By: Ariel Kahan  | 

Night Seder Or Yom Ha’atzmaut Program? Making Decisions Based on Values Rather Than the Herd

I think it is widely recognized on campus that many YU students walk a tightrope in which they tend to focus on their areas of interest, whether it is learning, a major, or an extracurricular, and tend to exclude from their minds what takes place outside their “daled amos.” In general, I think this is true both with respect to other campus activities and groups, as well as with respect to broader issues. For example, although the vast majority of YU students are deeply committed to Israel (more on that below), it is striking how little discussion there appears to be on campus of the internal battles that are consuming Israel today.

I do not intend the above observations as unqualified criticisms. I think the laser-like focus reflects the fact that YU students have such an identified set of values and are in many cases under such substantial financial and time pressures, that they only participate in things that will help them achieve their goals. And I am certainly as guilty as the next person of elevating my own personal goals over broader concerns.

But I do worry that sometimes we are missing the forest for the trees and want to focus in particular on tensions that many students feel with respect to night seder as a lens to consider larger questions of how to find community and fulfillment at YU. Many YU students have serious learning aspirations when they enter YU and organize their day to fit in as much learning as possible. This is certainly praiseworthy and a legitimate reason to miss most events between the hours of 8–10 PM (not that any of this needs my haskama [endorsement]). 

But is this true of every single event? While most on-campus events held by YU do not attract major attention or consideration for attendance, there are in my experience at least three exceptions: The Yom Hashoah Program, Tekes Ma’avar (the Yom Hazikaron/Yom Ha'atzmaut Program) and Stomp Out the Stigma (mental health awareness). Throughout my tenure at YU, I have noticed that these three events are all scheduled in conflict with night seder, presenting many YU students with an interesting and often agonizing struggle. To skip night seder or not?

Below, I seek to give over some brief thoughts on the topic without telling people what to do. This is certainly not an easy dilemma, and it can be attacked from many different angles. 

Needless to say, the easiest way to solve this conflict would be to change the schedule. If these events were planned around night seder, it would ensure that more students come to these events. That being said, while many YU students complain about scheduling (not enough time for finals, vacation days), I have come to realize that the people making the schedule have thought about timing for these programs ten times harder than I have and that it is very difficult within the constraints of the full day-and-night learning cycle of YU. Although many suggest that key programs should start after 10 PM (myself included), this is too late and would deter similar amounts of people from coming and be inconvenient for guests who do not live on campus. Similarly, canceling the 6:45–8:00 PM class slot to accommodate a program would result in significant complications for the academic schedule, and it would be unfair to the university professors, especially in the case of Yom Haatzmaut because their classes are canceled the next day. 

In my experience, there is a significant contingent of people who know exactly what they want to do but are afraid of what their peers might think. Being comfortable with yourself and your decisions is a major key to enjoying student life at YU, but it is not always easy (and probably not as easy as it should be), and we should be wary of when to impose conformity. If you are too worried about what the “chevra” is thinking, the YU experience will be harder and less growth-oriented for you. If you are someone who wants to go to a program, you should stick with your convictions and go — you will not regret it. And if you feel differently, you shouldn’t shame the person who goes — there is a place for peer pressure in some areas of religious life (talking in shul comes to mind) but this is not one of them.

For those who are struggling, there are other practical approaches. You could schedule the two hours of learning you missed for another time of the week or squeeze in another half hour here and there. Similarly, you could stay for some parts of these programs that you find essential and squeeze out the rest of the time for learning. Showing up for a reasonable amount of time is doing most of the job. 

At the end of the day, if you think attending the program would be too much of a disruption for you, it is an understandable and respectable choice. But I do think it is important while on campus you find something to do in the realm of acknowledging Yom Hashoah, Yom Ha’atzmaut and Yom Hazikaron to make sure you are taking personal responsibility for the community's needs.

Ultimately, I do not suggest there is a perfect solution to this conflict for everybody. Reasonable people can take different approaches. However, in summary, there are a few important points that can be learned from the dilemma facing YU students. 

First, as mentioned above, people should be hesitant to complain about scheduling because the people planning these events work hard, and just because it didn’t go your way doesn’t mean it was obvious. The problems are harder than a simple fix.

Second, students make these decisions by themselves in accordance with their own values and reasoning and not in response to peer pressure or expectations from others. Similarly, others should respect the decisions of their peers without overtly or covertly judging them. And that goes in both directions.

Lastly, and maybe most importantly, while prioritizing learning schedules over these events is reasonable, it is important that people who do this should find other ways to commemorate important community days and events. Even if you don’t think anyone will care if you personally take time or not, acknowledging that you are part of a broader community is important, and a core tenet of what it means to be a Jew.