By: Raymond Cohen  | 

Thriving in the Face of Adversity: A Lesson from the YU Student Body

There is no doubt that Yeshiva has struggled from a public relations perspective over the last couple of years. Headlines from 2014 proclaiming Yeshiva’s $150 million annual deficit and half a billion dollar endowment contraction, combined with Moody’s downgrade of the University's credit rating to junk status have marred the school’s reputation as a leading academic institution and have at times called the school’s survival into question. This past year’s faculty votes of no confidence and student petitions have bolstered the notion that Yeshiva is on the brink of colossal failure.

From a student’s perspective, buying in to the narrative of a University defined by its financial woes is all too tempting. Burdened with the pressures of deciding our futures and forging our own path, students here can easily opt to fold their hand and choose from a plethora of excuses as to why they didn’t achieve their personal short-term or long-term goals. Many students here have indeed fallen into the trap of playing victim to the school’s circumstances to compensate for their personal failures.

Yet a closer look at Yeshiva reveals a portrait not nearly as unpleasant as the headlines paint it out to be. George Eliot taught us not to judge a book by its cover and in the words of our Sages, “Do not look at the vessel, rather examine what is inside of it.” Inside of YU is a student body with vision, resilience and an entrepreneurial spirit, largely unwilling to be deterred by the rhetoric that surrounds them. YU provides the students with fertile soil for grassroots initiatives; the institution enables us create our own experience, and we respond in kind by taking advantage of the opportunities that exist.

For example, students who wanted to sharpen their understanding of financial markets founded the YU Investment Club (YUIC) and created an educational platform for investing. The club quickly grew to become one of the most popular and active clubs on campus and has hosted several multi-billion dollar hedge fund managers.

A student who wanted to spice up the Miztva of bikkur holim founded Music Vs. The club-turned-organization now has 31 chapters internationally where people gather together to visit the sick and elderly, using the universal language of music to create a warm atmosphere.

Other students have sought to use technology to bring Torah to the world and have started initiatives such as En Minutos and Torah Exchange, utilizing digital media to produce relatable bits of torah. As well, Halachipedia, a website founded by YU students and guided by Roshei Yeshiva, provides an easy-to-use resource for practical halachic questions. The site currently has 500 pages and over 10,000 footnotes.

My intention is not to list every initiative at YU in the last couple of years (that would be beyond the scope of this editorial), but rather to demonstrate the fact that success is alive and well at Yeshiva and that it is up to us, the student body, to convert our dreams into reality.

As founder of The Commentator’s business section I can attest to the feeling of fulfillment that comes with executing a vision. Around two years ago, I felt very strongly that business students needed a platform for expression at YU. I started to do research, met with the deans of the business school and spoke with some of the student leaders on campus to get an idea of how I could go about giving Sy Syms students a voice. Through what was initially a request for advice, I met with some of The Commentator’s board members and we mutually agreed to create the business section.

Having a business section has enabled students interested in business to simultaneously pursue and write about their passions. Some have written about Israeli business, others have focused on entrepreneurship, accounting, finance and nonprofit. This year alone, the business section has been quoted in Bloomberg Business and received private accolades from a partner at PwC and the CEO of the UJF’s Jewish National Fund -- achievements far beyond what I had imagined.

I’ve had the opportunity to meet with some unbelievable personalities who serve as senior executives in fields such as law, finance, healthcare, real estate, human resources and nonprofits. Despite their demanding schedules, these YU alumni were full of insight and advice about how to succeed in business and all voluntarily went out of their way to ask if they could help me from a networking perspective. These alumni carried themselves with the fiery spirit that I have described.

To my fellow students who are just starting out: although their will be no shortage of opportunity to assign blame to the administration, as Dale Carnegie would say, ‘do not criticize, condemn or complain.’ You have more control over your situation than you think. If you feel what you perceive as a void at YU, it is up to you to speak up and take initiative, it is in your hands to write the story that you wish to read. YU may not have a stellar reputation, but it has character, and amending the words of Peter Drucker, character eats reputation for breakfast.