By: Dani Weiss  | 

Shedding Stigmas: A Vision for The Commentator

Earlier this year, I attended a presentation given by an accounting journalist working for the Wall Street Journal. As a new member of The Commentator’s staff, I attended the event with hopes of gaining some insights into my upcoming journalism career. Like a good journalist, I took copious notes of the subject matter, asked questions after the presentation, and dutifully recorded students’ reactions to the event. As I milled about the crowd looking for a student to answer my questions, I eyed an old friend of mine whom I hadn’t spoken to in some time. After making the obligatory small talk, I asked him if he would be willing to answer a few questions for an article that would appear in the upcoming issue of The Commentator. His response? A sneering, spit-in-the-face-type declaration that he would never have his name associated with The Commentator.

While I wish I could write off this experience as an isolated incident, it unfortunately represents a much larger trend in the University towards distrust of and, in some cases, outright animosity toward the newspaper.  For many, The Commentator has come to be associated with misinformed or biased reporting aimed at damaging the reputation of the University; for others, its agenda is to disrespect our roshei yeshiva and the values associated with Orthodox Judaism. In either case, I would suggest that disassociation from The Commentator is a practice that is at best immature - and at worst destructive.

Since my arrival at YU, I’ve heard the sentiment from a number of people that The Commentator is filled with biased, one-sided discourse. The accusers will reference a plethora of articles to support their case: opinion pieces challenging views long held by Orthodox Jews, misleading polls that claimed to represent the student body, and specific articles attacking well-respected figures in YU are, for these people, clear examples of The Commentator’s agenda to destroy YU’s reputation and to incite people against the values of Orthodox Judaism.

The paper’s past reputation notwithstanding, the pages of The Commentator this year bear an altogether different tone. Very few articles, if any, fit the stereotypes typically associated with The Commentator. Reporting on the state of the University’s finances has been level-headed and balanced. In fact, a recent editorial from our editor-in-chief went into depth explaining his policy of focusing on realistic, rather than pessimistic, interpretations of the facts.

By way of opinion pieces, only a few articles have been published this year that might have broached the realm of controversy. But more important than avoiding controversy, all articles, without exception, have maintained a tone of respectful, civilized discourse. By maintaining dialogue in which multiple parties feel safe expressing their opinions, we have informally extended an invitation to all students to share their views and experiences without the fear of ad hominem attacks appearing in the next issue.

Yet despite our efforts, there remains one specific group that is conspicuously underrepresented in the pages of The Commentator. Members of the right-wing crowd (some might call them yeshivish) have seemingly chosen to disassociate from The Commentator as a form of silent protest, and as such have left their opinions unheard. By refusing interviews and declining to submit their opinions in writing, these people make one-sided discourse a self-fulfilling prophecy. If students who protest the contents of an article refuse to respond, who will represent their opinions?

But perhaps by branding the “right-wing” as having a collective desire to disassociate, I myself have ventured into the realm of prejudgment and stereotypes. It’s very plausible that some who are bothered by particular articles choose not to respond for other reasons. After all, the process of formulating an opinion and committing it to writing is both difficult and stressful, even for the most experienced writers.

In my short tenure as an editor for The Commentator, I’ve encountered myriad excuses from people who choose not to write. Of course, YU students are busy juggling a dual curriculum and trying to find time for clubs, internships, homework, and night seder. But I’d like to take the time now to address two specific excuses that in my mind are the most prevalent, but also, the most invalid.

First, some people have the notion that no one cares what they have to say. To those people, I would respond that each opinion expressed in the newspaper can change someone’s perspective. No individual’s experience is the same as yours and therefore, only you can affect people in a particular way. Share your unique experiences with others to enrich their lives.

Second, many people will maintain that publishing writing is a pastime reserved for an elite group whose opinions lie safeguarded behind the impregnable fortress of perfection. This, too, is untrue. I have found that writing is more of a journey than a destination. Putting your thoughts into writing doesn’t necessarily inscribe a way of thinking into stone; it represents a particular juncture in your personal journey. Submitting opinions that are less than perfect requires the writer to make himself vulnerable to feedback. Sometimes that feedback is constructive; other times it can be hurtful. But in all cases, the writer can grow from that feedback to build resilience and refine his opinions for the future.

Whether a particular student feels inclined not to write for any of the above reasons or for another reason entirely, I would urge him to reconsider. The Commentator takes on the personality of its contributing writers. Only with the collective input of the student body can we maintain a balanced, respectful conversation between the right and left (and everyone in between).

The mission statement printed inside the front cover of this issue states that The Commentator serves the role of representing the views of YU students to the larger Jewish community. Indeed, I’ve spoken with people far removed from the YU world who have formulated opinions of YU- both positive and negative- based on articles they’ve read in The Commentator. It is only fitting, therefore, that The Commentator should accurately represent the dialogue that reverberates throughout the halls of YU’s various batei midrash, libraries, labs, and classrooms.

To close, I would like to challenge students taking the time to read and share this article. The Commentator is only as full and dynamic as the quantity and diversity of students contributing. So, contribute. Put your thoughts in writing. Muster up the courage to make yourself vulnerable, and grow from the experience.

I look forward to the day when each issue will be thick with extra pages, and when those reading its articles will have access to the full array of multifaceted, nuanced conversations that grace these hallowed halls.