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At YU’s Model UN, One School’s Antics Push the Limits

Torah Academy of Bergen County (TABC), an all-boy’s yeshiva high school in Teaneck, New Jersey, has long been known for lightening up the professional—and at times cutthroat—atmosphere at Yeshiva University’s National Model United Nations (YUNMUN). This year, however, many felt that their shenanigans crossed the line.

Yeshiva University’s Model United Nations stands as the one of the school’s largest and most important admissions events, gathering almost 500 students from day schools across the world to an annual three-day conference. Student delegates represent countries, split up into UN committees, and discuss pressing international issues, from human rights to nuclear proliferation.

But alongside this academic experience, YUNMUN also acts as a tacit but persistent YU admissions pitch, incorporating traditional YU signage throughout the conference site, multimedia video presentations, and mandatory attendance to remarks from President Richard Joel, not to mention an army of student ambassadors ostensibly chosen for their ability to attract academically minded students to YU.

Needles to say, this combination of academic and admissions goals generates high expectations of students, requiring a standard of seriousness and maturity that most in attendance successfully reach. TABC student antics—and dress—thus stand out against the professionalism that characterizes the rest of the conference.

Minutes after Secretary General Sophie Felder (SCW ’13) opened the 44-school conference, TABC’s 18-member delegation joined in a fervent huddle. The upbeat speech given by one of the team’s captains compelled his fellow representatives to “tell the best jokes in the conference” and to “be the best joke in the conference.” The captain continued, “When they tell you you crossed the line, do it again. When they tell you you’ve been behaving well, you know you are not doing a good job.”

Not surprisingly, chairs, assistant chairs, and even delegates reported ill conduct. Yehuda Cohn (YC ’13) said, “while speaking before the committee, one TABC student smashed a banana with his foot to demonstrate his creative cure for HIV/AIDS.” Delegate Aaron Zimmerman of Weinbaum Yeshiva High School reported that the TABC representative in his committee “wore a cup, read the declaration of independence, and used speaking time to read off the chair’s biography.” Chana Brauser (SCW ’14) said “my TABC delegate proposed to me. Luckily my administrative assistant jumped in to prevent any halakhik issues.”

Throughout the conference, TABC delegates could be seen sporting neon-blue furry hats, face-paint and colorful shirts. During breaks they ran into committee sessions and performed skits, “charity concerts” and delivered romantic notes to staff and delegates. A TABC student tweeted “if you want a good time come to room 4121.”

While other schools sat quietly and dressed professionally for the award ceremony, TABC students sported kazoos, penguin costumes, swords and shields, and Rastafarian hats. Throughout the ceremony, the team broke out into various taunts. They heckled chair-members and other delegations (“You can’t take the pressure.”) They began spontaneous name chants (“Ziggy! Ziggy!). When one student from TABC won a fake award, the delegates broke out into untamed celebration and covered the delegate in silly-string.

Nathan Denicoff (YC ’15) said that TABC’s mischief in his committee was “not appropriate for this article.” Maddie Tavin (SCW ‘15) reported that in her committee, the TABC delegate re-wrote his nation’s placard to say “Narnia,” wore a sombrero, and played the Kazakhstani Anthem; “There were times when the Secretary General had to talk to him. He was basically behaving like a four year-old.”

Throughout the conference, the secretariat was called in to warn a number of TABC students. They intervened in a sword fight and reprimanded students for highly inappropriate notes. A high-ranking student within YUMUN’s administration said, “It is obviously uncomfortable and not something we want to do on Model UN.  It’s a shame when the power of this event is undermined by a few harmless pranks. It’s ruining the culture.” Secretary General Sophie Felder declined to comment.

Rabbi Darren Blackstein, the faculty advisor to TABC, told The Commentator, “There were very few times that I was alerted to talk to students when they crossed the line. It seems that after having mingled with other advisors and students that our students are well-received.”

Akiva Marder, a co-captain and a senior at TABC, told The Commentator, “Our goal isn’t to disrupt the committee; we want our chairs to have authority. Our real goal is to create a fun, perhaps lighter atmosphere.” He insisted that his team’s antics were not intended to “make fun of Model UN.” Azi Fine, a sophomore, said that his team “put the spirit into model UN.”

Indeed, the bulk of TABC’s shenanigans were harmless. One student sang his resolution while playing the ukulele. Others crafted creative ways of presenting working papers. Many staff members were indebted to the team’s comic relief. Assistant captain Yehoshua Zirman said, “Our captain told us that although the heads may not like us, it’s more important that the kids here like us and that we should allow them to have a great time.”

Not all TABC students were involved in monkey business. Rachel Delia Benaim (SCW ’13) insisted that the TABC delegates in her committee “were disruptive, but did add a voice that helped balance serious and fun.” Ely Shestack, a TABC graduate and current YC senior said, “My delegate was totally serious through and through.” Another TABC graduate, Binyamin Segal (YC ’15), said, “The antics add a lot to an otherwise serious program.” Chairman Josh Botwinick added, “My student apologized for not being funny enough.”

However, many chairs in the conference were forced to divert attention to reprimand rowdy students. Yehudit Goldberg (SCW’ 13) said, “I controlled my TABC kid pretty well. He only threw a few dum-dums and sprayed Axe into someone’s face.” Paige Snyder (SCW ’14) said, “I had to restrain a few of the delegates. Some delegates brought bubbles into committee sessions and I called them out on it pretty quickly.” Blackstein said, “This is my first time being advisor. I didn’t know about the reputation or ‘creativity’ that our students employ. Now I see that our students are a little more colorful in their participation.”

Many YU staff members were not pleased with the school’s behavior. “TABC was disruptive and their humor added nothing to the competition in a positive or constructive manner. They should be barred from the competition in future years,” insisted David Weiss (YC ’15). Tammie Senders (SCW ’13) alleged, “It was just a disturbance. It didn’t add anything. The representative from TABC was taking off his clothes and speaking in Austrian accents. If it was funny and constructive, that would be one thing.” Tani Finkelstein (YC ’13) claimed, “Before the TABC delegates even begin to research their topics, they seem to be encouraged to participate in antics more than in serious dialogue.”

Conference staff-member Daniel Steinberg (YC ’13) questioned why so many TABC students were invited to participate in the conference given their consistently lighthearted and even flippant behavior: “They have one of the largest delegations, yet add the least substance to the conference. Why not limit the size of their delegation?” Joshua Joseph Freundel (YC ’14) said, “At this point it has become clear that the antics have become their main feature. It therefore makes sense to reevaluate the makeup of their delegation.”