Avi Schwartz: The Exit Interview
Rabbi Avi Schwartz has spent the last decade as part of the Yeshiva University family. After spending a year and a half at Israel’s Yeshivat Sha’arei Mevaseret Zion, he started Yeshiva College in Jan. 2011, majoring in Psychology. He graduated in 2014 and immediately began his time in Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, staying on the Wilf Campus for another year before learning at the Caroline and Joseph S. Gruss Institute in Jerusalem for the following three. After leaving the Gruss Institute, he enrolled in the Wurzweiler School of Social Work in June 2018 and graduated this past May.
Shortly after beginning Wurzweiler, he found out that the vacant Wilf Campus student life coordinator position could count for his degree’s required fieldwork. It was a no brainer. Schwartz spent the last two years in the hands-on role. He was a friendly face present and visible on campus, always available to help students and implement ideas to enhance the undergraduate experience.
Schwartz left YU in late November to assume the role of co-director of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus at Rutgers University in New Brunswick along with his wife Sarah. He will also practice therapy, specializing in youth mental health and counseling families.
The Commentator had the chance to sit down with Schwartz for an exclusive exit interview.
Hey Avi, thanks for taking the time to answer some questions. First off, how does it feel to be leaving YU after so many years?
It’s very bittersweet. I just turned 29, and I’m finishing up my tenth year at YU. That’s literally about a third of my life spent here. It’s one of those things where it’s time for me to move on, but I’m happy to leave with a good taste in my mouth — all the connections I made with students, all the things I was able to accomplish. I have the utmost hakaras hatov because I would not be who I am if not for the different schools at YU I was able to be a part of.
And what are your hopes for your new role at Rutgers?
My hope is to bring the love and appreciation of Judaism and Torah to the students, and be able to give them a “home base” to come to with questions, and have a frum rabbinic role model for them that they can feel comfortable talking to about anything.
Nice. Changing topics, I know you’re very active and popular on Twitter. Can you tell us a little about the pages you run?
My personal account is @MyNameIsAviJ, but I am also the Frum Tweet Explainer. I use that account to try to explain funny jokes and tweets. Also, me and a bunch of friends together are @VaadHaBadchanim, literally a “council of jokesters.” We collaborate on shtick and memes and stuff like that.
Combined that’s nearly 7,000 followers, so clearly people respond to your sense of humor. How do you come up with a good tweet? Do you look at the trending page to get a sense of what topics people are talking about, or do these jokes naturally come to you?
It depends. Sometimes you’re talking to people, there will be a funny line, and you’re like “this would be a very funny thing to tweet,” and you tweet it and it completely falls flat. Sometimes it's Shabbos and you say, “okay, I’m going to remember to tweet this after Shabbos, that’s really really funny,” but by that night you’ve completely forgotten the line. Most often I have the joke in advance, it's just about knowing how to write it as a tweet.
The hardest thing about Twitter is that some people feel that validation of who they are in real life is reflected on Twitter. That is not and should not be the case. When I was younger and on Facebook and Twitter a lot more often, every “like” I would get filled my brain with good chemicals. When I didn’t get any “likes” — and had the absence of those chemicals — I felt very down. So I used to connect my self-worth to my social media presence. Thank G-d over time and maturity, I realized that my self-worth is not determined by other people’s validation of my wording of a certain joke on social media. I have an inherent worth regardless. I think that mindset made it a lot easier to use social media in a healthy way.
You’ve been involved in so many great YU events over your time in the Office of Student Life (OSL), and even as a student you were a part of a ton of shtick — in fact just last week I realized that’s you in the Epic Rav Battles of History video. Do you have a favorite YU thing you’ve been a part of, or anything that particularly stands out to you as special?
That’s a good question. Yeah, the Epic Rav Battle got a lot of views. I was the director of the Purim shpiel for two years, both in 2014 and 2015. Epic Rav Battle was in 2014. In 2015, we did a sketch called Neo-Chassidus. It was a song based on Hakuna Matata. I think that bit was the best bit I was ever a part of in my time as a student.
As a staff member, the thing I am most proud of is working with student council and individual council members, and being mechazek them. I find that student council members tend to get burnt out very quickly because they try to accomplish a lot and they get stuck at a certain point. If they can’t get past the high bar they set for themselves, they get frustrated and burnt out very fast. Using my intersection of social work and position in OSL, I would work with a lot of the student council presidents individually to make sure that their self-worth wasn't determined by if an event was successful or not. I remember working with students who got very depressed after an event just did not go their way and they felt like they were failures as a council president. I told them, “No, absolutely not. Even if this event didn’t go the way you wanted it to, it sets the ground in motion for future events and future presidents.” Working with them to make sure their beliefs didn’t translate into negative feelings is something that I am very proud of.
Your background as a former YU student must have also helped with that position.
Yes and no. I’ll tell you why. My counterpart in OSL my first year there was Zehavya Stadlan. She was an NYU student for undergrad and basically did my job at Beren. Me and her worked on a lot of programs together — we ran the Yoms together, we helped with the YU trip to the west coast and more. It was very good to have the perspective of a YU student but also having an outsider, like someone from NYU, to help and give her perspective. “This is what we do at NYU, maybe this could work here.” I think having that insider-outsider balance is very helpful in OSL.
But really, I think the most important quality that anyone can have to work in OSL is empathy. This was my goal over the past two years. I know that there’s very much a polarized environment at YU between the right and the left. You can have the most yeshivish KBY guy and you can have the most atheist non-KBY guy, but l’maisa, they’re at YU for a reason. So my goal was that whatever my own personal hashkafic views are, I want to make sure these people can have their YU experience that they came for. That this guy over here doesn’t have to affect what the other guy experiences and vice versa. No toes need to be stepped on. I tried to be the bridge between all different walks of life at YU, on either campus, on any kind of hashkafa. I felt like every single person that’s at YU belongs at YU, and my goal was to help them feel comfortable.
What parting message do you have for students just beginning their time at YU? How can they make the most of their time here?
I have found that YU has the best things to offer if you look for them. I remember a mashal I had in yeshiva. There are two flies trying to find some food and they go to the palace and see two doors. One fly goes to the right, one fly goes to the left. The fly that goes to the right finds the most beautiful feast ever, has a great time and eats a lot. The fly on the left finds the royal garbage dump and has the best meal a fly could ever have. They both come out and say their meal was fantastic. It all comes down to the perspective of what you’re looking for. YU has the best of the best if you’re looking for it. But if you’re looking for garbage, you’ll also find it.
If your mindset is “I’m going to YU looking for the best rabbis, the best teachers, the best experiences,” then take advantage of it. Yes, you’re in Manhattan, so you can find all the worst things in the city also. But Yeshiva University has the best things to offer for every single individual person. YU is not a perfect place by any means, but I think every person that tries to make it a little bit better puts another brick in the wall to help build YU’s future.
We’re all going to miss you. I guess my final question is, what will it take for you to come back?
Who knows! Maybe in like five years, if there’s an opening in the Counseling Center or MTA is looking for a social worker. I would love to maybe teach in Wurzweiler one day. Again, I have the utmost hakaras hatov to YU and what they gave me. I hope to pay it back somehow, in any way possible. Either schmoozing with students who are considering going, helping out in any way that I can with students already there, something like that.
I think it’s very easy for people to criticize YU on the outside, but they don’t see how hard people are working on the inside to make it a really good place. I find it’s very easy to yell from your ivory tower and say “YU stinks for everyone” and so on. They don’t see all the hard work being put in. Again, YU is not a perfect place, but it’s a place that allows people to grow as much as they want to grow. I find people can make the conscious decisions to find the right things, to find the right people to connect with academically, spiritually and anywhere in between.
I very much agree. That’s a perception I hope to improve with my work in The Commentator.
It’s been an absolute pleasure to work with The Commentator specifically. I had a really good relationship [former Editors-in-Chief] Benjy Koslowe, Avi Hirsch and [former Managing Editor] Yossi Zimilover, and now Yosef, Elisheva and you. I think it’s a really special thing that the OSL and Commentator could and should work together for the benefit of the students.
One last point again is that finding the people in your life that will help bring out your strengths is the key to being successful at YU and wherever you go. I was very lucky at YU to have found the people — specifically Josh Weisberg and Linda Stone — who have been the most incredible mentors and bosses. Linda is literally like another mother to me. She has probably been my biggest advocate both personally, professionally, academically and even spiritually. And Josh Weisberg has been very similar. Anywhere I go now, it’s all downhill in terms of bosses. I was very lucky to have the biggest supporters at OSL to help bring the best out of me and find those strengths that I knew were inside me. I think that should be the goal for every person at YU: to find those people.
Photo Caption: Student Life Coordinator Avi Schwartz left YU at the end of November.
Photo Credit: Avi Schwartz