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Student Leaders and Overachievers: Who's Who and Running YU

The Commentator has experienced a number of changes this year. We have added a Science section for those of you that are cool enough to read the Commie, yet nerdy enough to like science. And we no longer force you to flip to the back for some Talia talk – you can find me featured in the midst of male authors and the Sports section. But the one thing that hasn’t changed is the student-leader-studded masthead. Our staff is comprised of current and past club heads, resident advisors, student council members, half of the Model United Nations Secretariat, and the famous Maccabeat in a space suit.

However, not all YU newspapers are about being a Who’s Who of YU. Last year, the official newsaper of Stern College, The Observer, printed a raging anti-student leadership article that was all about fighting the (wo)man. Author Ayelet Friedman writes, “Somehow, Stern has turned into an oligarchy. An oligarchy is a government type in which a small number of people control all of the power.” This vocabulary lesson is followed by Friedman’s original theory that shows off some intimate knowledge of ninth grade biology terms: “natural selection”- i.e., survival of the fittest - or, as she puts it, an “oligarchic selection”. “Perhaps, despite our pretense to democracy, these candidates run unopposed because all of the other candidates are intimidated by the prestige and social power that these students wield.”

Intimidation seems to be a poor and sorry excuse for the concentration of leadership roles among a small group of student leaders; nonetheless, Friedman’s point remains true of both the Wilf and Beren Campuses. Student councils, clubs, committees and publications seem to have overlapping leadership. This leaves a large majority of the student body uninvolved, unconnected, and overwhelmingly indifferent, while a minority of the student body is in the know and networked, but simultaneously overworked. Where does this divide begin? For many it begins not with a burning passion for change, but a blank resume. Last year’s YSU Council President Aaron Greenstein explains honestly, “I don’t know why I ran. I was just trying to pad my resume originally when I ran for Sophomore cSecretary. But I liked running things. I liked getting to know the administration and seeing how it operates. So I kept running. But honestly, it really takes so much work, and you have to keep doing it because you want to make some sort of a difference.” However, Greenstein does not see a connection between the majority of the students and their leadership. “I don’t even think that most students really know what we do. I coordinated the budgets of all academic clubs, ran campus-wide events and ran bi-weekly meetings with the deans concerning the curriculum. People think that it’s all about the name, but it really is mainly behind-the-scenes stuff.”

Stern Student Council President, Dena Shayne, found her involvement to be the cure to her own dissatisfaction with the Stern experience. She explains her journey from cynic to Stern powerhouse. “I was completely miserable. I only liked playing on the volleyball team. Then I really enjoyed Model UN and I started to meet new people and really liked it more. I began to realize that my involvement was correlated to my love of Stern, so I ran for Secretary [of the Stern College for Women Student Council] and then President, and now it is my goal for the year to help the students love YU as much as I do.”

However, not all students find fulfillment in YU culture by becoming Student Council President. What is an aspiring leader with a rebellious, laissez -faire attitude, and no interest in climbing the traditional student leadership ladder to do?

Bram Glazer found himself creating his own counter-culture at YU through the aspiring AEPi fraternity. Although the idea of a fraternity at Yeshiva University sounds like a Commie Purim edition come to life, Glazer claims that the AEPI brothers’ work truly epitomizes student leadership. “Yeshiva is losing students because they care more about the image of the school than the students, and everyone can feel that.” He claims that the councils don’t offer relaxed opportunities for guys and girls to hang out because they believe that it will reflect poorly on the religious level of the university. “What kind of lame events do they have? Green Screen? I’m sorry but I don’t want to spend my Thursday night watching Shrek 2 on the Astroturf. We want to create events that are actually fun.” Glaser suggests that an AEPi dodge ball tournament would be the best attended event in years. “How awesome does dodgeball sound right now? Awesome. Guys and girls together. Totally no contact. We’d charge every team and donate everything to charity. We’d probably get about 1000 people. But we can’t do that because they think we’ll make the school look bad.”

Other students on campus echo Glazer’s sentiments about the YU lifestyle: too much interaction between the sexes does, in fact, reflect poorly on the standard that YU is attempting to create. An anonymous economics major and beit midrash regular did not hesitate to let me know that he does not attend co-ed events. He explains that he objects to environments which create too social of an atmosphere between men and women. He believes that “the girls aren’t dressed appropriately. This is also a problem in the library. I just don’t want to see that. It’s not fitting of Yeshiva University or myself.”

Much more difficult was the search for a Mr. Machmir. I was set on representing the Yeshiva spectrum in this article and was not having much luck in finding an interviewee. This is certainly not for a lack of Yeshivish University students. But there were many factors that barred me from engaging the bachurim (young men): the glass outside of Glueck, my threat to its kedusha (sanctity), or the fact that not a single member of my social circles overlaps with the young men of Rav Twersky’s shiur. This could be because the frumnonymous bachur prefers to remain that way to not only my readers, but my fellow females and modernish male peers. Perhaps there is some sort of oliGluecky (Admittedly, my weakest pun to date. But it sounds funny. I like it.), or perhaps I am an oligarchist myself.

If that is indeed the case, then perhaps the threat of oligarchy is more pressing than I have been implying. I learn that Friedman, back at The Observer, conducted her research by attending just two events. Friedman specifically chooses to describe herself as not being “communally minded.” This community absentmindedness is exactly the issue. When we do not feel a sense of dedication to our community, we often replace it with a sense of entitlement. This kind of entitlement requires no responsibility but gives us the delusion of plenty of power, specifically, the power to whine. Whining seems to be a popular extra-curricular—complaining that there are no opportunities while you delete your y- or s-studs off your BlackBerry or iPhone.

Friedman claims, “The presidents, using all of their superb planning abilities, put together an extravagant event, and only a fraction of the student body shows up. And that is only if there is food at the event—without some sort of snack, nobody shows up.” Apparently, it was there that she found the political solution to all of oligarchy. She suggests the issue will be resolved once student leaders begin involving more of their peers in planning events. She claims that although this model “may resemble communism… it is not [the same].” Despite her warning her reader otherwise, Friedman’s description does sound suspiciously like a pitch for some of the fun and innovative political ideologies of yesteryear, like Marxism and Socialism. Come to think of if, there are isms that are underrated and underrepresented here in the oligarchy that is Yeshiva University: polytheism, plagiarism, anthropomorphism, and Christian Scientism.

Observer Editor-In-Chief Renee Kestenbaum, defends Friedman’s position on the issue. “Until this year I was just a regular Stern Student. I wouldn’t go to events because I was intimidated. The things that I heard about event planning, it didn’t seem like something I could handle. Now I am a student leader, but I am definitely not an oligarchist. I think that a lot of people are like me, just regular students. Not everyone has the confidence and leadership skills that the student leaders come with. That is why we have leadership programs like Quest (the CJF-run student leadership training program). They are a really great thing.”

Dean of Students Dr. Victor Schwartz does not feel the same way. “There is too much focus on leadership. The real focus should be on participation. Perhaps we have too many student councils and presidents for our relatively small student body. But with re-imagination we may see a re-imagining of the student leadership structure.” Additionally, he does not agree with any complicated conspiracy theories. “The motivations for students’ involvement range from a passion to serve to a desire for admiration, and usually are based on several factors or motives. Often, it’s a few energetic students who take their cronies along for the ride and bring them into leadership roles. This is as it is in many, if not most, organizations. “

But how exclusive exactly are these cronies? SCWSC Corresponding Secretary and Observer News Editor Marganit Rauch admits that “it is certainly the case that one could regard my positions as both Student Council secretary and News Editor of The Observer as being a prime example of “oligarchy” in Stern, but to that I would like to comment that I was approached with the position of News Editor after others had rejected the job due to time commitments, and no one else had stepped forward.” It is not because of the hunger for power, because honestly, we’re all full. Rather, it’s a reaction to the raging apathy on campus. This can be a pretty frustrating and lonely job. It’s often these feelings that bring students together.” Rising Wilf Campus star Shmuel Rosenblatt (YSU Vice President, tennis team member, and the Commie’s own Sports Editor) admits, “It’s definitely tough sometimes. Being a student leader is a love-hate relationship. We get frustrated with things but we have to care enough to fix them. It just makes sense that like people who are like-minded are going to gravitate towards each other. It’s no conspiracy; we just spend a lot of time together and are involved in a lot of the same projects.” Dean Schwartz certainly agrees “It happens in any social group or community. The people working to advance themselves will often find each other and work together to advance themselves further. And it certainly makes it simpler with connections on the inside. What amazes us about the Yeshiva student leadership is the incredible energy and extent of activity that our relatively small student body continues to produce every year.”

When asked about their personal proudest accomplishments here at Yeshiva, Students Helping Students President Fiona Guedalia mentions Dreidel Palooza, the world record-breaking scholarship fundraiser that spread the word of student leadership initiative as far as Saturday Night Live, The Daily Show and The New York Times. YU poster boy Noey Jacobson mentions The Commentator’s Opinions section and the overnight success of the Maccabeats. TAC President Leora Neiderberg beams as she talks about Stern’s night seder program.

But perhaps the greatest student initiative is the instatement of a community of students who truly care about the ideals of the university and its study body. But perhaps a bit of re-imagining is in order. There are so many amazing student leaders; I’m sure one will step up and form a committee to solve the issue. Or as Freidman suggests, “There is an easier quick fix to this enormous problem that you might prefer: just bring buses down from the Wilf campus every time we have an event. Then the [Stern] student body will show their faces.” But I beg of you, before whining that there are no snacks on the bus, or that the boys are not cute enough, please ask yourself the following: “Do I care enough to fix this?”

Always a pleasure serving y’all!