Should Orthodox Jewish Parents Worry About Sending Their Kids To A Secular College?

Jewish Theological Seminary professor Alan Mittleman wrote in First Things in 2003:

There is a pamphlet making its way, via the Internet, through the Modern Orthodox stream of the American Jewish community. Written by Gil Perl and Yaakov Weinstein, graduate students at Harvard and MIT respectively, the pamphlet presents itself as “A Parent’s Guide to Orthodox Assimilation on University Campuses” and warns Jewish parents of the moral and spiritual corruption that awaits their children should they send them to elite secular universities.

…. Modern Orthodoxy for too long has relied on sociology—familism, solidarity, youth groups, institutional loyalties—instead of intellectually sophisticated apologetics. It has written off the bolder elements of its own Hirschian legacy, let alone any ongoing engagement with modern philosophy, in favor of an increasingly otherworldly fundamentalism. Its synagogues have jettisoned the hoary Hertz Pentateuch, which, to be sure, was florid in its Victorian prose but also honest in its confrontation with modern scholarship, in favor of the rigidly fundamentalist Art Scroll translation. Likewise, Modern Orthodoxy’s immense success in building up a socially vibrant culture in the American suburbs has distracted it from the requisite intellectual task of providing depth and justification for its way of life.

I asked history professor Marc B. Shapiro for his opinion. He replied:

I think it obviously depends on the children. But I attended Brandeis for three years and worked there as the Orthodox chaplain for three years and in all that time I only saw two people who gave up religion on campus. Both were baalei teshuvah (one was semi-Lubavitch) for whom observance wasn’t a long term identity. On the other hand, I saw many people become baalei teshuvah. So to repeat, in my seven years on a secular college campus I did not see one long term Orthodox student give up observance (not one!). My experience is the exact opposite of the pamphlet, in that the secular university was not at all a threat to observance..

What you have a lot of, and this is often confused by the opponents of secular universities, is that there are plenty of people there who grew up Orthodox and are now no longer so. But what I saw is that these people were not observant from day one. In other words, already in high school they had lost interest, and now, for the first time, they were on their own and had no interest in coming to shul. From their first weekend on campus they had given up Shabbat. From the first day at college they took off the kippah. So it is not that the campus turned them irreligious, but for the first time they have the ability to make their own choices, away from their parents, and they chose to give up observance (and will come back later in life). The only time I ever saw these students was on parents weekend, when they came to shul with their parents.

So in general, I don’t think parents need to worry about sending their kids to a secular university if there is a strong Orthodox community there and the child is committed to observance. But again, every child is different. For some kids, sending them to YU will push them “off the derech” (to use an expression that I never heard growing up)..

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been covered in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and on 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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