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Turn Out for What? Apathy on Campus

With the results of the November 2014 midterm elections announced, Republicans celebrated their wins, taking control of the Senate and increasing their majority in the House of Representatives, while Washington acknowledged the likelihood of another two years of legislative inaction. However, beyond the results, another set of statistics revealed an even bleaker story. According to the United States Election Project, the turnout rate for the voting-eligible population was 36.4%, the lowest rate since the elections of 1942; that year, of course, “a large share of the voting population was a little busy doing other things,” as Charlotte Alter of TIME Magazine commented. While not expected to eclipse the higher participation rates characteristic of presidential elections, in a country which proclaims democracy from its rooftops, even a midterm election should require better involvement from its citizens.

This editorial will not focus on the political and social implications of voter apathy, serious as they may be. While some Yeshiva University students may think to excuse themselves, by claiming “out-of-towner” status or that the midterm elections occurred during midterm exams, the problem of democratic indifference symbolizes a much larger issue at hand here at YU: overall student disenchantment and apathy.

Every college campus suffers from its fair share of difficulties, and YU certainly is no different. From its uncertain financial future to the complexities of maintaining a correct balance of “Torah” and “Madda,” the institution we attend is not perfect. However, despite these difficulties, YU offers every student a chance to not just make a difference, but to make several. Other universities market themselves as a place where bright, young adults can explore a track which excites their interests and stimulates their leadership qualities. Yeshiva University compounds that offer: despite a largely homogeneous population, one student can undertake numerous initiatives, diverse extracurricular activities and truly flourish as a “big fish in a small pond.”

Campus life – YU’s clubs, extracurricular events, and essentially everything that is not accounted for by the class registration that all students are currently furiously preparing for – is an important part of every individual’s time here. Last week’s Open House, attended by hundreds of high school juniors and seniors, assured prospective students that the time they spend here will be filled with exciting social opportunities. Similarly, every novel and movie about university life assures our generation that one’s college years are the best chance to explore interests, appreciate a vibrant and fun environment, and simply enjoy an unfettered lifestyle.

Unfortunately, the “Nowhere but Here” motto has been muddied by a strong accumulation of student apathy. Senioritis – an unconfirmed, crippling affliction of students in their final year of high school which compels a decline in motivation to do anything but finish their academic duties – seems to have spread to the college scene. More than half of the candidates for student government ran unopposed last spring. Events like last week’s CAMERA (Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America) and Israel Club event – an insightful discussion with Izzy Ezagui, a wounded Israeli combat soldier, who concluded his speech by condemning the severe lack of attendance after speaking earlier that morning at Rockland Community College where there were seven times as many attendees – are simply ignored. Students groomed to focus solely on their studies or future careers fail to realize the opportunities of the present.  “I’m sure someone else will attend” is the rallying cry of the apathetic.

All students are familiar with the merciless barrages of y-studs or s-studs that litter inboxes day after day. Just like you, I am guilty of immediately archiving 95% of the messages that offer free pizza, meditation or Tanakh classes, or membership in yet another student organization. Even worse, I regularly contribute to the maelstrom by incessantly asking my fellow students if they need writing help, want to submit suggestions to the YC Dean’s Office, or are interested in joining the YU Aquatics Society. Perhaps this system of communication is not the most efficient; the constant notifications of new y-studs certainly disappoint those that are glued to their smart phones. However, the message is clear, even if the y-studs are unfortunately not: new and valuable opportunities are out there. Choose to take a minute or two to read a couple extra emails (even during class, you are on your phone anyway) or peruse a flyer while you wait for the elevator; it might be just the new experience your day is looking for.

Club and student organization leaders, who may have taken an initial step towards campus involvement, are not exempt from this harangue either. A recent article in Stern’s Observer newspaper belabored the financial constraints and complications for club events. However, while “club leaders have repeatedly been told…to reduce the amount of spending necessary for events,” this necessary requirement in trying times for the university should not dissuade student leaders from requesting events. Financial limitations should not diminish extracurricular creativity; indeed there are clubs that have not even attempted to plan events, failing (so far) to meet the requisite number of two sponsored events for this semester.

Granted, we are all here to eventually receive that diploma and degree after spending several years in the classrooms here, a simple certificate acknowledging one’s readiness for the “real world.” The new core curriculum, the Jewish Studies requirements, the lengthy list of obligations for one’s major or graduate school ambitions all take up a serious portion of our day. The chasm between students, academic advisors, and administration with regards to course exemptions, scheduling problems, and other complications – and their hopeful resolutions – are important and necessary for ultimate success. However, by discounting activities and events and excusing yourself from the diversity of the campus community, it is not just your resume’s “leadership” section that suffers, but your entire college experience. Locking yourself into a dorm room or library nook isolates you from the exciting population that is right outside your door.

Indifference, of course, does not imply ignorance. In his lecture, Sergeant Ezagui explicitly noted that it was not the lack of interest or knowledge that kept attendees from his event, but an unwillingness to act, to do more. I am certain that students are aware of the political issues, academic concerns, and cultural questions. Taking that next step, whether it be writing about it for this publication or another, attending a lecture, or organizing a social activity, is where apathy kicks in, inducing many to procrastinate, to binge-watch a show on Netflix or scroll through a Facebook News Feed, instead of exploring worthwhile extracurricular opportunities.

Similarly, cynicism and criticism are not productive. A negative attitude can only take you so far – and usually it is in the opposite direction. For instance, after receiving dozens of complaints from “concerned” students about the poor quality of Shabbat on campus, the Student Life Committee hosted a Shabbat Enhancement Committee discussion forum - which was only attended by ten students. The only thing worse than dispirited apathy is corrupting interest and awareness into pessimism and doubt.

“Weekend at Bernie’s” was a 1989 film in which the protagonists attempted to convince others that their dead friend and boss Bernie Lomax was still alive. Last month, I attended a “Weekend at President Joel’s,” as the president hosted eighteen student leaders for a Shabbaton at his house in Riverdale. This experience did not just convince me of the resilience of our university, as evidenced by the fact that this editorial contained neither empire-bashing nor scandal-exposing. Instead, participating in such an assembly as the Vice President of YCSA (Commentator editor-in-chief Arieh Levi and the Observer’s Elana Kook also attended), I found myself surrounded by a group of concerned students who are dedicated to revitalizing student life on campus. As we discussed relevant issues amongst ourselves and with President Joel, it was clear that the foundation of campus participation was in place. However, the interest and passion of student leaders is just a beginning. Only with the full involvement of all YU students can we break out of our apathetic shell to fully achieve our extracurricular potential.