Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The Yeshiva University Student Strike of 1906

When I was in my first year at Yeshiva University, the workers went on strike demanding higher wages. There were lots of chants for YU to "practice what it preached." As a school that preached to its students about the need to not just sit and study, but set a good moral example in the world, allowing things to degenerate to a point that the mostly black and Hispanic workers felt the need to go on strike was not exactingly helpful. Now it should be noted that YU has a history of strikes. In fact one can say that it was born through one. Alexander M. Dushkin in his 1918 book Jewish Education in New York offers a brief history of the beginning of YU: 

In 1897 "arose" the Yeshibath Yitzchak Elchanan, the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary. The term "arose" is used advisedly because this school was not "organized" until much later (1908). The manner in which the school originated is very significant of the social psychology of the immigrant orthodox Jew from Eastern Europe. "Some pious Jews found out that there were a few young men who would like to devote their entire time to sit and study (the Talmud) if someone would provide them with food. These Jews, therefore, (themselves by no means opulent)" collected among themselves $5.00 every week and gave two of these young men $2.50 per week each, if they would sit and study. Gradually the number of young men increased, and a school "arose." Apart from the "good deed" of encouraging young men "to study the Torah for its own sake," it was also hoped that the students would prepare themselves to act as rabbis. Practically no teachers were required, since these young men had previous Talmudical training. No school house was needed, a room for this purpose being set aside in the building of the Yeshibath Etz Chayim. No supervision was necessary, except that of the lay Mashgiach (overseer), who made sure that the young men earned their "two and a half per week," by constant application.

But as the students became more Americanized, they realized that Talmudical study alone was not sufficient preparation for even the most orthodox rabbi in the country. They began to demand that secular studies also be provided for them. Another cause for dissatisfaction arose from the fact that the directors opened several classes for younger boys. There was misunderstanding in this institution also, as to whether its aim should be to prepare well-versed immigrant young men for the American rabbinate, or give Talmudic training to younger children. The dissatisfaction expressed itself again and again, and culminated in a "strike" of the students in 1906. An appeal was sent by them to the Jews of New York, demanding "(1) that they learn systematically the right thing at the right time; (2) that they be given permission to learn the Hebrew language, Jewish culture, (i. e. not only Talmud) and Jewish history; (3) that the program of studies include the English language, history, and the general sciences; (4) that they be taught oratory and public speaking; and (5) that their material support be so arranged as not to make it necessary for them to make special request for very little thing needed." This quaint appeal was signed by "all the pupils of the Yeshibah." The students threatened to leave the institution in a body, and actually carried out the threat. They removed for a short time to a little "Klaus" (private synagogue of a "chevra' or society). But an agreement was finally reached. The Yeshibath Yitzchak Elchanan was limited to higher Talmudical studies, and the Yeshibath Etz Chayim was to be only an elementary Yeshibah. The other demands of the pupils were also met. Upon the new basis the Yeshibah was "organized" in 1908. At this time it was housed at 156 Henry Street. Recently, in 1915, it combined with the Yeshibath Etz Chayim, as the Rabbinical College of America. (Alexander M. Dushkin, Jewish Education in New York pg. 76-78.)

So perhaps when the workers asked YU to "practice what it preached," they really should have been calling the students to come out and strike in honor of their 1906 forbearers.


DF said...

As a labor attorney, I can tell you its not very likely that YU allowed things to degenrate to a point where the black and hispanic workers felt the need to go on strike. It is far more likely, to the point of a near certainty, that the union leaders in their offices [and not the workers themselves] realized they had a very good opportunity to wage a successful strike against an institution like YU. A lot of unions take advantage of institutions this way. Beleive it or not, the workers of the NLRB itself are unionized, and there have been several unfair labor practices filed agaisnt the Labor Board itself over the years!

Anonymous said...

Higher not hire!

Izgad said...

I did not take sides in the strike. I accept the moral right of workers to strike if they think they can get a better deal, not that striking is always moral. It is almost impossible for manual labor to ever be worth much above starvation wages (the real living wage) in a free market. So if such workers think they can get something better then we must assume they are trying to use physical force which is immoral.