heard of a reasonable justification for a yid to go to medical school when there be close to 100% certainty that the individual will have to be mechallel shabbos on a regular basis. Even more so for a kohen that will not only dissect bodies but will have to regularly go into hospitals and come into contact with meisim.

    Yeah, once someone is already a doctor there is an issue of pikuach nefesh. But what heter is there for choosing medicine in the first place? Wish I could ask Rambam or Ramban…

  7. While it is more fun to spin fancy theories about the choices made in the document, allow me to suggest a very pragmatic explanation: they wrote about the professions that most of their readership are in and wanted to provide guidance; klei kodesh isn’t there because those people already approach parnassah as avodas Hashem; physics is there to try to break the mold a little and get people to consider non-obvious options.

  8. They could of developed their positions by invoking Historical models that would make it more legitimate .

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