By: Zachary Notkin  | 

From the YSU President’s Desk: Welcome to YU, It’s Not a Simple Place

The premise of this article is simple. As one of the Student Council presidents, I am writing to welcome new and returning students to the Yeshiva University 2023-2024 academic year. For me, this is bittersweet, as it marks my (hopefully) final year on this campus, after so many in both MTA and Yeshiva College (YC).

I suppose I should also give you advice, although I hardly feel qualified to give it. YU is a large and unique place. After all these years, I am only beginning to understand how much I don’t know. Despite my previous familiarity with the campus and its inhabitants, I found starting undergrad to be difficult. Between religion, academics, healthy habits and a decent social life, I felt pushed and pulled to my breaking point. I know that many returning students agree, and new students, you have been warned.

But I also met some of the most warmhearted, accepting, and kind people here, and I will cherish those relationships forever. Sure, it started rough, as the Gemara states “Kol hatkhalot kashot — all beginnings are difficult,” but, with time and support from my friends, I got through it. I would like to make it clear to first-time students that it gets better, and that I have witnessed and experienced the dire problems caused by the stigma around mental health issues. Everyone, I repeat everyone, needs help sometimes.

To return to a lighter note, the push-and-pull that is universal to the YU experience reminds me of a question once famously posed in a letter to Rav Hutner zt”l. The questioner asked how the tug of war we experience in our lives between the holy and the profane, the religious and the secular, the beit midrash and the classroom, does not constitute a contradictory double life. Rav Hutner answered that only a person with two homes lives a double life. But if he has a house with a dining room and a living room, he lives not a double life, but a broad life. Walt Whitman, in reference to his own apparent contradictions, said “I am large, I contain multitudes.”

As your years pass here at YU, countless, varied opportunities and decisions will present themselves. The opportunities to get involved include the multiple student councils, each working to improve the student experience in their own way and with their own focus. There are countless clubs and organizations that each provide a distinct and meaningful addition to the lives of those who choose to participate in them, as well as a broad spectrum of academic and religious offerings. I implore you to explore these options and, over time, find out what works for you. Do not limit or constrain yourself or others on the basis of what crowd you grew up in. Even worse would be to judge or dismiss others on the basis of their external characteristics, such as what color shirt they wear, something I have experienced far too often here. Jonathan Schwab, a man I am proud to work alongside at the Office of Student Life, actually did a PhD dissertation on this topic, and he found that religious male students almost universally feel isolated out of fear of being judged by their peers. 

My advice, to both first time and returning students, the right-wingers and the left-wingers, those who love YU and those who hate it, is the same. Put yourself out there and take whatever opportunities strike your fancy. Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there, don’t feel constrained by your preconceived notions and don’t be afraid to fail on your first try. Don’t let peer pressure turn you into something you’re not, and find role models where you don’t expect them. It’s hard and it takes time, but you’ll get there. And, even if you can’t do that, don’t judge other people for it.

I hope to hold some sort of town hall or office hours over the first week of classes so that I, as the President of the Yeshiva Student Union, can help facilitate those opportunities. I look forward to meeting all of you, and just in case I don’t, I welcome you here as well. As president of YSU, I hope to create a welcoming environment here for all students, no matter their race, religious observance, sexual orientation or gender identity.


Photo Caption: The author directing a student at 2022 orientation

Photo Credit: Yeshiva University