By: Ariel Kahan  | 

In Retrospect: Part I

I have no idea how we are already here. There are three weeks left until the end of the year, but it feels like it began yesterday. Not the year — the YU experience. The best and most formative period of my life to date is ending before my eyes, but I am still trying to grasp it. How can something that has impacted almost every fiber of my bone also feel like a dream?

Everyone has an image of a place before they get there. In fact, everyone has dreams about their future daily life in new institutions. I spent hours of my last few weeks in Yeshiva in Israel imagining my time as a future student at YU. Would I make new friends, and would I be able to adjust back to tests and papers? Would I meet my future wife? Similarly, we often have a first day (usually a bad one) in a new place and convince ourselves that it is fully representative of what will come to be.

Luckily, that is usually false. On my first day of YU, I contacted the then Editor-In-Chief of The Commentator because I was interested in writing an article. To be clear, at the time I thought, there was no way I was ever going to get so involved in the paper or be on the editorial board. I just wanted to have the experience of publishing one or two articles. After speaking with him and seeing how hard he worked and how professional he was, I thought to myself, “Anyone who is ever Editor-In-Chief must be going crazy.”

So, I really hope that is false (it was in the case of my predecessors). This is a job I never imagined myself having and actually didn’t want. Even once it was offered to me, it took me weeks to accept. I eventually did. 

Good choice.

So here we are, and I have two editorials left in which to reflect on YU and The Commentator. 

Below, I seek to impart my thoughts and reflections on YU, the people who work there, and the more professional aspects of The Commentator. 

Over four years ago, then a senior in high school, I walked between Glueck and Furst with my mom on my official visit to YU. As we parked the car, we got out and heard some music in the background. As we got closer, I heard the words “shivti bveis hashem kol yemei chayei, lachazos benoam hashem ul’vaker bheichalo” playing in the background. While it was a coincidence that the day I was visiting to check out YU was the day of a Hachnosas Sefer Torah, there must have been some hashkacha pratis. Within two minutes, I was mesmerized by a “college experience” where people danced with the Torah. YU would be another three years of easy access to the values that I had grown to cherish. If I wanted to grow on a certain religious trajectory, it was a no-brainer. On the spot, I decided I was going to YU. On my interview that day, I wasn’t asking questions to try to ascertain whether YU would be a good fit. In fact, I wasn’t thinking at all (which probably explains my performance during some of the interviews). 

I chose YU faster than I choose what to order at Grandma's. And it was one of the best choices of my life.

YU is a place filled with opportunity. That can be a double-edged sword. There is opportunity to grow and flourish, and there is opportunity to slack off. There is opportunity to discover a sense of self, and there is opportunity to lose the ability to think independently. There is an opportunity to make new friends for life and an opportunity to only associate with those who are most like you externally. Like many things in life, the experience is defined but what you make of it — but it is especially true of YU.

The experience starts and ends in the Beit Midrash. By choosing YU one is gaining special access to a tremendous amount of Torah. Realize that this is not something you can get anywhere else. An opportunity to get a serious degree while learning in shiur with giant Gedolei Torah is something we all take for granted sometimes. It is the backbone of YU and what makes it special.

For the past three years, I had a tremendous zechus to learn under Rav Zvi Sobolofsky, whose shiurim have given me insights into topics in Shas I would have never understood otherwise. Through many of my hardest times at YU, I found solace in hearing an hour of shiurim on Nichsa Drabbii Abba or Shliach Na'aseh Eid accompanied by some witty, comedic tangents.

Similarly, my experience in morning seder and night seder brought to my attention the culture of the Mazer Yeshiva Program, or YP as it’s generally known. If there was one constant source of fascination and curiosity throughout my years, it was this seemingly like-minded cohort of individuals who share similar viewpoints and lifestyles, with little public deviation. I have spent hours wondering who gets to determine which extracurricular activities are frum and which are not, or why nobody wears khakis anymore. Whenever I meet adults who were in this program, I try to understand whether the YP culture was always this intense (and at points kannaish) or it is a recent development.

The only reason these are important questions is the way they may affect YU more broadly. Will seeing the proportion of black hats in Glueck on Friday night attract a more Yeshivish contingent to YU? Does the insularity of much of the student body by morning program negatively affect overall camaraderie? Will YU feel comfortable calling itself a Modern Orthodox institution 50 years down the line considering the current trends? I am excited to see how the future plays out. 

As mentioned before, YU is what you make of it. That certainly holds for the academic portion of YU. Over my time at YU, I have taken some fascinating classes that piqued my interest, such as Bible with Ari Mermelstein and History NYC’s Jews with Prof. Gurock. Similarly, there is an opportunity to learn from tremendous pedagogues. On this point, I would like to thank Professor Zaitseva, who has been a true mentor during my time at YU and has helped me in the classroom as a lecturer and as a resource for conducting research. Professor Zaitseva cares deeply for every student and YU is lucky to have her.

While I always feel inadequate in the eyes of many of my predecessors who had the job before me, I could give one piece of wisdom to future editorial boards of The Commentator: build and maintain a good relationship with the university administration. You don’t work for them. But you also don’t work against them. You work with them. While it will get stressful at points, and nobody is going to be 100 percent satisfied, it is a worthwhile endeavor. 

 I am proud of the connections we made with the University. Most of the administrators I have worked with have been wonderful (there are exceptions). In particular, I would like to acknowledge VP of Communications Doron Stern. While I am not going to pretend that I never got frustrated with you (and I am sure you felt the same way about me), I cherished our time working together and benefited from the relationship. Mr. Stern is certainly good at his job, and YU is lucky to have him.

I am also thankful for the special relationship I developed with President Berman. From my first day on this job, President Berman was always exceptionally warm and nice to me and always tried to make time for meetings and interviews. President Berman, I learned a ton from just watching the way you carry yourself and consider it a privilege to have gained a real relationship.

I would like to end this portion of the editorial with one message to future Commentators: always remember who the ultimate boss is. Be yashar. You have a higher calling in life than just journalism. Always make sure that is reflected in The Commentator.