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How to spiritually Survive College

Michal Eisikowitz

To earn an undergraduate degree, some girls go straight from the hallowed halls of seminary to secular college campuses. Alumnae share how they handled the philosophical challenges, the halachic issues, the socially awkward moments — and graduated with their religious identity intact.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

college classroomOn Rachel Bachrach’s first day of college, she instinctively stood up when her secular professor walked into the lecture hall. Then she remembered — she wasn’t in Bais Yaakov anymore. “It was like, ‘Note to self: You’re in college now. And this woman is not necessarily the type of person who I want to stand up for,’” Rachel recalls.

Even for a girl who considers herself worldly or open-minded, the secular college environment often induces profound culture shock. The sights, the sounds, the smells — they are (thankfully) unfamiliar to girls who have frequented more hallowed halls until then.

“The challenges of secular college boil down to two categories,” says Rabbi Jeffrey Greenberg, director of the New York NCSY for 20 years and currently dean of Ateres Naava seminary, in which capacity he counsels numerous young women in college. “There’s the hashkafic aspect — the problematic philosophical content and subliminal messages that surface in many courses — and the social aspect, such as the crossing of gender boundaries, and the immorality in language and action.” A few months in secular college, Rabbi Greenberg asserts, can erode carefully developed sensitivities that a girl has worked on for years.

So why do students put themselves in the situation in the first place?

Some girls — or their parents — feel strongly that secular college programs are more authentic, and provide a better education. “My father and mother were set on my attending Barnard/Columbia because of the academic caliber,” says Mindy Hilewitz, who now teaches in several seminaries in Eretz Yisrael. She ultimately convinced her parents to allow her to spend her second year at Stern as a transfer student (on condition that she’d still graduate from Barnard). “Ironically, I think I was more intellectually stimulated at Stern. In Barnard, I was so spiritually defensive, so preoccupied with maintaining my standards, that I couldn’t allow myself to enjoy the education.”

According to Rabbi Greenberg, other girls opt for secular colleges because they have a subconscious need to enter the “big, wide world” and experience the “real thing.” On a practical level, girls living out of town don’t always have viable frum options, and girls aiming for more unique careers (like biologists, doctors, or lawyers) may have to seek programs beyond frum borders.

For most girls, however, financial considerations are the biggest factor. Though frum programs do offer academic scholarships, for those who aren’t eligible, or for those who receive only partial scholarships, places like Brooklyn College or Queens College are far more financially feasible. “I had a full scholarship to Queens College, plus the commute was an easy bus ride away or a longer walk on nice days,” says Rachel, who attended a frum program in a different town for one semester before transferring toQueens.

Whatever the considerations, due to the many potential pitfalls, every girl should ask her rav if she should attend secular college, frum college, or no college at all. It’s not a decision to make alone.

If the final decision is to attend secular college, what factors should be taken into account when choosing a program? And how can students triumph over the philosophical and social stumbling blocks that complicate everyday life on secular campuses?


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