You Need To Calm Down: Defining Activism

By: Shayna Herszage  |  December 20, 2020

Shayna Herszage, Managing Editor

Since the birth of the Jewish Activism Club at the start of my second semester on campus, I have noticed a strange, tragic, and amusing trend. When the word “activism” is mentioned, many of my peers get uncomfortable. It seems that, in the constant Yeshiva University struggle between trying to bring change and not rocking the boat, we have lost the understanding of what activism really is.

While my high school English teacher always said never to include a dictionary definition in writing, this is one instance where I must disobey him. The Cambridge Dictionary describes activism as: “The use of direct and noticeable action to achieve a result, usually a political or social one.” Activism, at its core, is just what it sounds like: action. A person or a group of people acting because they believe in something — whether that may be maintaining the status quo or changing the state of things.

In the Yeshiva University community, activism is considered something inherently controversial. As such, many members of our community shy away from activism because they do not want to be controversial themselves. However, we must remember that believing in something is not inherently controversial — it is part of what makes us human.

Without activism, we do not get change. This has been the case in world history (such as the American Revolution), Jewish history (such as Channukah), and, yes, YU history. If not for activism in Yeshiva University — social media campaigns, meetings with administration, the power of the press, and more — the student body would not have the voice it has in the college experience at Yeshiva University. 

For example, exactly a year ago, during the fall semester of 2019, the Yeshiva University student body was in turmoil. The cafeteria payment plan had changed for the worse, and students were rationing cafeteria money by the start of the High Holidays. If activism — in all its daunting glory — did not exist, we would have suffered through the semester with rationed caf money.

However, as many students may recall, that was not the case. We, as a student body, stepped up and acted out. Our voices were amplified through the YU student newspapers with caf plan activists such as Mili Chizhik and Akiva Poppers. Petitions were signed and conference calls were held. By the end of the fall semester, the caf plan was changed back to its original parameters.

The student-led campaign to fix the caf plan was far from controversial. Nevertheless, it was activism. It was students seeing a problem and fighting to bring about change. What about that is not activism?

We also see activism through many of the clubs on campus. For example, Active Minds is arguably one of the most popular clubs on campus. Active Minds takes on the important and relevant topic of mental health advocacy and destigmatizing mental illness. While mental health is still a topic the community is in the process of adjusting to speaking about, Active Minds is not considered a “controversial” club in Yeshiva University.

In case the context of this article and the word “Active” in the name did not already make it clear enough: Active Minds is an activist group in Yeshiva University, acting to decrease mental health stigma. Active Minds, and other such clubs, consist of people who are passionate about something to the point that they wish to publicize, to bring awareness, to take action for their values. When activism is defined without the fear Yeshiva University has built up around the word, some of YU’s most beloved clubs, events, and individuals turn out to be rooted in activism.

Why should we be afraid to take action for our values out of fear of being labeled an activist? In fact, if you are taking action for your values, you are an activist. But that is hardly a bad thing, and hardly a controversial thing in itself. Activism does not require radicalism — it only requires passion enough to take action.