I am just a mere two weeks away from finishing my undergraduate career at UCLA. Although I will be attending graduate school at UCLA next year, pursuing a one-year Master’s degree in religious history, I feel that now is an appropriate time to reflect on what I have gained from my college experience.
Four years ago, as my year in Yeshiva was ending, I was extremely pressured to attend Yeshiva University– so much so that I highly considered giving up my longtime dream of attending UCLA. The last few months of my year in Yeshiva were filled with daily conversations with different Rabbis, each trying to convince me why it is an imperative to attend YU in the upcoming fall. Each conversation was filled with a new horror story of why secular college was nothing short of evil and antithetical to all things religious. Due to the fear that my Rabbis imposed on me, along with the fact that almost all of my good friends would be living in New York the following year, I had become convinced that I needed to go to YU. However, my parents had other plans. After many long and heated arguments, my parents were thankfully able to convince me that I should at least give UCLA a shot. Reluctantly, I showed up to UCLA in the fall with the dangers and horrors of secular college, freshly brainwashed into my head.
My first few months at UCLA were nothing short of disastrous. I would spend my days and nights alone learning in the Beit Midrash, afraid that any new friends would be a negative influence on my Judaism. Accordingly, I was hesitant to join any student groups, sport’s teams, or go to any social events. I initially came into UCLA as a math major, but soon realized that I needed to switch to an easier major that would allow me to spend more time learning Talmud. I decided on Cognitive Science, a major that just made the cut as legitimate and “Sciency” enough to keep my parents happy, but easy enough that I would have ample time for learning.
My first two years in UCLA I must have spent an average of 8 hours a day learning. This is by no means a testament to my ability to have balanced learning with the rest of my life; rather, it was my life. My entire day would be based around learning. I would bring a Gemera to most of my classes, learning while the teacher was lecturing; I would bring a Chumash to any social event into which I was dragged, and quietly learned on the side; I finished my homework as quickly as possible to allow more time for learning. I even enrolled in a Smicha program, learning Hilchot Shabbat for hours into the night. It became somewhat of a joke among my friends who had actually attended YU, how much more I was learning compared to them.
However, it is not for this reason that I am glad that I attended UCLA (although I can safely say that my Torah learning would have not been nearly as much if I went to YU). In the last 2 years of college I learned so many invaluable lessons, that would have never been available to me had I turned down UCLA. Towards the end of my second year of college, I decided to double major in Jewish studies. To be completely honest, the first few Jewish studies classes in which I enrolled were for the sole purpose of obtaining easy A’s, fulfilling all of my general requirements, allowing me to spend even more time learning. However, after about my fifth Jewish studies course I realized two things. 1) I was only a handful of courses away from a double major and 2) my professors knew a lot more than I would have thought.
As I became more interested in my academic Jewish studies courses, I switched from days filled with learning Talmud to days filled with learning Jewish Philosophy and History. I began to step outside of my bubble of fear and began to embrace the college world. I began to value my secular courses, both the Science and the Religious ones, always trying to learn as much as possible. I joined many student groups, meeting new people, and coming into contact with new ideas and philosophies that I would have scoffed at just a few months before. I spoke at and even helped run discussions revolving pluralism in the Hillel community and interfaith events in the wider UCLA community – talking to people of all sorts of backgrounds and beliefs. I was able to rehash many of my lifelong hobbies soccer, rock climbing, and hiking. While this transition was not easy, it was an important and necessary one in my college experience.
Had I gone to YU, I would have been a completely different person. Had I gone to YU, I would know less Torah, science, history, and probably less about every other academic discipline. Instead, I am graduating UCLA with having learned computer programing, neuroscience, psychology, philosophy, general religious history, Jewish history, and having learned almost a third of Shas, along with a comprehensive, in-depth knowledge of Hilchot Shabbat. Had I gone to YU, I would have been trapped in the ridiculous dating world that is plaguing the Modern Orthodox community in New York, creating unnecessary stress and pressure amongst all its captives. Instead, I was able to naturally meet a girl in college, date without the help of third-parties, cut out all the superficial nonsense that goes on in the YU dating world, and get engaged to the love of my life.
Had I gone to YU, I would still have a closed minded view of the world. I would probably be enrolled in YU Smicha, with homogeneous peers, never taking time to challenge my own thought processes and beliefs. I would still be skeptical of science, thinking that it is an anti-religious endeavor, and I would not respect or even consider any other philosophies that do not jive with an Orthodox view of the world. I would still consider Reform and Conservative Judaism to be dangerous entities that must be stopped, and think that people of other religions and atheists were either evil or stupid. Instead, I have branched out, trying to talk to as many people of different backgrounds as possible in my search for trying to understand the world. I have even decided to attend graduate school this upcoming year to study of religious history, hoping to eventually becoming an educator in the field.
Attending YU would have been the worst mistake of my life from a social, educational, and religious standpoint. By attending UCLA, I was able to grow in ways that would have been unthinkable, had I been stuck inside the small, religious bubble, deep inside Washington Heights.
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