Opposition Fails to Unseat SOY Establishment
Current SOY (Student Organization of Yeshiva) Vice President Shua Brick defeated challenger Itamar “ET” Lustiger on May 5 in what many are saying was a particularly divisive SOY presidential election.
Mr. Lustiger, who considered a run for the SOY vice presidency last year, said that he decided to enter the race this year after he was approached by “a solid amount of people who were unhappy, who felt that while SOY was trying to reach out to other parts of the Yeshiva, it may have neglected the people who just wanted a little bit of Thursday night cholent and who wanted a bit of a different kind of Shabbos programing.” In short, ET first gained supporters among the caucus of students who “wanted more of a Yeshiva feel, the Yeshiva feel they were used to in Israel.”
Many of ET’s core supporters felt alienated by the inclusive policies of SOY President Tuvy Miller, many of which were implemented in initiatives introduced by Mr. Brick.
“There’s an important difference between inclusiveness and making sure everyone is welcome,” Mr. Lustiger stated.
Feeling excluded by policies of inclusiveness
One ET voter, who was vocal on Twitter in support of Mr. Lustiger, explained that he was against SOY’s inclusiveness. “The platform for SOY was to include everyone,” the Stone Beit Midrash Program student said, “but by including everyone, you spread resources thin and marginalize people who use the Beis Midrash.
“Lack of programing for guys who consider themselves yeshiva bochurim first and students second [made this group feel] marginalized.” The ET supporter suggested that “instead of including everyone, SOY should have made things more appealing.”
The SBMP student, who wished to remain anonymous, explained that the difference in policy was that ET planned to “present already successful programs to everyone instead of transforming the whole institution and alienating those that use yeshiva most.”
Interestingly, another ET supporter said he voted for the outsider candidate specifically because of his inclusive platform: “I was supporting ET because he had a vision for inclusion,” said Avi Sebbag, a junior studying marketing. “[He had a] vision that would wipe away the stigma that YP looks down on everyone. It's a very untrue sentiment and I would really like to see it end.”
This polarity even among ET’s supporters may come from the fact that Mr. Lustiger never presented a platform of concrete initiatives he would introduce. (He did, however, express serious disapproval of the coeducational Shabbat programming, which he said lacked the support of the Roshei Yeshiva and caused discomfort to “people who consistently stay in for Shabbos and partake of meals in the Caf.”)
“There’s just a general focus on making sure that whatever programs we were running would be working,” Mr. Lustiger explained. He envisioned a climate in which “the shabbos afternoon activities, like the forums and games, which seem to be very popular,” continue running, along with programming that caters to the more yeshivish crowd that feels they were neglected by the Miller-Brick administration.
Mr. Miller’s inclusive policies manifested in both tone and programming. In his first address to the student body, the Har Etzion graduate encouraged the student body to bond over common passion for Torah. “Let’s find more opportunities to learn together as a community. Even if it’s a little uncomfortable at first. Let’s look at our eternal Torah from someone else’s perspective. In a serious, thoughtful way. Let’s work together to intensify our relationships so that our community becomes a holier, more profound place in which we can live and grow together.”
Shabbat on the Wilf Campus also became a subject of contention. Yeshiva “In” Shabbos weekends were rebranded as “Community” Shabbats. Mr. Brick commented that “Shabbatot at YU are generally geared towards the more yeshivish community,” and that he sought to cater to “students who simply want a Jewish community feel.”
On social media, some supporters likened ET’s candidacy to that of presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump. Mr. Lustiger was seen as an “outsider” who would challenge the “SOY Establishment,” by which ET supporters felt they had been ignored. Twitter accounts belonging to ET supporters as well as the official account of ET’s campaign retweeted posts containing the hashtag #MakeSOYGreatAgain. The Twitter account of a hockey team composed mostly of alumni of Shaalavim and Kerem BeYavneh, two demographics associated with ET’s support base, “officially endorsed” ET’s candidacy and another supporter tweeted at Mr. Trump’s campaign account to do the same.
It’s not just about how Yeshiva should be here; it’s about what Yeshiva you attended in Israel
In addition to policy, however, demographics may have been just as strong, if not a stronger, driving force behind Mr. Lustiger’s candidacy. Informal polling among alumni of different Hesder Yeshivot indicated that ET enjoyed widespread support from graduates of Shaalavim and Kerem BeYavneh, while graduates of Har Etzion and HaKotel tended to favor Mr. Brick, a graduate of Hakotel.
According to Mr. Lustiger, ET’s supporters encouraged him to run because they see him as “one of the ‘guys,’ one of the chevre.” He explained that this is due to the fact that he is “a classic Shaalavim guy.”
Avi Hirt, a senior studying accounting who ran for SOY president last year, sent an email urging Shaalavim alumni in YU to vote for ET. “It is time to get Shaalavim reps in office for the Yeshiva positions, so take some Shaalavim pride and vote in the elections” he wrote.
ET said that during his short vice presidential campaign last year, he sought to “represent the demographic that isn’t necessarily so much represented in SOY, which is the people who have the more ‘right wing’ religious worldview.”
ET reports that for him, the race “wasn’t only about that.” Rather, in addition to representing the “more [religiously] right-wing” students of Yeshiva, he wanted to reach out “beyond the people who only know the Glueck Beis Midrash” and “get them included in all the programming we already have and to try to make them feel comfortable as well.”
Disavowing Divisive Rhetoric
In campus rhetoric and on social media, supporters of both candidates resorted to particularly vitriolic speech. The candidates presented a united front to attempt to combat this issue, simultaneously sharing posts on their facebook timelines urging supporters to keep the debates and conversation positive.
ET supporters circulated the hashtag #GetGushOutOfSOY, which could refer to SOY President Tuvy Miller, former SOY President Jacob Bernstein, and Vice President-Elect Dovid Simpser, all of whom attended “Gush,” the nickname for Yeshivat Har Etzion. The hashtag may also refer to President-Elect Shua Brick, whom many associate with the stereotypically left-leaning yeshiva, even though he never attended Gush himself.
ET unequivocally condemned the negative speech. “The rhetoric my supporters were using was unkind and it was wrong. The hashtags they were using - it was immature and unkind,” ET stated. He also lamented a Facebook post from the other side that took apart his words from the debate as “egregious and unnecessary.” ET said that “this type of rhetoric fritters the gap” between people of different morning programs. “Just the rhetoric from boths sides - it really disturbs me; it was really terrible.”
Mr. Lustiger emphasized that there are no hard feelings between himself and his opponent.
Explaining the loss on election day
Despite the clamor around Mr. Lustiger’s campaign, the SOY outsider failed to garner the required support to unseat Mr. Brick, who used all the advantages of incumbency at his disposal.
Yair Strachman, a Yeshiva College junior who has been involved in multiple political campaigns, thought ET’s defeat was significant given the recent history of SOY elections. “For the last two years, a Har Etzion alumnus was elected president,” he noted. “Unlike last year, students who felt unrepresented presented a coordinated and unified effort. The new coalition fielded an impressive and popular candidate.”
Mr. Strachman theorized that ET lost because although the SOY president must be a student in the largest morning program, which is consistently the right-leaning MYP, he is elected by students of all morning programs, many of which lean more to the left. Mr. Strachman surmised that Mr. Lustiger may have captured the MYP vote but lost the election due to lagging popularity in the other programs.
Reflecting on the outcome of the SOY election, Mr. Strachman remarked that “though many people like to talk about how YU is ever trending more right wing, this election proves the opposite - at least among the student body.”
Many observers, including Mr. Strachman, also noted Brick’s advantage as an incumbent. The president-elect disseminated ystuds several times a week, each of which increased his name recognition and highlighted the programming he had created. When asked why they voted for Mr. Brick, many voters in fact cited his list of accomplishments as vice president. ET did not have the occasion to disseminate ystuds at the same rate as Shua.
Levi Herman, a senior studying management who voted on Thursday, said that “If your name isn't around YU and you're not an all-around guy you stand no chance” of winning an election. “It's a mix between a popularity contest and the job you'll do,” he said.
Looking beyond the elections
Mr. Lustiger thought the future of SOY is “hopefully headed in the right direction,” provided that everyone feels represented. “I don’t think it’s just stam a feeling and just stam a loud bunch that was just trying to ‘get Gush out of SOY,” he said. “It represents that they feel that a lot of the programming that SOY does goes against what makes them feel comfortable.”
Resentment lingers among some frustrated supporters of ET’s candidacy. Mr. Brick, however, announced the initiation of the Bais Medrash Committee, which will be devoted to improving “current programming as well as starting new programs surrounding our Bais Medrash experience.”
The SOY vice president appointed MYP Vice President-elect Yehuda Avner as committee chair and Mr. Lustiger and Yaakov Ian Hawk as senior committee members. Mr. Hawk, a Shaalavim alumnus, lost the SOY vice presidential race to Har Etzion graduate Dovid Simpser. Mr. Lustiger said that he joined the committee because “Shua graciously offered and I'd love to help the yeshiva out in whatever way I can.”
As Mr. Brick assumes office and continues implementing the inclusiveness platform, initiatives like the Bais Medrash Committee will be critical in ensuring that the “more Bais Medrash-centered students,” as Mr. Brick referred to them, feel included in SOY programming as well.
The president-elect said he felt hurt that his opponents saw him as neglecting the interest of the students who spend more time in the Beit Midrash, “especially since I consider myself part of that constituency.”
Mr. Brick was confident that the introduction of the Beis Medrash Committee sends “a clear message that ET, Yaakov [Ian Hawk], and I all want to work together to strengthen the programming of the Yeshiva.”