By: Yosef Lemel  | 

In Retrospect: Institutional Memories

A KBY bochur upset a five-year streak of “Commie” editors-in-chief from Gush — my greatest claim to fame. Other than that, perhaps I may be remembered as the editor who presided over The Commentator during such “unprecedented times.” Or, more likely, I will not be remembered at all. 

Yeshiva University is a school plagued by an extremely short sense of institutional memory. If asked, the standard student probably knows little about the Klein@9 controversy, the Rabbi Klapper controversy, the Rabbi Shulman controversy and any sort of contentious situation that predates the last two years. Generally, students are only at Yeshiva for three undergraduate years — not four, as is the usual case in academia — which has undoubtedly contributed to this lack of institutional memory (tangentially, I would encourage all students to check out The Commentator archives, uploaded online this year, to expand their sense of institutional memory). 

This phenomenon has obviously been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. First-year students never received a true COVID-free Yeshiva experience and second-year students only received a half-year’s worth. Of current students, it is only the graduating class — my year — that has an inkling of what Yeshiva was. Only we have a small sense of institutional memory that is lacking among the underclassmen, much more so than the average year — and I don’t mean to be overly pompous. 

I had the privilege of attending MTA, Yeshiva’s high school, and being on the Wilf Campus for seven years. I remember when the 185th plaza was a normal street with cars driving on it. I recall the excitement in my 10th-grade chemistry class when we heard a Dunkin’ Donuts would open up near campus and the disappointment we felt when Subaba closed. Sometimes, I played football in Tenzer Garden, an area that currently cannot legitimately be termed a “garden.” In place of the artificial grass that was there in 2018, there is only concrete and pipes. Large scaffolding now encircles Zysman Hall, the building which houses MTA. This campus and university have changed in many ways, both physically and institutionally, for better and worse, since I first stepped through those gold-plated doors of that then-scaffold-free building in 2013. 

Importantly, I constantly reminisce on the Torah values that were imparted to me from my high school and college rebbeim, notably through the shiurim of Rabbi Jeremy Wieder for the past two-and-a-half years and the almost-daily lunch-table conversations I had with Rabbi Shalom Carmy last year. I can dwell for hours on positive memories from my time at Yeshiva, from the after-minyan hock at the Kehillas Shulchan Baruch to expanding my base of knowledge and literary skills on The Commentator to forming connections with friends and professors. I am indebted to this institution for all of these experiences. 

Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic has cut short the experience of the Yeshiva student. It is useless for me to expand on this point. Anyone who has had cognizance of their existence for the past year-and-a-half must be aware of the obstructions to basic standards of living.

The most significant shift has obviously been to online learning. I have previously expanded on the idea that there is no replacement for the physical classroom. Indeed, while Torah remains strong in the institution, due to the constant in-person opportunities offered by Yeshiva, Maddah — if that concept has ever truly existed — has clearly deteriorated with the shift to the online model.

While I was recently reminiscing about my time at Yeshiva, my thoughts centered on my experience learning Hebrew, a subject that straddles the line between Torah and Maddah. Although during my year in Israel, I attended a hesder yeshiva, I never received a sufficient grammatical background befitting of an ideal Jewish student. When I entered Yeshiva University, I constantly required the use of an English translation — sometimes, to the horror of many, an Artscroll — to learn Torah. However, although I undoubtedly learn less Torah than my time at KBY, I understand much more of the grammatical nuances in that much-hallowed text. I can express with confidence that it was the Hebrew courses that primarily aided, and provided a base for this growth in knowledge.

In our previous issue, The Commentator editorial board unanimously published an editorial essentially pleading with President Berman to halt the clear deterioration of Judaic Studies at Yeshiva. Editors from different backgrounds and hashkafas came together to say in unanimity that Yeshiva must desist from continuing in the path it is currently on. 

I don’t have much to add to the board’s words. The editorial soundly put forward our case. Based on the administration’s plans, if I was entering Yeshiva in two years from now, I would be presented with a weaker educational environment than the one I found in 2018. As a graduating student, I have no skin in the game. I will not be affected by the changes to the Hebrew program and other radical alterations; but Yeshiva, as an institution, will. Yeshiva must change course in this respect, before students forget what in-person Hebrew classes consisted of, before students forget what Judaic Studies were. 

On a different note, when I personally ask most students and professors what aspect of Yeshiva needs to be urgently fixed the answers mostly center on communication. On the administrative side, not much needs to be said. There is a general trend of the university to not announce policy changes to students before they happen. Rather, it is left to us, The Commentator, to attempt an accurate reporting of the details to the Yeshiva community — if the administration is willing to provide us with information. One need look no further than two recent stories we covered, regarding the 2021-22 academic calendar and the changes to the Hebrew Department. There was no university-wide email that was sent explaining the changes and their ramifications. One might think that radical changes require public explanation … one might think. 

Sometimes, even when asked for details regarding certain policies and initiatives, administrators will ignore students. In articles that we have published, it is common to come across the phrase: “As of the time of publication, X did not respond to The Commentator’s request for comment.” As a result of this occasional disregard, students are left in the dark about many important and relevant details regarding their university experience. 

To illustrate this point, why is the old Wilf Student Constitution still on Yeshiva’s website instead of the new one voted by the student body last semester? I don’t know; the director of student events said that he would only comment if the correspondence was “of [sic] the record.” I can cite many other examples of disregard from other administrators as well. The question lingers: Why shouldn’t students be aware of the reasoning for policies that affect them? “Not your concern; just sit back, enjoy your classes like a good student and donate money as a good alum,” seems to be the attitude of some administrators.

Maybe, if I will be charitable, the pervasive lack of communication is due to sheer incompetence and/or laziness. Or, if I will be more cynical, perhaps, the powers-that-be fear that students don’t want to hear changes that will undoubtedly disappoint them. “If we tell students that their reading week is reduced, perhaps they won’t donate,” they might think. “Perhaps [gasp] there may even be a protest!”

If this is the notion of some administrators — and I hope it isn’t — their fears are misplaced. If a change is being made regarding the university’s policies, students would like to be apprised of it before its implementation, even if they don’t agree with it. It should not be — although it currently is — the job of the student newspaper to be the sole conduit between the administration and students on such issues. This situation actually creates more resentment among students than would otherwise be the case. 

I would like to stress that this negative aspect of university life is not the fault of Executive Director of Communications Mechal Haas. In fact, through all of my correspondences with her — and there are too many to count — Mechal has responded with the seriousness and professionalism expected of a university administrator. Most readers are unaware of her efforts — her name has only appeared in three news articles. Despite this, over the past few years she has been the primary liaison between The Commentator team and various members of the administration, working tirelessly to get us the information that students deserve in a timely manner. While, at the end of the day, we worked for different interest groups, our combined goal was to make Yeshiva a better place. 

The lack of communication is exacerbated by a broader group of administrators. Yeshiva can be compared to a large machine with many parts. While one part may work individually, the other parts must also work together for the machine to run. I am, of course, not negating the efforts of administrators who have communicated effectively to students. They should be commended for doing their job. However, senior administrators must go the extra mile and create a culture of professional communication. The following standard should be set by the administration: “We should send out complete and accurate information to students, faculty and parents regarding new university policies — like calendar changes — as often as we send out emails to the community asking for donations.” 

One area on which there is less general criticism is the lack of communication from the student body to the administration. The mission statement on our masthead states that The Commentator provides a “reliable reflection of Yeshiva student life.” In many ways it doesn’t. The opinions of the student body are an integral part of student life, yet, regrettably, that aspect is not reliably reflected in this newspaper. 

If one takes a look through The Commentator archives, they would witness ideological scuffles between faculty members, administrators and students. The writers were blunt with their critiques and sharp in their observations. Each side in a debate made their full viewpoint known to the newspaper’s readership without constant qualifiers or apologetics being appended to their arguments. 

I perceive a general fear among students resulting in an unwillingness to share their opinion. The position of such students is completely understandable. They probably surmise, “If I share my hot take on X, I won’t be hired for a job in the future, or worse, get a good shidduch.” Before writing certain Commentator articles, I will admit, I have considered these factors. There are some opinions I hold that I never revealed publicly because I didn’t want certain aspects of my personal life to be compromised. It is a valid, legitimate and understandable position, especially during the modern internet mob culture. 

Such a position, however, comes with deleterious consequences for the body politic. For example, if a certain group of students feels more comfortable expressing their opinion than another group of students — who fear general societal repercussions — the administration has no idea what the student body broadly wishes for. They might, therefore, enact certain policies or hold certain events that are counter to what the student body en masse prefers in favor of the loud minority. 

There must be a general acknowledgment, both at Yeshiva and in America, that the social dialogue requires healing. Without bouncing opinions back and forth — especially those that are controversial — there can never be social progress. I hope that five years down the line, The Commentator will not turn into an echo chamber, with each opinion reflecting a singular, bland, unoriginal viewpoint. If it does, that may not be the fault of the editorial board, but rather the fault of American society and the nature of the modern world. 

Students must be aware that The Commentator is their paper, that it offers them a forum to freely express themselves. They must also develop a certain resilience to outside pressure that would enjoin them from publicly expressing their viewpoints for the purposes of constructive change. Otherwise, policies in this institution will have no way of developing in a manner that reflects the will of the student body. 

My qualms regarding the communicative aspect of the university — or lack thereof — between both the administration and the students may be noticed by readers immediately after this editorial’s publication. But, due to the low level of institutional memory, it will most likely be forgotten in a year or two. Then the cycle will probably repeat with another editor-in-chief in a few years lamenting a lack of communication and dialogue or some related concern, and no constructive action will probably be taken. Indeed, with a little research one can find many similar points being made in the reflections of previous Commentator editors-in-chief with no demonstrable change in university policy. This view may sound cynical, but it is the cyclical nature of Yeshiva. 

Hopefully, the COVID-19 pandemic has caused the administration, faculty and students to understand which aspects of Yeshiva need to be immediately worked on and adjusted. So far, I remain concerned for the future of this important institution — as evidenced by my previous editorials and the sentiment provided above — but I have confidence that, if provided with the right leadership, Yeshiva can thrive and be a beacon for Orthodox Judaism. President Berman, please impress me.

Alas, through the trials and tribulations, The Commentator survived the year, as I hope and expect it will survive for many years to come — under the presumption, of course, that Yeshiva survives as an institution. After all, wrote Commentator editors of years past, “As long as there’s a Yeshiva College, there will always be a Commentator.”

Our newspaper has served Yeshiva for 86 years under 99 editors-in-chief; it is an indispensable part of university life, spurring discussion and action on a host of issues. As operationally dysfunctional as Yeshiva might currently be perceived, without The Commentator acting as a check on power it would be dystopian. 

As I pass the baton over to the 100th editor-in-chief, I would like to thank him for his stalwart dedication and loyalty to the paper. It is why I appointed him to a position requiring much responsibility and seriousness. Readers can be assured that I am leaving this newspaper in worthy hands. 

Sruli, I hope you are not provided with difficult choices comparable to those I have faced during my tenure — which I will not dwell on publicly. That’s not what you’re signing up for; no editorship of a college paper would be worth it. But, if you are provided with the toughest of choices, take it in stride, deliberate and expect that your team will have your back. Don’t let the antagonists and detractors frustrate your noble mission. 

I believe that next year’s team, emerging from the COVID-19 era, is set to be one of the strongest in The Commentator’s history, and I am proud to have overseen its formation and development. They have certainly grown, as a team and as individuals, through this time of adversity and challenge. I have left a paper that is more financially comfortable (thanks, in no small part, to the efforts of Meir Lightman) and editorially experienced than the one with which I was initially provided when entering this position (in fact, it was unclear at the beginning of the year whether we would even have enough money to regularly print — we ended up printing eight issues). 

Going forward, it will be incumbent on the next generation of Commentator editors to establish themselves as student leaders. I will be happy to provide advice when asked by my successors, though they can rest assured that I do not plan on snobbily dictating The Commentator’s path in the times to come.  

To my successors on The Commentator, be sure to trust and be on the same page as each other. And, if you don’t agree on something, try to civilly work together for the betterment of the paper and the university — questioning each other’s sanity, judgment and capabilities will only make things worse. Future editors must take this lesson to heart: In general, trust Commentator leadership, or else you may risk sinking the ship, and this is not a ship worth sinking. 

Euripides was once quoted as saying: “When a man has for his words a noble subject, it is easy to speak well.” It would have been easy for me to speak exclusively in a positive sense about Yeshiva — there are, indeed, many reasons to do so. It is more difficult to dig beyond the surface than to express the basic predilections of the administration. Finding and publicizing the truth is a frequent cause of hostility and ill-will. However, if I did not take that path, if my team had not investigated and criticized certain unsavory aspects of this institution’s underbelly, my job on The Commentator would have been a simple line on the resume, and not the experience of growth I had.

I’m somewhat glad to finally breathe a sigh of relief, though, overall, I remain fond of my three years of experience on the paper, including the challenges I faced, and reflect on them as maturing moments. I look forward to seeing what the “Commie” has in store for students, administrators, faculty and alumni — like me — in Vol. 87!