Choosing a College: A Guide for Observant Students

By Rabbi Joseph Polak

National Conference of Synagogue Youth/Orthodox Union

New York, 1999

40 pages

Available through NCSY 212-613-8233

Reviewed by Rachel Adlerstein

Like most of my friends, I remember my senior year of high school as both an exciting and a stressful time.  Whereas previously my biggest life decisions revolved around whether to take AP biology or physics, and what to do on weekends, now real decisions abounded, ones that I knew would affect the course of my future.  Foremost among these decisions was which college to attend.

Choosing a college is difficult for all high school seniors, but particularly so for Orthodox Jews who, unlike their secular counterparts, must seriously investigate not only the school’s academic reputation, but more importantly the feasibility of remaining a Torah-true Jew while living on campus, away from their families and communities.  To aid Orthodox teenagers in making the difficult college decision, Rabbi Joseph Polak wrote an informative and invaluable brochure, “Choosing a College:  A Guide for Observant Students.”  He speaks with the voice of experience garnered from nearly thirty years as the Hillel rabbi at Boston University.

In this brochure, Rabbi Polak candidly asserts that graduating from a secular college spiritually unscathed with one’s shmirat hamitzvot intact is indeed a grave challenge.  Nevertheless, he maintains that it is possible.  He qualifies this statement by adding that it is only possible if, “you are a certain kind of person, and if you choose a certain kind of university,” and if you are aware of, and prepared for, the challenges and pitfalls you will inevitably face.

Based on this premise, the purpose of “Choosing a College” is twofold.  First, Rabbi Polak specifies what type of character traits are necessary to remain observant in a college dorm.  It is imperative to have a strong background in Yiddishkeit, and a sincere unwavering commitment to remain frum, suggests Polak.  Spending a year or two of intensive study in a yeshivah or seminary in Israel substantially bolsters both of these prerequisites.  Additionally, it is important to know your vulnerabilities, “realize that you are not infallible” and, in particular, to be realistic about your ability to stolidly resist peer pressure.  The fortitude to resist peer pressure is especially important, since, as Polak emphasizes, the greatest religious challenges on college campuses occur not in the classroom, but from “your friends: from normal, but nonetheless, extraordinary pressures to conform and to be liked at a time of considerable inward searching and developing on your part.”

Second, Rabbi Polak describes the facilities, services and college environment that best enable one to maintain, and ideally even strengthen, one’s commitment to Torah and mitzvot while at college.  His first piece of advice is that one should not make a college decision without spending a Shabbat on campus.  Over Shabbat one can get a real sense of what Jewish life is like on campus.  While meeting the Orthodox students there, Rabbi Polak suggests asking them about their experiences.  He enumerates a series of questions that are integral to answer before making a decision.  For example:  Are the dorms co-ed?  Is there an option to live off-campus?  Can you get into the dorm without an electric key on Shabbat?  Is there a Hillel House?  Is there an Orthodox Hillel rabbi?  Are there daily minyanim?  Are there shiurim available?  Is there a beit midrash?  Is there a kosher meal plan with a good hashgachah?  Is there a contingency of Orthodox students with whom to associate?  Do these people share a commitment to halachah?

For those who have definitely decided to attend a secular college, and for those who are still deliberating, “Choosing a College” is a must read.  Rabbi Polak’s guide describes some of the very real challenges one is certain to experience on a secular college campus, and presents various questions to honestly and sincerely ask oneself during the decision process.  Remember, it is not worth sacrificing Yiddishkeit for any college, regardless of how prestigious or attractive.  Carefully read Rabbi Polak’s brochure, ask the questions that are posed, and seriously evaluate all the choices before making an important college decision.

Rachel Adlerstein is a senior at Yale University, and was involved in the “Yale Five” lawsuit.

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This article was featured in the Fall 1999 issue of Jewish Action.
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