By: Samuel Gelman (Houston, Texas) | Opinions  | 

From the Klein @ 9 Shtender: The Wire’s Baltimore and Rubin: Intensified Insolence of Institutional Influence

As I left the building, my head was spinning. I had just spent over an hour at the post office, waiting for my name to be called so I could renew my passport and get on with my life. Of course my appointment, called for 9:30, did not actually occur until 10:30, but that was to be expected of U.S. bureaucracy. Finally, my name was called and I approached the counter with my forms filled out and ready to go.

But, like many instances with U.S. bureaucracy, things did not work out as I had hoped. You see, I had made a small mistake on one of my forms, rendering it, and the entire process, invalid. The clerk informed me that I would have to reschedule my appointment for the next week and come back with a new, corrected form.

Confident that I could resolve this here and now, I asked the clerk if he could just print out the form for me, allow me to fill it out again, and submit it. After all, it was only a small mistake. Surely, it would be more practical for both of us if we solved this issue right then and there, as opposed to me returning a week later to waste another several hours of his life and mine.

Despite my seemingly reasonable request, the clerk informed that it would not be possible. When I asked why, he looked at me with a puzzled look, only to answer me the following in a neutral, indifferent tone: “Sorry, but that’s just how this institution works.”

Ever so defeated, I rescheduled my appointment and returned to my everyday life. I could not understand why such a simple request had been rejected so quickly and without any real reason. What do you mean “that’s just how this institution works?” Why can’t you change it?

Finally, the answer has come to me, although it has taken quite a few years. This past summer, I finally got around to fishing The Wire, perhaps the greatest TV show of all time (sorry Breaking Bad). The drama focuses on various institutions within Baltimore, including the Baltimore Police Department, City Hall, the public school system, and the city newspaper, looking at the lives of those involved in each specific organization and how they intersect and interact with others around them.

Granting the fact that all the organizations are different, covering different aspects of daily life in Baltimore, the show makes clear that each institution has one thing in common: they are all very difficult to change and reform. Throughout all five seasons of the show, many of the characters try to bring reform to their respective institutions. They believe that through their ideas and simple fixes they can be a real force for change.

However, despite their best efforts, every single one of them fails, underestimating the power of the institution. The politician trying to end corruption in Baltimore ends up being overrun by the system, eventually becoming corrupt himself. The police officer’s unique ideas to help fight crime are rejected for the more familiar and safe police strategies that the institution has used for years. Whether it is the police, City Hall, or the shipping industry, these characters do not understand that institutions have rules, regulations, and cultural norms that have been engraved into the system and those in it. The show’s depressing yet true message is that those that try to bring change will either be shut down by others within the system or just become a part of the system itself.

I bring all of this up in response to a recently published article: “From the YCSA Vice President’s Desk: Pallet Town and Klein @ 9: Chromatic Considerations of Communal Confluence.” In the article, the writer claims that Klein @ 9 is hurting the YU Community by creating another minyan, making it more difficult for the already established minyanim, as well as for Klein @ 9, to function. He believes that, rather than starting a new minyan that caters to a subgroup on campus, we at Klein @ 9 should have simply formed our community-oriented minyan within Rubin.

Judging by the specific proofs the author brings to make his argument, it is clear he does not understand what Klein @ 9 stands for or the reasons why we do several things. However, I want to focus on one aspect of the argument that I believe encompasses it all. That is, the idea that Rubin could become Klein @ 9 and how that relates to the power of the institution.

Klein @ 9 was founded on many ideas and values: community, serious davening with singing and divrei torah, high levels of student involvement, etc. However, the founders were also very careful to make sure that the minyan would not affect any of the other programming. They were not seeking to change anything, but to create something new.

Let’s take the author’s suggestion regarding Rubin. The author claims that many of the changes that Klein @ 9 implemented could have simply been inserted into Rubin, and that everyone would have been happy. Make the women’s section a bit larger, introduce yourself to a few new faces, and behold! Klein @ 9 but in Rubin. Problem solved, right?

Most definitely not. While many at Klein @ 9 would like to see the above happen in Rubin, that approach forgets about those that like Rubin the way it is. Many of the Rubin attendees enjoy the fact that the minyan in fast and that they can talk in the back. They don’t want to hear a dvar torah at the end of the davening or listen to schticky announcements by the S.O.Y board. They want a quick, no nonsense davening and they have every right to have that.

Now, imagine if Klein @ 9 started implementing all the unique ideas and changes I just mentioned above. Many students would get upset, and for good reason. Like the police officer in The Wire trying to bring new and unique ideas to the department, this decision would ignore the fact that Rubin is an institution with its own culture, ideas, and norms. One cannot simply change the way things are done. And just like the police officers who rejected their colleagues’ new ideas, the students of Rubin would reject our innovations as well, and we would end up right back where we started. One cannot change an institution if there is no desire from the masses of that institution that it be changed.

Of course, the response to this is that you never know unless you try. You can’t be sure that Rubin students won’t enjoy Klein @ 9 style davening as you never implemented it in Rubin in the first place.

Point taken. However, several years ago there was a semikha student put in charge of the minyan to make Rubin a more “community oriented” davening by trying to quiet the room and add singing and divrei Torah to the minyan.

Quite understandably, the students rejected his innovations and ideas. He went against the cultural norms of the Rubin institution, trying to bring change when no change was necessary or wanted. This is exactly what would happen if we at Klein @ 9 decided to do the same at the Rubin Minyan, which is precisely why a new, distinct minyan with its own culture focused on community building was created.

Rocking the boat is a risky move, and we all know that if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. We should spend less time focusing things that are not broken and start fixing the ones that are. Rubin is not broken, so there is no need to get involved in its affairs.

Still, one can push back further, saying that, despite all of this, Rubin and Klein cannot coexist. They are both suffering from a lack of Torah readers, as is supposedly evident from the Klein emails asking for people to read from the Torah, and Klein hurts the community by adding another minyan to an already oversaturated slate.

This, however, is just not true. Klein @ 9 is not suffering from a lack of lainers. In fact, with the addition of Mincha and Singing @ Sundown, we have actually added the amount of lainers we need. If we were truly suffering from a lack of Torah readers, then why would we increase the amount of lainers we need? The reason we send out ystuds asking for lainers is to give others the opportunity to lain and increase the community feeling. Furthermore, the idea that a campus of over 1,000 Jewish students cannot support another minyan in just ridiculous. Finally, if one wants to argue that Klein hurts the community, then what about the fact that Rubin takes away from Glueck? What is the line when it comes to minyanim and community, and who gets to decide where it ends? Why is Klein @ 9 hurting the community, but Rubin is not?

Under its current conditions and leadership Rubin is doing exactly what it is supposed to do. It is supposed to be the fast minyan with little singing and a laid back atmosphere. And please do not misunderstand me. This is not a bad thing at all. YU should have a variety of minyanim that cater to all tastes. Of course, not everyone likes Rubin, but the same could be said for Klein @ 9, Glueck, or Zysman. Moreover, that fact that people are talking about this issue right now shows just how important Rubin is to the YU Community. To try to force change would be counterproductive and upsetting to many.

Valiant as the efforts may be, the reformers of any institution will always be fighting against long solidified forces arranged specifically against individuals. It is why the post office clerk could not give me a new form; it is why the politicians and police officers of The Wire failed; it is why the initiatives to reform Rubin were rejected. Unless you have a large body of the institution on your side, you are most likely going to lose.

What surprises me is how the author of the article, a member of student council himself, is not aware of this himself. Ask any member of any student council - whether they are on the Beren or Wilf Campus - and they will tell you how hard it is to bring even the smallest bit of change. We all have stories with the Registrar, Office of Student Life, or Office of Student Finance where a seemingly small issue could not be changed or fixed on our behalf for whatever reason. The DNA of an institution is inherently built to survive, not drastically change. Rubin is no different.

Xenophobic claims against innovation and change is not the message I wish to spread from this article. I am a full supporter of bringing new innovations and reforms to the university that would allow it to grow and prosper. This is the entire reason I support Klein @ 9! However, in order to be the change one wants to see, one must understand the systems they are working under. Institutions cannot simply be upended and change will not come to those that make rash decisions. It must be planned carefully and skillfully. Forcing change to Rubin to make it fit the Klein @ 9 model would just not work.

Yeshiva University can have its cake and eat it too. Both Rubin and Klein @ 9 can exist together; they must exist together. Not everyone enjoys Rubin and Klein @ 9 serves a certain niche. They both play a valuable role in helping everyone in the YU community feel like they have a place where they belong. Changing one to match the other is not only extremely difficult, but insensitive.

Zealotry towards change should be applauded, but only in certain cases. In this one, the institution is too important and well established to change. So go to Rubin if you enjoy Rubin and attend Klein @ 9 if you like Klein @ 9. But don’t ask one to sacrifice its culture and traditions on behalf of the other.