It’s About to Get Awkward: The Truth About the YU Community
“YU is not a friendly place.”
At a recent Yeshiva University (YU) event, a faculty member spoke about the importance of symbiotic relationships between people, at times digressing to discuss the significant need for Orthodox Jews to improve the quality of our conversations. While in the middle of one of these tangents, he suddenly paused and bluntly rebuked the students on a more personal level. “YU is not a friendly place,” he said. Despite Jewish precepts, stories and values that encourage friendliness, students at Yeshiva do not actively make an effort to generate a welcoming environment and often remain in previous social circles, according to the faculty member. The administrator mentioned that he has been on too many elevators without anyone greeting him and engaged in too few conversations where people introduced themselves. While we have all heard the critiques of Yeshiva University for its supposed “cold” Shabbat life and intimidating beit midrash, this reproach was more resounding for some reason. The thirty students in the room instantly stopped eating their slices of pizza and were left speechless, wondering whether YU is, indeed, an aloof environment.
Every student at that moment, myself included, surely thought of times when he was guilty of these offenses. We all recalled moments when our eyes remained glued to our phones in an elevator, desperately wishing the other person would say nothing.
However, I would not say that the students in attendance, or any students at YU for that matter, are unkind, self-centered or socially unaware, so where does the resistance to extend kindness in these moments emanate from?
The hesitation to act kindly in a given situation can alternatively be characterized as an inability to overcome awkwardness. While everyone acknowledges that writing a thank you letter or paying a shiva call is the noble thing to do, the discomfort one feels in the moment or subsequent to the kindness is potentially cringeworthy. C.S. Lewis, in a magnificent chapter about friendship in his book “The Four Loves,” describes exactly this phenomenon:
A Friend will, to be sure, prove himself to be also an ally when alliance becomes necessary; will lend or give when we are in need, nurse us in sickness, stand up for us among our enemies, do what he can for our widows and orphans. But such good offices are not the stuff of Friendship. The occasions for them are almost interruptions. They are in one way relevant to it, in another not. Relevant, because you would be a false friend if you would not do them when the need arose; irrelevant, because the role of benefactor always remains accidental, even a little alien, to that of Friend. It is almost embarrassing ...We are sorry that any gift or loan or night-watching should have been necessary — and now, for heaven's sake, let us forget all about it and go back to the things we really want to do or talk of together. Even gratitude is no enrichment to this love. The stereotyped "Don't mention it" here expresses what we really feel. (Chapter IV)
Although Lewis is most directly speaking about a relationship between friends, his message can also be applied to how one experiences good deeds in general. The virtuous acts one does to another person are often felt to be odd or unnatural. When we hand someone a thank you letter or get our friend a surprise birthday gift, we cannot help but feel discomfort. We incessantly blush, refuse to make eye contact and subsequently shrug off the deed as “not a big deal.” Paradoxically, though, it is exactly these sorts of unnatural actions that mean the most and strengthen the relationships we have in this world.
Aside from Lewis’ focus on the action itself being simultaneously benevolent and awkward, kindness is also often brought about in a situation suffused with discomfort. Interjecting to introduce oneself in the midst of a conversation takes courage, but it certainly breaks the awkward eye contact and lack of communication between the two unfamiliar parties.
Moreover, we are also self-conscious of how those around us perceive us in these moments. Careful not to come off as arrogant, virtue signaling or cliché, we shy away from kindness in public. While we may hand a security guard a holiday present in private, it is too awkward to do this in front of a third party.
Although such motivations behind abstaining from acting virtuously in public have some merit to them, it is undoubtedly more beneficial to still perform the good deed. Public benevolence inspires the observer to engage in future kind acts. Additionally, the hesitations we have about “optics” when acting virtuously are almost always overstated, and the observer is most likely to look upon us as benevolent and not arrogant.
While at first glance the administrator's comment about the aloof environment at Yeshiva University seems to be a strong condemnation, the claim can also be understood much more positively. The notion that every student is guilty of the supposed “cold” environment at YU is indicative of the fact that there exists a real responsibility for each and every student to create a friendlier community. While at other universities such an imploration might be scoffed at, at Yeshiva University the expectations are alive and real. Perhaps it is because we are a Jewish institution, where everyone is intrinsically connected at some level like two unfamiliar Jews at an airport, or maybe it is because we all followed each other on Instagram at some point yet still pretend that we do not know each other. Whatever the reason may be, there is an existing bond and a potential for future connection between every student at YU, and the onus is on each and every one of us to take this initiative.
Do I think YU has a cold environment? Not really. I am often inspired by the friendliness and courage of many people. Recognizing that it is my first year on campus, many students introduce themselves to me in classes unprompted or go out of their way to ask about my well-being. In fact, the community has a certain reciprocity to it. Instead of simply judging the environment as an outsider, when one actually makes an effort to be friendly and create relationships, the community becomes warmer. More generally, unnuanced judgments about a community which is so diverse and has so many positive aspects to it are both unfair and dishonest, and Yeshiva is no exception to this rule.
This is not to say YU is perfect though. While it may be unreasonable to expect people with their introverted personalities and busy schedules to engage in small talk with every member of the world’s biggest college Jewish community, there is always room to improve — to finally learn that classmate’s name or sit at a different lunch table every so often. Any frustration I have, though, is actually rooted in an unprecedented expectation for college students: I believe that my university is capable of more. While at other schools unfriendliness is often an unfortunate reality, at Yeshiva University, overcoming the awkwardness to engage in kindness is a responsibility.
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Photo Caption: Yeshiva University in cold weather
Photo Credit: Foursquare