Would you play a game of Russian roulette with a gun that has four chambers, one of which is loaded? What if we agreed that if you survive, you get a million dollars -- would you now be willing to play? 75% chance of a million bucks vs. 25% chance of certain death... I know what you're thinking: "Do I feel lucky?"
I think most people would agree that relative to the potential fatal consequences of losing, 25% is a pretty high risk to take, no matter what the potential rewards.
A local Jewish newspaper ran an editorial last week criticizing the choice many make to attend secular college. The challenges posed by the environment of a secular college, both ideological and in terms of shmiras mitzvos, present a danger for Jewish youth, especially for those who dorm. According to some studies as many as 25% of those who attend such colleges leave the fold. This week came the predictable letters to the editor in response justifying that choice. Here are some snippits with my reaction:
"I think most people, would look at a seventy-five percent retention rate and be overjoyed."
I guess some people just always see the glass as half-full, but is 1 in 4 Jews leaving the fold really something to be "overjoyed" over?
"...That is almost certainly more a product of an inferior elementary and secondary education than the result of the permissive atmosphere that sometimes prevails during college."
First of all, who cares what the cause is -- bottom line is that a 25% attrition rate is unacceptable. But let's grant the letter writer's assumption -- Dear principals of HALB, HAFTR, HANC, etc., what does a 25% attrition rate tell us about the state of modern orthodox elementary and secondary education which encourages and condones choices that lead to these abysmal statistics?
"Then there were some famous rabbis who studied before the war at the University of Berlin — Rabbi Soloveitchik, Rav Hutner and others."
And your child is the next R' Soloveitchik? And U. of Penn is just like Berlin before the war?
Does the letter writer really think R' Hutner would condone dorming at a secular college? And might it not be a good idea to first emulate the learning of R' Soloveitchik and R' Hutner and then have a debate about secular college?
"Finally, there is a growing fundamentalism and conformity in the Jewish colleges, which does not encourage intellectual growth."
Indeed, your child may go to yeshiva and be brainwashed to learn Torah, be more shomeir mitzvos, and have lots of yiras shamayim. Better to take that 25% chance of his/her becoming an apikores than chas v'shalom risk him/her becoming a chareidi.
For some people, there is no question that secular college offers an advantage that YU or Touro do not. If your heart is set on a career in engineering or science and were accepted to MIT, you would be setting yourself up for disappointment if you turn that offer down and pursue some lesser educational option alongside yeshiva. But by the same token, one is setting oneself up for religious failure if one thinks that study at secular university can be grafted onto avodas Hashem without sacrifice and challenge. Relishing the situation and portraying it as somehow superior to full immersion in a Torah environment is naive and misguided. And truth be told, it's not just the university, but the secular workplace as well which poses challenges, and it requires constant reinforcement of Torah values to emerge spiritually unscathed from the daily grind.
The Noam Elimelech uses the image of the yonah and the raven from Parshas Noach to reflect upon two different types of personalities. The yonah emerges into the world, "v'lo matzah manoach l'kaf raglah," and it finds no resting place. These are people who simply disdain all that the physical world offers and want no part of it, but that is certainly not the path for the masses.
The raven is called an "orev," a name which shares the same root as "ta'aroves," a mixture. Most of us lead a life where we try to balance a mixture of different interests and responsibilities, some secular, some religious. The raven emerges and travels "vayeitzei yatzo v'shov," darting away from the ark but then returning, constantly repeating the cycle again and again. For those who choose to engage in the secular, the key to spiritual survival is to emulate this process -- engaging in the secular world, be it for the sake of work or education, as required, but then immediatly returning to the safe haven of the ark.