A Penn alumnus, gives advice to high school students on how to best transition from a gap year in Israel to life in college.
The feeling was all too familiar; it started as an anxious pit at the bottom of my stomach and slowly spread. We had all eaten Shabbat lunch together in the Hillel’s dining hall, and now everyone was breaking off into groups to hang out until Minchah. It felt like watching the cafeteria scene from Mean Girls unfold in real time, as I could see what I assumed to be cliques and social groups forming. There were the engineers, the Wharton business crew, the artsy types and many more groups forming around shared interests and outlooks. As I sat there, I could feel the anxiety swell, knowing that there would be no “shana bet” group forming anytime soon.
That first Shabbat at Penn, I felt alone. Not because people weren’t friendly– they were. Everyone was eager to meet the new Freshmen and form new friendships. I recognized the warmth and hospitality being offered, and appreciated the effort, but as one of only a few shana bet yeshivah students to ever go to Penn, I felt profoundly on my own as I looked around the room.
My social anxiety was fueled by my religious identity, blurring the boundary between social and religious loneliness. Religiously, having just spent two years in yeshivah, I came to college with a mindset and a religious model that was very much defined by a specific time and space. My goal for college was simple; I wanted to recreate my yeshivah experience. I had a schedule planned where I would learn six to eight hours daily between classes. When I wasn’t learning or studying, I hoped to find people and experiences that felt “yeshivah-like” to preserve the religious passion I had found in Israel. What I didn’t realize was how this mindset had closed me off from many people and events that would later prove integral to my happiness in college.
“Take advantage of the support and advice offered by older students. Navigating religious life with a new social environment and heavy academic burdens is not easy. But thankfully, many people have done it before and have tips and insight.”
That first Shabbat, feeling out of place and alone, I took solace in the one outlet I had brought with me from yeshivah–learning Torah. I went to the beit midrash and planned to learn there alone. However, when I got there, I was pleasantly surprised to see I was not alone at all. There was a group of upperclassmen already in the beit midrash learning. Some of them I recognized from yeshivah and high school, while others I had yet to meet. Ultimately, what I thought would be a lonely experience proved to be the start of a long process of social acclimation, as I quickly found friends, both new and old, amongst the upperclassmen.
This was a powerful lesson for me, and one that I would like to share with other new and prospective college students. Take advantage of the support and advice offered by older students. Navigating religious life with a new social environment and heavy academic burdens is not easy. But thankfully, many people have done it before and have tips and insight. Upperclassmen are there waiting to become your friend, and they are an invaluable resource on every level of the college experience. Don’t be afraid to ask questions, vent, or just chat with older students. The sooner you do, the sooner you’ll be able to take control of your college life.
Quickly, I found a strong friend group amongst the older students. However, I was still largely socially closed off from the community. My Penn friends were a mixture of previous friends from yeshivah, who I knew had a religiously similar mindset, and new friends who had similar outlooks. The beit midrash, in addition to being my religious homebase, became my social center. I all but relocated my living quarters to the beit midrash, as I spent most of my time either inside it learning, or outside of the Beit Midrash, studying for class. I had found a sustainable friend group, and I was no longer alone. Yet, I did not feel satisfied.
“If I wanted to thrive in college, I needed to branch out and become part of a community… College, and more specifically, the college community, is a unique experience that does not need to fit into a different, more familiar model of religious life.”
As the year went on, and I became more comfortable at Penn, I realized what was causing me to feel incomplete. In yeshivah, in addition to the learning and overt religious experiences, there was an intangible sense of community, as hundreds of students came together in the same institution with similar values and goals. The shared sense of purpose and identity was a powerful motivator, and I had not realized how integral it was to my yeshivah experience. While I found it was certainly possible to live a full and healthy life at Penn learning Torah every free moment and finding social expression in the beit midrash, I found it hard to be happy.
I felt guilty at first, as I struggled to admit to myself that I needed more than just Torah and chavrutot to thrive. It felt like a religious failing. Why wasn’t Torah enough for me? But slowly, as I dipped my toe into the waters of the Orthodox Community at Penn’s social life, I realized that I had no choice. If I wanted to thrive in college, I needed to branch out and become part of a community.
I had come to college with expectations and preconceived notions about religious life at Penn. And while it is healthy to enter a new stage in life with a dose of skepticism and an awareness of where you are coming from, it is unhealthy to allow that hesitancy to become crippling. I was so concerned with recreating a yeshivah experience that I did not realize the strong and vibrant religious community that was right under my nose. By the end of my first semester– after attending numerous OCP social events and even getting involved in planning educational events– I realized what I had been missing. College, and more specifically, the college community, is a unique experience that does not need to fit into a different, more familiar model of religious life. Trying to make Penn into Yeshivah+ was a doomed venture from the get-go.
Thankfully, as I was testing my comfort zone and finding my place in Penn, I had strong religious anchoring in the form of the OU-JLIC couple. It was easier to explore what the Penn community had to offer knowing that Rabbi Yaakov and Racheli Taubes were there to lead the community religiously and ensure an authentic religious experience. Over time, the OU-JLIC couple went from being abstract religious leaders to some of my most important role models and confidants in college.
But none of this happened over night. College both feels incredibly long, and goes by all too quickly. Between Freshman and Sophomore year, I changed majors, found new interests and started many new friendships that would last me throughout my time in Penn. By my Junior year, I had gone from doubting my role in the OCP to being elected as the head of the community. It’s easy to forget how long college is and how quickly things can improve or change. Things move fast and what is bad one week can turn around in no time. As a freshman, this sense of perspective eluded me. It was hard not to feel like every bad day was the end of the world. By my last Shabbat in Penn all of those minor hurdles and complications fell to the wayside. As I stood in front of the community and gave my Senior Goodbye, teary-eyed, reflecting on my college experience, only one thing came to mind: how thankful I was to have been a part of a community like the OCP.
Leead Staller grew up in Highland Park, NJ. He graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with a degree in History and Philosophy, and is currently enrolled in Yeshiva University, pursuing Semichah from RIETS and a Masters in Jewish History from the Bernard Revel Graduate School.