First Things RSS Feed - Naomi Schaefer Riley
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Sat, 01 Aug 2015 00:00:00 -0400Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids edited by meghan daum picador, 288 pages, $26
Thu, 01 Jan 2015 00:00:00 -0500The New Class Conflict by joel kotkin telos, 230 pages, $29.95
Sat, 01 Nov 2014 00:00:00 -0400A few weeks ago, I found myself speaking about interfaith marriage at a Reform synagogue in a wealthy suburb of New York. I’ve given many of these talks since the publication of my book on the topic,
’Til Faith Do Us Part: How Interfaith Marriage Is Transforming America.
During the Q & A session, a woman whose daughter had recently married a non-Jew started a familiar speech. She kept saying to me and the other audience members, “There’s nothing you can do. Your kids will go out and meet all sorts of people. They love the diversity.”
]]>Home Not Alonehttps://www.firstthings.com/article/2012/08/home-not-alone
Wed, 01 Aug 2012 00:00:00 -0400 The Accordion Family: Boomerang Kids, Anxious Parents, and the Private Toll of Global Competition
by Katherine S. Newman
Beacon, 288 pages, $25.95
Wed, 01 Feb 2012 00:00:00 -0500 Faith and Money: How Religion Contributes to Wealth and Poverty
by Lisa A. Keister
Cambridge, 254 pages, $27.99
]]>A Generation Detachedhttps://www.firstthings.com/article/2011/11/a-generation-detached
Tue, 01 Nov 2011 00:00:00 -0400 Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood
by Christian Smith, with Kari Christoffersen, Hilary Davidson, and Patricia Snell Herzog
Oxford, 296 pages, $27.95
]]>A More Public Yeshivahttps://www.firstthings.com/article/2004/01/a-more-public-yeshiva
Thu, 01 Jan 2004 00:00:00 -0500 The investiture of a university president”that is, the ceremony in which the authority and symbols of that office are first conferred”is a celebratory occasion, but it must also be an anxious one. The responsibility for leading a large educational institution has always been tremendous, but in recent years, the duties of fundraiser and legal expert have been added to those of scholar, teacher, adviser, and public figurehead. Since taking office last year, for instance, Harvard president Larry Summers has proposed overhauling the core curriculum, signed on to a Supreme Court brief on affirmative action, publicly feuded with a prominent professor over academic standards, suggested returning ROTC to campus, and announced a several-hundred-million-dollar building project in a neighboring town. But despite Harvards overwhelming size and influence, it may be that Richard Joel, the newly invested president of Yeshiva University, has a tougher road ahead of him than Summers.
Yeshiva, which was founded in 1886 as a small house of Jewish study on the Lower East Side, has since become a university with almost three thousand undergraduates and more than four thousand graduate students in its seven graduate schools all over New York City. The prominent Albert Einstein College of Medicine, the Cardozo School of Law, and the Wurzweiler School of Social Work, along with the highly selective Yeshiva College for Men and Stern College for Women, have combined to give the university a rank of fortieth in the
U.S. News & World Report
national survey, the same as Boston Colleges. Certainly, many of Yeshivas students and faculty are wondering what Joel will do to continue his predecessors legacy in making the school more competitive: How will Yeshiva bring in the best professors? How will it attract the Orthodox men and women who can attend Ivy League schools with big Jewish student programs instead? What will induce students to stay on campus on the weekends? Where will all the money for these improvements come from?
As interesting as those questions may be, they are not the most difficult. Yeshiva is also the flagship Orthodox Jewish university and the only major Jewish university in the country. The Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary supplies a high percentage of the countrys rabbis, and graduates of the Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education fill American Hebrew schools and Jewish day schools. Given the amount of influence that Yeshiva University has over the future of Jewish life, it is hardly surprising that the selection of Joel, only the fourth president of the university in its 117-year history, was a contentious process.
Indeed, the search for the new president lasted almost three years and considered candidates such as Dov Zakheim, the current Undersecretary of Defense (who withdrew from the running when a furor erupted over his lack of qualifications for the position), and Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the chief Orthodox rabbi of England. Ultimately, the universitys trustees decided that Richard Joels experience as president of Hillel (an international foundation for Jewish campus life), Bronx assistant district attorney, associate dean of Yeshivas law school, and parent of three Yeshiva grads would make him the right man for the job. But if there was any doubt in Joels mind about all of the competing factions with which he would have to contend in setting out a new direction for the university, the investiture ceremony on September 21, 2003 should have settled them.
The sight of hundreds of professors in full academic regalia from Yeshiva and other institutions of higher education and learned rabbis in their dark suits and hats standing on the sidewalk waiting for the ceremony is a formidable one. As they process into the packed auditorium (overflow seating with a video feed is provided in the room next door) the small ensemble in the front of the room plays Pomp and Circumstance as well as the Ode to Joy.
The secular music selections are followed by a decidedly religious invocation from Rabbi Zevulun Charlop, dean of the seminary. While acknowledging the various ways in which Yeshiva has changed since its founding, Charlop proudly notes that it has stay[ed] the course. He notes that the refusal of the original institution to be subsumed by the American melting pot has created a stronger institution, one that still resonates as surely as ever with the sounds and excitement of Volozhin [the home of the Lithuanian yeshivas], the model and progenitor of the idea of yeshiva for the last two centuries. Charlop speaks of the need to bring the divine and unchanging message of our faith . . . to every nook and cranny of Jewish life.
The message may be unchanging but, as Stephen Trachtenberg, the president of George Washington University, who offers greetings at the investiture on behalf of the university community, cannot help but point out, the messenger is now different. Joel is the first president of Yeshiva who is not also a rabbi. Trach-tenberg, whose words for Joel are kind if religiously tone-deaf, finds Yeshivas choice similar to that of Georgetowns recent installation of a lay president. (Loud whisperers from the row behind me hope he is wrong.) Trachtenberg notes that both institutions were looking for the best person for the school as it is today. Though Trachtenberg is himself Jewish, he is more concerned with Yeshivas academic reputation than its religious identity. So he applaud[s] the departure of Yeshiva from the tradition of having a president with a rabbinical degree.
The reaction of the secular studies faculty to having a non-rabbi in the head position seems similar to Trach-tenbergs. Those who teach the humanities, social sciences, and hard sciences at Yeshiva College and the Sy Syms School of Business are quick to emphasize that Yeshiva is not a religious college at all. Some of the secular faculty may see the ascendance of Joel as a sign that they need not worry about the administration trying to bring religious ideas into secular disciplines”a move, they believe, that would impinge on their academic freedom.
The reaction of the religious faculty to this departure from tradition is less enthusiastic. Some of the more rightward-leaning rabbis, who see religious studies as the primary reason for attending Yeshiva and secular studies as a necessary evil, worry that a lay president might send the wrong signal to students about the relative importance of the two sides of the school. According to the
, many of these rabbis and their student followers recited Tehillim [Psalms], a prayerful response to times of crisis and danger, in anticipation of Joels election, while 15 percent of respondents to the school papers survey believe Joels presidency will be a disaster for Yeshiva. To make matters more complicated, some of the centrists on the university and seminary faculty worry that Joels lack of a rabbinical degree will prevent him from garnering enough respect from the religious leaders of the school to keep the former group of rabbis in line.
In fact, there is reason to believe that unlike his counterpart at Georgetown, Joel will not be leading Yeshiva down the path toward secularization, or even maintaining the current separation between religious and secular education. Joel is not only strictly Orthodox himself, but he spent his fourteen years as president of Hillel trying to bring a greater level of observance and Jewish learning to a generation of Jews at secular colleges and universities. (During Joels tenure, the annual budget at Hillel increased from $14 million to $52 million and the organization opened twenty-six new facilities.) Nor is it likely, given the respect he seems to command in the Orthodox community, that the more extreme rabbis will be able to ignore his leadership.
Of course, Joel was not picked because he was the most religiously learned of the candidates. As the presence of New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg at the investiture suggests, Yeshiva is trying to take seriously the role of its graduates in public life. Most scholars agree that the Orthodox world has undergone a shift toward greater insularity in the last two decades, the result both of more young men and women studying in Israel at borderline fundamentalist yeshivas and of a secular American society that seems more and more hostile (in its popular entertainment and legal separation of church and state) to religious Jews.
Joel is a man who clearly feels a strong commitment to public life, both Jewish and secular. His legal expertise was not only put to use for the people of New York during his years as assistant district attorney in the Bronx, but two years ago, Joel presided over a commission investigating the sexual misconduct of Rabbi Baruch Lanner, the director of the National Conference of Synagogue Youth, the Orthodox Unions educational arm. The report not only forced the Union to come clean about the misconduct but also about the three decades of cover-ups by high-ranking staff that surrounded it. Joels investigation, which rejected the idea that these matters should only be discussed within the Jewish community, eventually led to Lanners prosecution and conviction.
Discerning the Jewish communitys relationship to American public life is only one part of the equation, however, as Israeli Ambassador Daniel Ayalon reminded the investiture audience. He noted that so far two thousand Yeshiva alumni have made their lives in Israel. Plenty of Reform and Conservative Jewish leaders in America have recently suggested visiting Israel or buying its products as a way of supporting its economy during these difficult times”indeed, the secular Mayor Bloomberg receives a standing ovation when he mentions his recent trip to Israel in which he visited some victims of suicide bombing attacks”but the pitch to pick up and move there is unusual outside the Orthodox community.
Here, among Yeshiva families, though, there are young men and women who have no plans to stay in the U.S. a moment after graduation, who are here only to get their degrees and have little or no commitment to life in America. Joels own son recently made
. But the question of how a Jewish university in America talks to its students about Israel”should they give up their safe lives here and put their families in danger in order to ensure Israels survival in this time of crisis?”is another one that Joel will have to face.
By the time Joel begins his own address, more than an hour into the ceremony, he seems anxious about the duties that await him and impatient to get started in fulfilling them. Taking off his academic cap and adjusting the yarmulke underneath, Joel, a large man with a deep, friendly smile, recalls the journey that has taken him to this point: a father now passed away, who left Vilnius for South Africa and then America, his own bar mitzvah forty years ago to the day, his education under the tutelage of various members of the audience, the rearing of his own six children.
Mostly, though, Joel talks about Yeshivas future. He announces particular steps toward a better university: a genetic research facility at the medical school, a more active campus life for undergraduates, a more student-friendly administrative attitude, higher standards for secular subjects, an extensive community service program, a stronger professional education component at the seminary, more faculty who are devoted to both religious and secular learning, an expanded student internship program in Israel, and more interdisciplinary contact across the school. He also adumbrates the vision behind these disparate initiatives.
]]>Quality with Soul and Religion on Campushttps://www.firstthings.com/article/2001/11/quality-with-soul-and-religion-on-campus
Thu, 01 Nov 2001 00:00:00 -0500 The nations Roman Catholic bishops have recently approved procedures for certifying that theologians teaching Catholic theology at Catholic colleges do in fact teach Catholic theology. While the decision was decried by some as an assault on academic freedom, the bishops explained that they were only trying to stem the sort of widespread secularization of higher education that has affected Protestant schools. Though many observers had already recognized a secularizing trend in Catholic higher education, James Tunstead Burtchaells seminal 1998 book
The Dying of the Light
was the first work to thoroughly document the widespread loss of religious identity in Americas Christian colleges and universities since the 1960s. Reporting not only on faculty members dwindling sense of religious commitment, but also on administrators laissez-faire attitude toward student behavior, and students diminishing respect for religious authority and alarming lack of knowledge about their faith, Burtchaell issued a wake-up call to those interested in the future of Christian higher education.
Now, three years later, several observers are revisiting the issue. Robert Benne, a professor at Roa noke College, agrees with Burt chaells fundamental premise. But in his new book,
Quality with Soul
, Benne presents what he believes to be the exceptions to Burtchaells rule, describing six schools that in his view have kept faith with their religious traditions. The schools he examines”Calvin, Wheaton, Valparaiso, Notre Dame, Baylor, and St. Olaf”have all managed to combine academic rigor with a seriously religious education both inside and outside the classroom.
Benne identifies several key ad ministrative policies that can make or break a schools religious identity. Calvin College, for example, is supported by a network of tightly knit and highly disciplined churches and a system of elementary and secondary schools. Both the financial and moral support of the founding church and a ready supply of students who strongly identify with the faith are important components in the fight against secularism, not least because they help to guarantee financial security, the lack of which, according to both Benne and Burtchaell, has been a factor in the secularization process. In order to compete with secular rivals, many religious institutions have built expensive campus facilities and devoted precious resources to attracting famous scholars with little to no commitment or loyalty to the schools religious identity.
Benne points out that once the religious commitment of a schools faculty wanes, it begins to lose its religious character. The issue is not restricted to religion or theology departments, the areas recently addressed by the Catholic bishops. Rather, Benne emphasizes the importance of the entire facultys involvement in the integration of faith and knowledge. Wheaton College (an interdenominational Christian school in Illinois), for instance, requires all new professors to participate in a Faculty Seminar in Faith and Learning, which introduces them to the religious mission of the school. During their second year, faculty must attend a weekly seminar covering such topics as The Biblical and Theological Foundations of the Christian Account and Christianity and the Liberal Arts.
Quality with Soul
also details the importance of administrative involvement in student life. Benne praises the in loco parentis role of school authorities at Notre Dame, for instance, where dorms are segregated by sex and an extensive system of rectors enforces the university rules regarding alcohol use and visitation by members of the opposite sex.
While Benne offers numerous useful observations about how schools can maintain their religious identities, he goes a bit far in seeking to provide his readers with a recipe for success. The result, unfortunately, is a certain amount of pseudoscientific oversimplification. For instance, his graph, on which such factors as ethos and public rhetoric are plotted against such categories as orthodox or intentionally pluralistic, is not terribly illuminating.
Bennes largely theoretical work is complemented by another new book,
Religion on Campus
, which paints impressively detailed pictures of four colleges. Although the authors (Conrad Cherry, Betty A. DeBerg, and Amanda Porterfield, professors at Indiana University, the University of Northern Iowa, and the University of Wyoming, respectively) are academics, they have written a journalistic rather than an academic study. In an effort to explore whether secularization has, in fact, become the order of the day in higher education, the authors spent a few months at each of four schools, which are, somewhat oddly, given such nondescript aliases as South University and North College. They interviewed faculty, students, and administrators, and attended classes and meetings of campus religious organizations. The result is a colorful and useful portrait of the role of faith in the life of these schools.
The first school, a large western state university, is the only officially secular school discussed in the book. It has a plethora of religious organizations, including Catholic and Lutheran ministries and a Hillel Jewish student center. Each of the schools numerous religious groups has enjoyed a certain amount of financial stability ever since the Supreme Court handed down its
decision, which held that religious organizations had to be treated like any other student group when university funds are distributed. Nonetheless, the authors conclude that the state of religion at WU may be summed up in economic terms as healthy supply and weak demand. Despite the best efforts of the school, whose administrators do not at all seem averse to religious activity on campus (group prayers, for instance, are permitted before athletic events, and the admissions office passes along names of applicants who report religious affiliation to the appropriate ministry), only about 10 percent of the student body is involved in organized religious activity on campus.
What is more interesting, the authors point out, is the kind of religion practiced by those students. Many religious organizations have submitted to student demands that they cut back on formal services in favor of support groups, retreats, and community service activities. At a certain point, it becomes hard to discern any distinctive religiosity in the activities. During a weekly meeting of the Wesley Foundation (a United Metho dist group), students do take communion, but most of the meeting involves singing folk songs and chatting about the challenges of campus life. In answer to the leaders question How can we keep the spark of God burning inside us this week? the responses included Im a vegetarian and thats religious to me, Smile, and Take time to be quiet and alone. Another student who is active in the (Catholic) Newman Center, calls herself a spiritual junky, citing as an example her experience of turning out the lights in the room with a male friend and listening to an Indigo Girls CD.
Spirituality, as opposed to participation in organized religious rituals, is a major presence at the other schools the authors visit. At East University, a Catholic school, the university chaplain told the authors, Catholicism comes across as being about rules and regulations. But undergraduates are at a time in life when theyre not really interested in rules and regulations. So the school often goes outside the Catholic tradition to stimulate student spirituality. About 30 percent of the incoming freshmen participate in a two-day retreat modeled on the idea of taking the Indian brave into the forest away from the tribe in which students are taught to recombine and reconceptualize the elements of their lives. Similarly, when the authors asked the student government president at South University, a historically African-American college, whether students were religious, he answered, No, but most of them are very
. While the students at South University, North College, and East University attend church to varying degrees, many of them talk about their personal relationship with God as largely separate from their religious community and particular denomination.
To their credit, students do use their religious groups to organize community service events. At East University, they volunteer at soup kitchens. At North College, they boast one of the highest numbers of graduates entering the Peace Corps. And at South University, students serve as counselors at a center for battered women.
But students dont really need campus ministers in order to accomplish community service, or to achieve what they regard as a personal relationship with God. As a result, the role of religious leaders on these campuses is unclear. At North College, the ministers make more of an attempt to befriend the students than to serve in an authoritative capacity. There the authors attended a Jello wrestling match between the college pastor and the dean of students. While the event was organized to raise money for charity, the question of whether it was worth the demeaning activity seems not to have crossed anyones mind.
And while students have little idea of what constitutes religious practice in their extracurricular lives, the attempt to teach religion in the classroom seems even more muddled. At the state school, the answer seems easy: teach about all religions but avoid presenting any one faith as superior to any other. But at East University (the Catholic school) the administration and faculty seem confused. On the one hand, although there are numerous non-Catholics [among the faculty] representing a wide spectrum of religious belief, the consensus in the religion department seems to be that it extends the presumption of truth to the Catholic religion. But, on the other hand, two-thirds of the students taking classes in the theology department reported that their professor did not advocate any religious perspective. Some of the religion courses seem academically rigorous and religiously serious, but in another a student reported that during the first week back from Christmas break class time was devoted to hugging each other and finding out how we were.
Although there is much concern among administrators and faculty members at the religious schools that professors will be too biased when teaching about Christianity, professors of other world religions (usually hired by the schools to instill diversity in the student body) do not have any qualms about proclaiming the truth of their religions. While Karen Cassidy, who teaches the History of Christianity at North College, calls herself a historian whose topic happens to be religion, Sinad Banik tells his classes that he is a Hindu scholar rather than simply a scholar of Hinduism.
While the commitment to teaching religious diversity is quite strong at the state school, the Lutheran college, and the Catholic university, it is not much of an issue at South University. And with the exception of one or two professors who organized religious emphasis week (during which representatives of other world religions were brought in for a few sparsely attended lectures) there seems to be remarkably little controversy about this. In some ways, the schools overwhelmingly African-American population gives it an advantage that other religious schools used to have. That is, the religiously homogeneous character of the student population permits faculty to teach Christianity in the classroom and encourage its practice on campus without the fear of offending many students. The authors describe the unself-conscious way that religion is still practiced at SU: