By Sruli Schochet – Los Angeles
Recently, at a farbrengan in 770, Rabbi Yosef Braun spoke some strong words about the perils of attending college and strongly dissuaded anyone from considering such a path. An excerpt of the talk was recorded and the video went viral. This triggered a myriad of debate on COLlive.com and social media.
While some took umbrage to the strong language used by Rabbi Braun, others pondered the merits of his message. Was the Rebbe really against going to college? What about ‘nishtanu ha’itim’ – times have changed – and perhaps the Rebbe would be more lenient in light of today’s uber-competitive job market?
It is well known that for many years there were only a handful of Chabad chassidim with post-graduate or doctorate degrees. I am not referring to those that got their degrees and then later became observant. Rather, I am referring to those that grew up religious and made their way through the yeshiva system, only later to go on to get their degrees. As it happens, my father, Rabbi Dr. J. Immanuel Schochet a”h, was one such person. While many know that he attended college, few people know the background story. I would like to share that here and perhaps shed some light on the matter.
After completing high school in Lubavitch Yeshiva, my father grew a little frustrated and disillusioned with the system (sound familiar?) and wanted to get on with his life, so to speak. At the end of the school year, he planned to go to college. However, at a farbrengan for the 12 Tamuz, the Rebbe spoke strongly about not going to college.
Thereafter my father wrote to the Rebbe that he has plans to go to college and if he does go, he hopes the Rebbe won’t be upset with him (have a ‘kepaidah’ as he put it). The Rebbe responded that “Chas v’sholom for me to have a kepaidah against someone, I am just doing my obligation of trying to help when you see someone going on a path that is not good for them.”
Then on the 20th of Av, the Rebbe spoke an even more forceful sicha against going to college. Upon hearing this sicha, my father felt that with all the special attention he received from the Rebbe over the years, that it would be a public ‘slap in the face’, so to speak, if he so openly defied something the Rebbe was so passionate about.
My father decided to lay low, not talk about it during the upcoming school year and then after the following summer break, he will just quietly go off to college. He told no one about his plans, not even his parents.
Towards the end of the following year, at a Shavuos farbrengan, the Rebbe launched into a sicha about how people go on summer vacation and they think it’s a vacation from spirituality as well. However, they need to stay connected with davening with a minyan and learning their shiurim, as there is no vacation from Judaism.
At the end of the sicha, the Rebbe turned to my father with a big smile and said: “Immanuel, I know that you also have some thoughts how to ‘fix’ things after Labor Day. Forget about it and make l’chaim.”
My father was perplexed as to what the Rebbe was referring. Then the Rebbe said again with a smile: “It’s not going to happen anyway, so make l’chaim.”
At that point, the penny dropped, and my father just burst out laughing. Realizing that the gig was up, he once again did not attend college in the coming year and returned to yeshiva.
It was not until many years later, when he was engaged to my mother, that he attended Teacher’s college in order to get certified as a teacher. Later on, he decided to continue his degree, until eventually attaining his doctorate degree just a few months shy of his 39th birthday.
I think there is no question where the Rebbe stood with regard to people attending college, certainly in their single years. If someone wants to come along and change that status quo, the onus of proof is on them. While anecdotally there may be some specific instances where they Rebbe told or even encouraged someone to attend university, they were by far the exception to the norm. Those are individual directives, from which no inferences can be made, versus the very public statements the Rebbe made on the subject.
There seems to be two main points of contention that people keep raising:
1) What is this whole concern about going to college and this extra emphasis against going to any form of college before a person is married?
2) If I don’t plan on going on shlichus once I am married, what can I do now to prepare myself for the business world at large? Should I just get married and only then be left scrambling for a job?
THE SINGLE’S CHALLENGE
As to issue number one, far be it from me to hypothesize on why the Rebbe felt so strongly on the matter. But I do want to highlight a reality I have seen with my very eyes, that can certainly shed some light on the subject.
Over the last 20 years in business, I have been fortunate to have worked with religious people, both single and married. As a result, I had a front-row seat, as these various people went through their life trajectory. Sadly, the vast majority of the time, the longer the single person stayed single, the further they drifted from yiddishkeit. While the married person went on to have kids and continued steadfast in their ways, the single people struggled with their religion.
Several years ago, I got an enlightening insight as to why. My wife had a conversation with a single friend of hers, discussing her friend’s life choices and the path it had taken. Her friend went from doing chitas and Rambam every day in seminary, to wearing pants and not keeping shabbos. How could that be? What traumatic event occurred that made her alter her life course so dramatically? What her friend shared with her was both informative and heartbreaking.
During the week, everyone is caught up with work. But when there is no work, and especially on weekends, while the married person has their spouse or children to keep them grounded and occupied, the single friend is quite lonely. Furthermore, their circle of friends begins to drift towards other single people, often non-observant or not Jewish, who generally tend to be single at that age as well. With the need of wanting to fit in, over time they start to dress different, speak differently and eventually make compromise after compromise. Before they know it, they are no longer anywhere near the religious observance level they used to once proudly tout.
This is not a modern-day problem, but one that goes back since the beginning of time. The Talmud, when discussing how it is possible for the Yetzer Hara to get someone to serve idols, says: Today he tells you to do this, tomorrow he tells you to do that; and then before you know it, you are serving idols! (Shabbos 105b).
Of course one cannot make a generalization about all single people and all married people. However, there is no doubt in my mind, having seen this happen over and over again with my own eyes, that single people are more vulnerable to this. Therein lies the additional danger for an unmarried person, lacking the strong foundation of a spouse or children to anchor them, that college can potentially expose them to.
Of course, every rule has its exception, and any person, single or married, should consult with his or her mashpia before considering college. The Rebbe encouraged us to consult with our mashpia before any major life decision and this certainly falls under that category.
PREPARING FOR THE BUSINESS WORLD
As for those young people who worry that without a college degree they won’t find a good job, I have this piece of advice to share. Aside from the whole aspect of Divine Providence and putting our trust in G-d, there is a practical thing you can do that will help you on your path to success. Go on Mivtzoim. Lots of Mitzvtzoim. Nothing will prepare you for the business world more than that.
In business, everything is sales. You are trying to get someone to part with their hard earned money, to either buy something they might not want to or convincing them that your product is better that your competitors. You are trying to persuade someone that you are worth hiring and taking a chance on. You may be making a pitch to investors to get them to believe in your company, or convincing a boss about a direction the company should take. You cannot afford to be shy and you need to be tenacious.
During Mivtzoim, you approach strangers, engage them in conversation about doing things they may view as weird or unnecessary. We don’t let up until we can take that tefillin selfie to show our friends of our conquest. Aside from the incredible reward of getting people to do a mitzvah, there is nothing that readies a person for the business world in a more tangible manner. There isn’t a college course in the world that will teach you that skill! As a business owner, I can assure you that this is a much-coveted skill that I wish all my employees had.
As Chabad chassidim, we need to stay true to the words of our holy Rebbeim, in both what was clearly stated, as well as what was inferred. By doing so, we connect ourselves to a level of G-dliness that assures us of the blessings that G-d will bestow upon us. May we all merit to see them in an open and revealed manner, speedly, Amen.