Friday, March 28, 2008

Julian Strikes Again

Dear The Commentator and Kol Hamevaser,

About three-quarters of the way through his fascinating account of “The Great Media Wars of 1967” in Kol Hamevaser, Zev Eleff interjects some editorializing which paints a rather unpleasant picture and confirms some very unfortunate suspicions.

Mr. Eleff treats us to a brief discussion of the role of a “student leader”:

“According to Rambam, and indeed most authorities, a judge, or any leader, must meet rigid qualifications that take into account the candidate's scholarly and ethical credentials. The standard, however, is not what the public considers wise and scrupulous. The candidate for a seat on the Sanhedrin must meet a divine standard and prove himself to be one of the seventy most learned individuals of God's Torah; his scholarly benchmark has nothing to do with the average intellect of the masses. Similarly, a candidate, and kal va-homer, an initiated member of the Sanhedrin, must prove his worthiness and ethical backbone by functioning on a higher, more ideal standard than the one expected of his constituents. Therefore, if the members of the Sanhedrin are to be our model for Jewish leadership, a student leader must be able to function while mindful of "the interest of the general student body" but need not necessarily reflect its interests - ethical or otherwise - if he believes he reflects the ideal interests of that student body” (emphasis added).

Though I'm not sure exactly how he gets this from the Rambam, Mr. Eleff believes that it is incumbent upon any leader to act on what he or she thinks is best and not on what the people actually want. Though this attitude may have been legitimate for the great leaders of the Sanhedrin, I don't think it is one that our “student leaders” should emulate. In fact, I find this to be a dangerous model of leadership, as it subjects the people to the whims of whosoever is arrogant enough to think that he or she knows better than everybody else. Though this is obviously a question for political theorists to debate, I will now demonstrate why I find this to be a particularly inappropriate attitude for the editor of a newspaper. A newspaper should be about news, not about pushing the agenda of its publishers.

In his article in the same edition of Kol Hamevaser, J-blogger Gil Student writes that, “bloggers have the option of remaining anonymous and very few choose to use their real name. This offers them the freedom to speak negatively about others without obvious consequence.” Later he tells us that “commenters do not always build a community of intelligent dialogue. Sometimes they insult and mock other people, and attempt to undermine that which is sacred. The anonymity which the internet allows only strengthens their audacity.”

The readership of The Commentator is all too familiar with how anonymity “strengthens audacity” and how it “offers the freedom to speak negatively about others.” I sometimes wonder if there are any organizations left at YU who have escaped vilification by one of those viciously nameless editorials. You've boiled the “alphabet soup” of YU (CJF, IBC, and YSU), taken on entire departments, and you've even attacked the homeless. Though an Opinions section is legitimate and even valuable, using a newspaper as a mouthpiece for rudely-worded vendettas and kol koreis week after week is less than proper. On the other hand, if the editorship had decided to include a detailed journalistic evaluation of the general success and satisfaction with IBC or whoever else was under the microscope that week, this would have been significantly more appropriate.

But what may have this year's worst sin was one of omission. After his discourse on leadership, Mr. Eleff discusses the notion of “objective journalism.” He concludes as follows:

“'The newspaper,' University of Chicago's Robert Park has argued, 'has generally been conceived of as a mere extension of the personality of its editors.' As many feel, today's Jewish media in America devotes significant number of newsprint columns on Israeli politics and how American politicians feel about those Israeli politics. Long past the Isaac Leesers and Mayer Wises who made nineteenth century Jewish journalism so investigatory and controversial, today's Jewish editors, as Brandeis' Jonathan Sarna has noted, have a different agenda. This does not mean that scandals and stories of yore are not out there. It means the motivation is not.”

Perhaps Mr. Eleff is too young to recall how The Jewish Week exposed and brought down child-abuser Baruch Lanner, but I can't imagine he doesn't remember the recent press coverage of a certain scandal involving one of our very own Rashei Yeshiva. Maybe what is veiled as a critique of Jewish journalism is actually a justification for one Jewish journalist's selective reporting.

Regardless of one's personal opinion on R' Hershel Schachter's colored political statements delivered at Yeshivat Hakotel, they were very much Yeshiva news. Obviously, Halacha must be observed and matters must be approached with the utmost sensitivity, but this was one of the biggest stories of the year in the YU world. Everybody knew about it, and everybody knew that The Commy left it out. An article or news brief could have mentioned that many at Yeshiva (myself included) believe that R' Schachter's detractors blew things grossly out of proportion and that he is strongly backed by the lay and religious leadership of YU. Perhaps a publication of R' Schachter's earnest apology would have helped better inform those whose only sources of information thus far were slanderous rumors. Instead, nothing. At least not for a while.

The truth didn't allow itself to be suppressed for long. Mirroring the inter-newsroom politics of 1967, R' Schachter's name finally made its way onto the pages of The Commentator through the back-door of the Purim edition.

I realize the irony of responding to an article about Lashon Hara with what is just short of an ad hominen attack on one of the most caring and hard-working members of the Yeshiva student body. I just thought it was necessary to remind everyone as we pick next year's editors that The Commentator should, true to its motto, be the “The Official Newspaper of Yeshiva College and the Sy Syms School of Business,” not “The Official Newspaper of Whoever Happens to be in Charge This Year.”

Julian Horowitz
YC Sophomore and contributor to The YU Vent (theYUvent.blogspot.com)

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Living and Learning in a Morg

Morg sits as the Cinderella of YU Batei Medrash: fairer than her homey sisters (i.e. roomier and more comfortable), yet denied the respect and resources to realize her full potential. Someday, her prince will arrive, correcting three major issues:

1) A Sefer Learning Environment. Morg lacks sufficient Sefarim, highlighting an almost ridiculous disparity between it and other BM. This is certainly not scientific, but I would guess that Furst has at least four times as many Sefarim in a space at least five times smaller. If I seek a reference Sefer, I head up to the Sefardi BM, whose dozen or so residents are privy to a far better collection than their numerous neighbors down under. Let them revel in their excellent resources! But let us too! Until then, Morgites will be united by that shared pet peeve: removing rows of Talman Talmuds looking for the Masekhta hidden behind, wondering when a new bookshelf and new Shas will finally arrive.

2) A Room of our Own. Can we have a Rosh Yeshiva? Please! While all BM suffer from the general truancy of our Rabbinic leadership, most have one that learns on a daily basis. Heck, Furst has three!

Imagine if Rav Rosensweig - who's shiur composes a fair share of Morg men - dedicated an hour a day to his personal makom in Morg. Even if not accessible for questions, he would always remain available for inspiration. If not Rav Rosensweig, how about . . . anyone!

3) Closed: No Learning Except During Posted Hours. Rav Shulman's shiur should not be in the center of a Beit Medrash used by any (let alone many) talmidim from other shiurim. Period. What is the Hava Amina?! I confess, I have not mustered the courage to mention it to him. Has anyone?

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When that blessed day arrives, Morg will morph into the Princess we know her to be. While there's little to do about her external features, three internal changes will finally bring Kavod to Bat Melekh's Pnim.

Opening The Vents of Communication

Kudos to our friend Simeon over at The Commentator for his shoutout (notice that The YU Vent gets the last word...). As a response/supplement to his article, I wanted to share with our readership one of the essays I wrote for my (as-of-yet pending) RA application. The question asked that I: "Describe something that you are personally passionate about. You now have an opportunity to translate this passion into action and be the “President of the Cause” for a day. What do you want to accomplish and as a leader, how would you accomplish it?"

I'm passionate about changing YU. When I got here, I found my transition to YU difficult and disillusioning. This situation was not helped by the senses of bad inertia and general dissatisfaction I found here. I hope that by the time I leave, things will have changed to the extent that most students at YU will view their experience positively. To this end I have joined the staff of a grassroots movement called The YU Vent (check us out at www.theYUvent.blogspot.com).

Publishing anyone who's willing to write (well), we've already begun to effect some changes based on what the students really want. You've seen the little post-it notes and pencils next to each library computer – that was us. Instead of the whining that happens on the pages of the Commentator, we've taken pains to meet with and contact administrators of all colors in the hopes that the student side will be heard and taken into account.

So what does all this have to do with the topic of this essay? My “cause” would be the creation of a special position or committee entitled “Student Advisor(s) to The President.” This body would serve dual, but complementary, functions. The few yokels who get to ask questions at the once-a-semester town hall meeting aren't enough for their administration to keep their fingers on the pulse of the student body. On the other hand, the students are often confused and bothered by some of the administration's policies and decisions.

The Student Advisor would open the much-needed channels of communication. Not only will he be able to tell the President/Deans/Vice-Presidents about the unpopularity of their decision at the Dining Room tables, but it will also be his job to explain the decision to the student body. Maybe if they really understood what was going on, they wouldn't disagree.

Only if we work together can we make YU a truly good place.