Dr. Berman Calls for Introspection–Take Up the Charge

By: Mindy Schwartz  |  September 14, 2017

In his short time as president, Dr. Berman has clearly placed a large emphasis on defining the univeristy, answering the worn-weary questions: What is YU? What does it mean to be a university and to be–as YU claims–the flagship of Modern Orthodoxy?

In a letter written to students the week before the investiture Dr. Berman wrote, “…In our rapidly changing world it is essential that YU know itself. We must forthrightly articulate the values for which we stand…we must identify and be passionate about YU’s grand purpose in the context of the Jewish community and broader society.”

He began taking up this charge in his speech at the formal investiture event on September 10th in which he set out to, at least in a broad way, define the values on which this university is based. He claimed that YU rests on five “torot,” or foundations: Torat Emet, the belief that the Torah is Divine, Torat Chaim, the imperative to “engage in the world and be responsible to the world,” Torat Adam, the belief in humanity, Torat Chesed, the need to fight for justice, and, lastly, Torat Zion, the responsibility to not only support Israel but also to “move history forward” and “redeem the world.” While his speech was certainly stirring, his definitions were in many ways vague. There is a wide spectrum of Jews, for example, who believe in Torat Emet, even a wide spectrum of definitions of the phrase itself–but should they all be included in our institution? I sincerely hope that Dr. Berman’s first attempt to articulate the university’s values is only the beginning of a larger movement to clarify what this university stands for, what it believes in, and what it will do to stand up for those beliefs.

Dr. Berman asks YU to “know itself” and has already made one attempt to articulate that self-knowledge. However, his request is a forminable task for any individual, harder still for a university that contains within it such spectrum of students from varied religious, social, and cultural backgrounds. While Dr. Berman’s five “torot” sound beautiful, it will take more effort than just finding the right phrasing to unite a school that often feels segmented by the style of students’ skirts, jeans, kipahs, or button down shirts.

It is essential that the university administration engage the student body in these soul searching conversations; a grand mission on paper is nothing; in the end it is the students who are tasked with lifting that mission off the page, with representing it and carrying it out in their lives. To his credit Dr. Berman echoed this sentiment, ending his speech on Sunday by urging everyone, including students, that “now is the time to get involved” in the future of YU.

But as students we should not just wait around to be engaged with – we must be proactive in engaging in these issues ourselves. We should take ownership over the issues facing this university and we should empower ourselves to discuss them and take action when necessary.

This is why I feel privileged to work on The Observer at this precise moment in the university’s history. This paper is meant to be an open platform for students to discuss the issues, events and topics that they care about it. When a student living at home was upset by new commuter policies at the Beren dorm buildings, she wrote and published an article to publicize the issue. When members of the drama society wanted to give credit to their own for successfully securing the uptown theater, they seized the opportunity to write a report and spread the word. When students were dismayed about a campus event or a prevailing student body attitude, they were able to share their feelings with the rest of their univeristy in our pages.

In this moment we can be more than just a gathering place for student body opinions; we can be a sounding board for what students think the “values on which we stand” and the “grand purpose” of our school should be. Here at The Observer we want people to feel welcomed and encouraged to speak their mind. Take that issue that you care about and advocate for it, write about, submit it and hopefully you will begin a discussion about your ideas that will transform them from a think-piece to real life change.

It is then important to stress that The Observer is a place for all students to voice their opinions about issues, whatever those opinions may be. As a newspaper we want to be a sounding board, not an echo chamber. Observer staff members all have our own ideas for what YU should look like and we will publish about them freely in the opinions section and in editorials. I personally identify as an Orthodox Feminist and I have written and will continue to write OpEds advocating for increased Talmud learning opportunities at Stern College, a change which I see as vital to the “grand purpose” of this institution. But, given basic standards of respectability and diction, I will happily publish articles which deny the very existence of Orthodox Feminism, critique feminism as movement, or in any other way challenge my views.

Simply put: The Observer as an entity is not defined by any single student’s opinion–not mine or anyone else’s. Our goal is to be a place  for students to speak their mind, nothing more and nothing less. I ask sincerely that if you disagree with what I or any other student publishes in this paper,  submit a response article or letter to the editor and fight your corner.

But beyond that, this year specifically I make one more request: help us make The Observer a place where all students not only feel comfortable voicing their opinion, but feel empowered to take ownership over this special time in their university’s history and engage in this YU’s quest to “know itself.” Send us your OpEds. Tell us what you think YU should be, what you think makes it great, and what it should do better. The paper is here for you to make yourself and your ideas about our school heard–all you have to do is write.