By: Rivka Bennun and Jonathan Levin  | 

Apathy, the Five Torot and Student Involvement on Campus: YU is Ours for the Taking 

When we first entered YU, neither of us entertained the thought that we would eventually become editors-in-chief of The Commentator. Coming to a school with no journalism major and lacking any prior experience, we were never obvious choices for this role. 

It turns out that you don’t need any prior experience in something to succeed in college. Thanks to many hours of hard work and mentoring from past Commentator editors, combined with actually taking the plunge to sign up and write, we began a journey that resulted in our articles making national headlines and creating change on campus. Eventually, we were honored to be selected as editors-in-chief of this nearly 90 year-old paper. 

Therein lies the beauty of beginnings. To achieve success in college requires just two things: a willingness to try, and the conviction to succeed. 

It requires no past experience or academic success. It doesn’t matter how large your financial aid grant is. You just need to get involved. Excitement and passion for making campus a better place and making YU the best place it can be will get you far. 

The small undergraduate student size of Yeshiva University — approximately 2000 students were on campus last spring — offers us many opportunities to get involved in YU’s many student organizations and gives every student a stronger voice than they would have in larger schools. Not only is it fun, but one can make a difference while gaining valuable skills and experience in the process. However, despite myriad opportunities, the biggest issue facing student organizations on campus is apathy: It is hard to convince students to be active.

Take student government, for instance. By election day last May, only three of 19 elected positions on Wilf Campus were contested, and eight  — including all Sy Syms School of Business positions and Yeshiva College Student Council president — lacked a name on the ballot and were write-ins only. Election data released on Beren Campus elections only includes winners, but many high-ranking positions, including Beren Campus Student Government president and executive vice president, and Torah Activities Council president, went uncontested. 

The running joke in student government and major student organizations on both campuses is that the same small circle of students do everything from running the Seforim Sale to student government. 

This apathy extends beyond Yeshiva University’s programs as well. Upon one of us attending the annual Israel on Campus Coalition summit earlier this month, it was a surprise to discover that despite the presence of hundreds of students — both Jewish and non-Jewish — from over 100 universities across the country, there were no other current students from the “flagship Jewish university” there. Despite our status as arguably the most pro-Israel institution of higher education in the country, we almost went unrepresented at a major pro-Israel student gathering.  

The question is why, especially considering that Yeshiva University itself encourages activism and involvement. YU has run trips to aid Ukrainian refugees, promoted chessed in Central America and has worked to help people affected by disasters in our very own city. There are multiple programs, including the Straus Scholars and the new Leadership Scholars, that aim to promote student involvement and debate on modern-day issues, both on and off campus. Our institution has also taken steps to improve interfaith relationships, inviting influential Muslim figures to campus, running joint conferences with Emirati universities in Dubai, offering Master’s degrees in Jewish studies for Christian students at Revel, and even having our university president speak to 10,000 students at Brigham Young University.

The principles behind all these initiatives are grounded in Yeshiva University’s values and play a prominent role in YU’s outward expressions of its philosophy.

Contrary to popular belief, Yeshiva University’s public displays of its five core Torah values, like those at the entrances of campus buildings, are not and were never about vocalizing how our values manifest internally — which is perhaps why they aren’t taught in classes — but are instead meant to express their external manifestations to the world at large.

The university’s expression of its values and the importance it assigns to engagement stands in stark contrast with the levels of apathy on campus, which is surprising. Sadly, we can’t answer why this is the case, although there is no doubt that several competing factors have contributed to this situation. 

Nevertheless, the very nature of the college experience makes this easily reversible. Opportunity on campus is available to everyone, regardless of one’s past, background or hometown. It is not restricted to just a few active students. Indeed, it is incumbent upon those active students to help include and acclimate newcomers into the fold. Regardless of who you were in the past before coming to YU, you need only to take the first step, and your conviction will write your story for you, for the betterment of our entire campus community.