There’s More to YU Than the Papers
As I start my senior year at YU, commencement and graduation are already on my horizon. My exit approaches at a time of remarkable turmoil, as, to an outsider, my campus experience probably feels as if it can be defined by the ongoing Pride Alliance lawsuit and the national attention it has drawn, especially in light of the Supreme Court appeal last year and the lawsuit’s related fallout. Past years, too, have had their shares of controversy, some of which I have written about, though on a smaller scale. Looking at YU history through the student newspapers’ archives paints a portrait dominated by large student events and frequent controversies. That is the written story of our YU experiences.
But those recorded highs and lows do not capture anyone's actual experience. One does not go to college in The Commentator. Much worth noting happens at YU that is not quite newsworthy. Both campuses offer impressive lineups of shiurim and feature regular opportunities for academic and intellectual advancement. A typical week presents a wide array of club events offered, thanks to the hard work of invested students and the staff at the Office of Student Life. Most professors are excited by and interested in sharing their knowledge with students. These can and should be part of your experience, but you will rarely read about them in the papers.
More specific aspects of a YU experience will be more dependent on the individual. I share my own experiences here, believing that many others have similar stories. In my first year of YU, when I was going through a rough stretch, I went to my RA who was incredibly patient and friendly, and he helped me get the help I needed. His kindness helped me turn around my YU experience. This experience was no aberration, and I have met many similar people in this institution, individuals who have bettered my life and the lives of others with their grace and caring. But none of this is “newsworthy.”
I have been in multiple situations in a campus beit midrash where, upon a person's pencil box toppling over, several people immediately leapt from their seats to help pick everything up. In such moments, I truly believe in YU as a university that can epitomize Torat Chesed, a place where students reach out to one another with kindness. These little acts of caring, the good deeds that can’t be reported on, are a fundamental part of my YU experience, and my wish for all students here is to both experience them and pass this kindness on to others.
Now, of course, not all that goes unnoticed is positive. Negative aspects of YU also slink along without comment. While there are many students who are passionate about particular activities and topics, it seems we are at a low point in regards to student organization and activism. It is hard for me to tell if this is an issue of students not being interested or lack of administrative reception.
The idea of a broader, unified campus community also often appears absent. On Wilf, at least, it feels at best like religious subgroups tolerate each other’s presence. At worst, there are clear tensions between different Jewish studies morning programs which occasionally result in mudslinging between the different factions. These tensions, like the kindness, tend not to make the campus news.
I have also felt, and this feeling only grows stronger over time, that despite the increasing visibility of religious motifs in the school’s branding and talking points, the institution’s values are distinctly hollow. Rav Soloveichik is quoted in “Shiurei HaRav” as saying “One who seeks harmonies and euphonies in the tunes of Jewish prayer is destined to disappointment. What can be found is stichic eruption of feeling” (p. 82).
I often feel along similar lines regarding oversaturation of values in YU. I am bombarded with “harmonies and euphonies” of values, but inner feeling is dormant. To paraphrase the language of Psalm 42, I thirst for the spirit of the living God. The religious values promoted by the institution feel to me like sterile marketing, empty of this spirit. This emptiness will not be found in a news report.
None of this is to diminish the importance of large events, of course. But large-scale activities are few and far between. Most of my time in YU is not spent waiting for the next big thing. Similarly, as significant and consequential as any controversy may be, they don’t and shouldn’t solely characterize one's experience. If I have a particularly distinctive YU memory to share, it is myself and several friends singing a strange medley of tunes including a history of the Soviet Union to the tune of Tetris in the lounge outside Pollak Library, not realizing our choir could be heard up to the third floor of the library and in nearby Glueck Beit Midrash.
The Commentator will report on and record the major happenings of YU for this coming year, as measured by a paper's standards of importance. But one’s university experience will not be lived in words. One will find it in its entirety, the positives and negatives, the uplifting and the depressing, in the fullness of living in and investing in the institution. One will find it in the unusual and the unexpected. One will find it in the melange of major and minor occurrences in YU, in the kaleidoscopic treadmill of the daily grind and in the many not quite newsworthy moments.