By: Dov Pfeiffer  | 

Ripples of Excitement and Currents of Dissatisfaction: The Early History of the Gottesman Pool

Little justification is really needed to write about the Benjamin Gottesman Pool. As long as students continue to frequent the Beren and Wilf campuses, it is quite likely that any complaint from a Wilf student to a Beren student about the amenities on Wilf will be met with the indignant response of “You have a pool!” As such, it seems worthwhile to look at the process that brought the pool into being.

While planning for a pool had begun as early as 1983, the Gottesman Pool first entered the public scene in 1986. This may not have been the first attempt at a pool as there have long been rumors, which continue to the present day, that the gym in the basement of the MTA building was initially meant to be a pool. These rumors may have confirmation from a special edition of The Commentator published Dec. 15, 1982, which reports the planning of the Max Stern Athletic Center. There, an explanation for why the current MTA gymnasium was insufficient has the following passing comment: “‘But what we called a gym,’ one administrator recalled ‘was never supposed to be a gym. It was supposed to be a swimming pool.’” Around this time, the idea of an on campus pool had gained some traction after members of the YC swimming class were accosted on their way to the gym YU had rented out. An editorial in the Nov. 1983 issue of The Commentator called on the administration to build a pool in addition to the athletic center.

Thus, on Dec. 10, 1986, The Commentator reported on plans to build a pool, which had become public knowledge after being announced by the Office of the President. The funding was to come from private donors, not named in the article, though, as the article notes, this would not take into account pool upkeep costs the university would incur from that point on. It was also noted that women from Stern College would not be allowed to use it, after opposition from roshei yeshiva. The article explained the reasoning: “Rabbi Tendler was quick to point out that there is no halachic problem involved with the use of the pool by women, provided separate hours were maintained. The issue at hand would be one of ‘form’. Appa­rently it would distract from the Yeshiva atmosphere if once or twice a week a bus full of women were to appear on campus, towel and swimsuit in hand.” 

Following this announcement students had a long time to reflect on the pool, as pool plans were not finalized until early November 1988, as reported in the Nov. 22, 1988 Commentator, because of funding and design concerns. That article estimated between a year and eighteen months for the pool to be completed. It would finish in time for the beginning of the fall 1991 school semester. For all the strength and vigor that would characterize the responses to this new expenditure, it is interesting to note with the benefit of hindsight that, barring exceptional circumstances, all the students who would be excited for or upset by the new uptown pool would graduate before any YC student could dip their toes into it. Student responses can be roughly divided into three categories, namely, excitement for the pool, critique of pool funding as better allocated elsewhere and critique of women being excluded.

Starting with the first, the Sept. 8, 1988 Commentator lists the planned pool as one of many factors producing high quality of student life. Similarly, in the Feb. 18, 1987 Commentator, then-new Athletics Director Dr. Julius Shelvin saw the pool as a valuable addition to the uptown campus. The critique of women being excluded is also fairly straightforward. The Nov. 30, 1988 Observer editorial described that “some Stern women responded angrily, claiming that SCW should be able to use the pool on certain days.” The editorial proceeded to sketch out plausible methods for female students to gain pool access, be it uptown or elsewhere.

Easily the most common and most complex expressed reaction criticizes the amount of funding devoted to a pool when other points were of much greater need. The Dec. 24, 1986 Observer editorial states it is not begrudging the men's pool, rather requesting the administration be attentive to Stern students’ desires for improvements on their campus. A petition for library improvements with around 150 signatures could be found on the following page. The outcry here was ultimately successful. The Feb. 18, 1987 Observer reported on library renovations undertaken, saying, “The changes in the administration's attitude has come after a semester of uproar within Stern's student body. The student's outrage over the poorly equipped library and sports facilities seemed to come in response to the proposed pool to be built on the uptown campus.” An editorial from that issue also referenced that air of student unrest, and thanked the administration for responding to it with improvement. A similar, retrospective, sentiment is found in a Sep. 22, 1987 Observer article titled “Separate — But Equal?” which noted the lack of attention to needs in Stern, wondering aloud if Stern College was viewed as an equal partner to Yeshiva College under the Yeshiva University umbrella.

In that same issue, another funding-related critique was raised. At that time, many of the university workers had threatened to strike based on low pay. The other Observer editorial in that issue tacitly supported the workers’ cause and asked for a compromise to be reached. In a news article about the situation, Laverne Weekes, the union organizer and one of the chief union negotiators stated, “Listen to how they say they really don't give a damn — they're going to build a swimming pool uptown.” In a different article in that issue looking at student opinions on a worker protest, one student took the opportunity to swipe at the pool saying that if the workers complaints were valid, they should be paid, but not through a tuition hike. Instead, “[l]et them take the money out of other things, like making the pool a little bit smaller, for instance.”

Another critique of the pool, closely related to the former, related to teacher pay. In the April 8, 1987 Observer, a full-page article discussed the paltry pay of professors, a situation that had led to a Supreme Court case a short while prior. The article criticized many aspects of teacher treatment, including low pension funds and the expectation for professors to give courses on very different subjects. Thus, given the context, it should come as no surprise that Prof. Lauren T. Hatvary, chairperson of the Faculty Welfare Committee, took the opportunity to take a shot at the pool: “What troubles me is that no one wants to contribute money for faculty raises. After all, what is intrinsically more important — a university’s faculty or a pool?” Among letters to the editor in the next Observer affirming Hatvary’s claims, one includes the line, “One can have a college without swimming pools, fancy bricks in the sidewalk … One can not have a college without teachers. For some strange reason, YU has attended first to all the luxuries and ignored the one necessity.” Additionally, in a reference likely meant critically in this context, Prof. Will Lee, in an article about which he indicated his plan to write in one of those aforementioned letters, seemed to encourage donors to fund departments instead of just amenities like pools.

Over time, this chatter died down, and eventually, construction began in late April 1990, and the pool was completed a year and a half later, in time for the start of the 1991 fall semester. As time passed, the particular circumstances that brought the pool into being and the reasoning behind its policies became muddled. Nevertheless, its status as a beacon for discontent with YU spending has not ceased. 

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Photo Caption: Gottesman Pool

Photo Credit: Yeshiva University Athletics