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April 9, 2004

Caricaturing Yeshiva U.

Howard Jonas’s unbridled critique of Yeshiva University (“Philanthropist Attacks University for Right Turn,” April 2) expresses in particularly sharp language a growing but simplistic perception of a complex institution. Y.U. contains a broad ideological spectrum of both students and rabbinic faculty, who, on the whole, embody the university’s classic position on combining Torah and general culture no less than they did when I was an undergraduate in the early 1960s. While the percentage of students with an ideological affinity for the more traditionalist yeshiva world is somewhat higher today, much of the supposed move to the right that Jonas and others have criticized reflects a deeper commitment to observance and learning — a development that any Orthodox Jew must applaud — as well as the refusal to embrace certain innovations championed by elements of the Orthodox left. It is hardly fair to denounce an alleged move to the right that is, in reality, largely a commitment to the positions held by the university’s rabbinic leadership, including the late Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, in what Jonas sees as its “decent days.”

Jonas’s characterization of Y.U. as “a place that people pay to get into when they can’t get into anywhere else” is particularly misguided. Of course Y.U.’s admissions standards are not — nor should they be — those of the Ivy League. But I doubt that there is a non-Ivy-League-caliber college in the country that contains a higher percentage of students who could have attended Ivy League schools had they wished. Precisely because of their stellar programs offering both Torah study and a religious atmosphere, Y.U.’s undergraduate colleges attract extraordinary young men and women who could attend any university in the country but instead select — as they should — this remarkable and unique institution.

David Berger

Broeklundian Professor of History

Brooklyn College

Brooklyn, N.Y.

Regarding the article on Yeshivat Chovevei Torah chairman Howard Jonas’s critique of Yeshiva University, if memory serves me correctly, similar stories appeared when the University of Judaism established its own rabbinical program and broke away from the Jewish Theological Seminary. From the perspective of time, both the U.J. and JTS were strengthened by the competition. More importantly, so were the Jewish community and the congregations that these newly ordained rabbis serve.

I suspect that Yeshiva University will be improved by pressure from its “left,” just as Yeshivat Chovevei Torah is assisted by the opportunity to establish itself as a counterpoint to the Y.U.-affiliated Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary. Both will become better institutions as a result of the competition, and the Jewish people will be better served by the absence of a monopoly on Modern Orthodox rabbinic training.

We live in a multiplex culture. No single institution can serve the needs of a diverse community or provide the rabbis that it needs.

Michael Berenbaum

Los Angeles, Calif.

Nurture Polish Rebirth

I was so pleased to read Shana Penn’s recent opinion article “An Overlooked Renaissance” (March 26) about the contemporary Jewish situation in Poland. I’ve been living in Krakow since last year, getting to know the Jewish community here, past and present. I agree that what is happening here is a kind of renaissance, and that it is largely overlooked by the thousands of North American and Israeli Jews who pour through here to visit the sites of Jewish death during the Holocaust. The Jewish community as it was before World War II no longer exists here, but the rebirth that is taking place is fascinating and in need of support and understanding from the international Jewish community in order to ensure that what remains of Jewish cultural and religious life is preserved tastefully and truthfully.

Meanwhile, non-Jewish Poles and those with Jewish roots are latching on to Judaism like never before. Today there are more Polish students in the Jewish studies program at Jagiellonian University in Krakow than there are Jews in this city. All over, non-Jewish Poles are taking an interest in studying Judaism’s roots in their country and, in some cases, converting to Judaism.

Poland still has its share of antisemitism among some conservative Catholics, but among the majority of both young and old the more common response to Judaism and Jews is interest, respect and a desire for dialogue. I am moved on a daily basis by the questions I receive from Poles who wish to connect with and remember this once vibrant and essential part of their country’s history.

It’s time for the international Jewish community to similarly change its views toward Poland. Heritage trips should provide opportunities for participants to appreciate the full scope of Jewish history here, to study current Polish attitudes and, most importantly, to meet with Polish people and get a true sense of their interest in learning more about and engaging with Jews. This is the only way to break with damaging, outdated stereotypes, especially in a world where the traditionally more progressive Western Europe is struggling with unprecedented antisemitism.

We can’t forget the past, but support and understanding from our community are needed in order to ensure that a thousand years of Jewish tradition in Poland, from the shtetls to the cities, is preserved for the future.

Carolyn Slutsky

Krakow, Poland


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