A Call to Digitize YU’s Student Newspapers
Just over one year ago, I had the unique pleasure of meeting and chatting with Rabbi Joseph Karasick. A Yeshiva College (‘43) and Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary (‘45) graduate, Rabbi Karasick served the Jewish community at large for over ten years, as the president of the Orthodox Union from 1966-1972, and as chairman of its Board of Directors from 1972-1978. Among many other achievements during his long career, which he documents in his memoir, Rabbi Karasick interacted closely with Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik and saw the trajection of American Orthodoxy shift from dire to hopeful. He also served as one of the first editors-in-chief of The Commentator.
Currently the oldest-living former editor-in-chief of The Commentator, Rabbi Karasick edited the paper in the 1942-43 academic year, running a newspaper that in some ways has not changed over the decades: it covered news such as curricular updates, drama events and college sports; it served as a platform for student opinions about literature, extracurricular activities and politics; and it criticized the administration on occasion, for example, when a controversial dormitory curfew was imposed on students.
In other ways, Rabbi Karasick’s Commentator was vastly different from today’s. It represented only Yeshiva College. It printed cigarette advertisements. And it struggled, due to technological constraints, to utilize creative layout or photography, or to even ever exceed eight pages of print.
What caught my eye the most, though, while reading through Rabbi Karasick’s volume of The Commentator, was the issue that he published on March 4, 1943. With a front-page illustration of a hand sinking in turbulent waters above large-print “Out of the Depths Have I Cried Unto Thee, O Lord,” the six-page issue included horrifying articles calling attention to European atrocities that could no longer be ignored. As much as the newspaper decried the actions of the Nazis, it also blamed American Jewry — and Yeshiva College classmates — for refusing to believe the news about its people’s destruction, and for not protesting Nazi violence.
For close to half an hour, I showed Rabbi Karasick a printed version of his 1943 Holocaust exposé. When we read through his editorial, titled “Save Us, O Lord,” he pointed out various phrases and wordings that he recalled composing and which he felt are still emblematic of his writer’s voice. He shared with me details that don’t jump off of the pages, such as how he gathered information about Europe’s concentration camps, and how YU administrators and students reacted when the issue hit shelves.
Rabbi Karasick’s Commentator issues are just one small collection of thousands of fascinating stories that are documented in hundreds of newspapers that hit YU’s shelves over the past 80+ years. Aside from that which Rabbi Karasick was able to share in person, newspaper archives attest to repeated themes, such as countless attempts to define “Torah Umadda,” as well as unique episodes, such as the newspaper’s decades-long struggle for independence, several sophisticated debates between college faculty and roshei yeshiva and even embarrassing moments such as a 1941 major Commentator headline that bashed Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik’s candidacy for the position of Rosh Yeshiva.
Unfortunately, Commentator archives are not easily accessible. YU’s Gottesman Library in Washington Heights owns original newspapers that are kept in a climate-controlled basement. Additionally, most of the archives have been scanned onto microfilms, which very patient students can borrow and read with the library’s clunky microfilm readers. Finally, most of the microfilms from the 1930s through the 1990s have been copied, printed and placed into reference binders, which can be accessed in the Gottesman Library.
This current state of affairs has been sufficient to serve certain purposes. For the past two years, The Commentator has been able to reprint archives in the well-received “From the Archives” column. However, reprinting a few dozen articles out of thousands is not enough. The entirety of The Commentator’s archives ought to be accessible to a wider audience.
The archives can be made accessible with a digitizing project. Newspaper digitizing projects are commonplace among American universities. Every Ivy League student newspaper has been digitized. Other schools closer in ranking to YU have also digitized their student newspapers, such as Fordham University and Stony Brook University, as have many schools ranked significantly lower than YU, including Duquesne University and University of Delaware. If The Duquesne Duke merits digitization, certainly The Commentator does as well.
In my opening editorial last May, I committed The Commentator to “digitizing its archives and making them available to the public” by “brainstorming with our amazing librarians how to make this a reality.” To their credit, YU’s librarians have encouraged the project and help push it forward. They informed me that the library owns most of the archives of The Observer, another independent student newspaper that was founded by Stern College for Women students in 1958, as well. Starting at the end of May 2018, Paul Glassman, the Director of University Libraries, convened several meetings with members of both newspapers, librarians and representatives from YU’s Marketing & Communications, Alumni Affairs, General Counsel, Institutional Advancement and Government Relations agencies, for the purpose of evaluating digitizing YU’s student newspapers.
The meetings were productive, and several YU librarians graciously took on the task of locating potential vendors to whom a scanning and digitization project could be outsourced. By the final meeting, which took place in November, the librarians presented two potential avenues for digitization: One theoretical project, which would create an advanced platform of fully-searchable PDFs with optical character recognition (OCR), similar to platforms used by The Daily Pennsylvanian and The Cornell Daily Sun, would cost in the range of $100,000. A slightly less ambitious project, which would simply utilize an already-existing (and soon-to-be renovated) platform for hosting PDF files, similar to YU’s yearbooks and other collections already hosted by YU’s Digital Library, would cost in the cheaper range of $10,000-$15,000.
Unfortunately, YU’s student digitization project all but came to a halt after that November meeting. I was unable to convince Provost Selma Botman to sponsor the project, so I instead spent a few weeks emailing back and forth with Institutional Advancement and Alumni Affairs to gather email addresses of old editors-in-chief, with the hope of perhaps reaching out to them for donations. Eventually, due to everyone’s busy schedules, the conversations dimmed to a near-silence for the past few months.
In The Commentator’s long history, some things never change. Editors come and go, make whatever impact they can and then pass on the torch at the end of the spring semester. Every now and then, though, game-changers present themselves, and the only question is whether or not those with the power to seize the moment will do so. The time for me to vacate my post nears, but the framework has been set for the newspapers, with the help of YU, to scan the archives and share them with the public. I call upon the administration — in particular, Provost Botman and Institutional Advancement, who have the power to designate and gather funding — to actively take on this important project.
Photo Caption: The author with Rabbi Joseph Karasick (YC ‘43)
Photo Credit: The Commentator