Wednesday, December 05, 2007

President Joel

    What you will conclude from the next anecdote, I cannot guess.

    I was in the streets of Frell with my father when a man pelted him with an overripe tomato. While wiping at his clothes, my father spoke kindly to the man and ended by resolving his grievance. Afterward, I asked why the man hadn't been punished. When Father told me I'd understand by the time I became king, I said I didn't want to be king if people threw tomatoes at me. I said it seemed a thankless task.

    Father roars with laughter when he tells this tale. Now I know why: It is a thankless task, but tomatoes are the least of it.

    ~Ella Enchanted, 211


This may be peculiar to me, but whenever I read this quote, I can't help but think of President Joel. It seems to me like the kind of thing President Joel might say, the clever anecdote he would relate which allows him to laugh at himself and in turn, allows the crowd to laugh alongside him. Far more importantly, however, I feel like this is actually the truth. People are upset because of whatever real or imagined grievance or grudge they bear and therefore they throw tomatoes at people. And the people stop and listen patiently in order to figure out why exactly they were so honored and are now licking sticky tomato juice off of their lips, solve the problem but are never adequately thanked. Indeed it is a thankless task to be a king, monarch, ruler, president or any person in a position of authority.

I can't say I know that much about President Joel. I know that he has an exciting office in Stern, since that's where they held the Bone Marrow drive and it was quite fun to sit in his swivel chairs and to be informed that this is where he holds tea parties. I know that he's excellent at giving speeches. I know that he usually stays at events overtime in order to answer everybody's questions (and invariably some of mine.) I know what people say about him, how they disparage his role in the same way that they disparage every President's role, claiming that he's simply there in order to be a figurehead and raise money. But I don't think so. Because there are different kinds of University Presidents. There are some who are approachable and some who are unapproachable; they each exude a different kind of aura, allow for a different kind of energy. And so, whether I know him well or not, I like President Joel. Because I do feel that he's approachable and that if I had an issue of enough import, I would be able to go speak with him and that he would hear me out. And I wonder sometimes whether people realize how amazing and valuable that is. That assuming I wanted to, I could just make an appointment and stop by and have a discussion with the President of this University. And he wouldn't be condescending or mock me or look down his nose at me while wondering how quickly he could thrust me from his presence. At least, I don't think he would be. Because that's not the vibe I get from him.

I appreciate President Joel. I appreciate his presence and his jokes, the fact that he works for us, that he's approachable and accessible and above all else, interested. I really do feel like he's interested in the students and in what we have to say. I appreciate the fact that we have unmoderated questions at our Town Hall Meetings. And I don't think that we can or should expect straight answers to all of those questions, because obviously the President cannot commit to anything in public; if he does, we'll never let him hear the end of it! So he has to be careful. He has to phrase things carefully. But that doesn't mean he's not listening. In fact, far from it! He is listening, only he has to come up with a set of priorities, because some things are more important than others.

Has it ever occurred to you to think of President Joel as a human being? Sometimes we think of people only in terms of the position they occupy. We forget that they are human beings, capable of having good days and bad days, of being happy or sad, that they have families and children and their own worries and troubles. For example, I was initially surprised to realize that President Joel had a family. I had gotten so used to thinking of President Joel as President Joel- as just that man, within that position. But he does have a family- he has a wife and children. And isn't that interesting? That in addition to all his other responsibilities, he has his private life, his family and friends and the people whose company he values, and he has to juggle making time for them with making time for all of us. And that can't always be easy.

I started to think about all the meetings and dinners that he attends. I know it's his job; I'm not arguing that it isn't. But every meeting or event or function that takes place in the evening is one more dinner he isn't having with his wife (well, unless she accompanies him) or with his family. And did you ever think about that? About the things that people have to give up for our sakes? Maybe this doesn't strike you as being particularly important. It strikes me as being important. It's those things, those little things, that time that is spent on us and on the school- well, that time is being channeled in one direction and not the other. That time is being given to us and not to whatever activites or interests he may have as a person, whatever it is that he wants to do that evening. What if he had a really bad day and just wishes he could go watch a movie? Or maybe read a book? Or maybe he would just like to go to sleep early. None of this is in his hands. His job comes first. His work comes first. No matter how he's feeling, no matter how much he'd like to go to sleep early, he has functions and dinners to attend, people to placate and soothe, students to see too, complaints to answer. I would hate this job. He performs splendidly.

Because that's what it is in part, isn't it? A performance? President Joel is a performer, a dramatist, an actor on the stage of YU. That doesn't mean what he says isn't heartfelt. Far from it! Certainly he means what he says or at the very least believes in the ideals behind what he is saying. But he also strives to entertain, to provoke laughter, to allow others to feel positively in his presence, to work in good feeling. Perhaps this is effortless on his part or perhaps he works at it. Either way, he does it skilfully. I am always amused when I hear him speak; every speech includes funny lines and invariable "slips" that amuse and are quoted for days (if not for weeks.)

I appreciate the open lines of communication. I appreciate the fact that if I ever wanted to, I'm free to invite myself over to President Joel's house for Shabbat (just give his wife three Shabbatot on which you are free and presto! you're invited.) I know people who've spent Shabbat there and have had a fantastic time. I know I plan to take advantage of this at least once (and ideally when I have something worth saying or suggesting.) I don't know as much about his policies, especially since I wasn't here in the days of the previous President, but I appreciate the personality behind President Joel. I think that the personality is what makes the man. And perhaps to some extent this personality is a mask he wears, crafted in order to fulfill his role as leader, but I don't think so because there's a lot about him that strikes me as being genuine. I think he really does want the best for the Jewish people, and he's working to achieve that goal.

Those of you (or perhaps us) who disagree with President Joel generally disagree with his methods. We may not think YU is the best place for every prospective Jewish student. I've heard students say they were not pleased by the seeming dismissal of every yeshiva to the right of YU (i.e. Ner Yisrael and the like) or to the left (other secular colleges.) They'd prefer that we not put down schools in order to raise ours up. And that's a valid point. Others have said that the President doesn't always remember them when he meets them. In that regard, I have to say that I understand people who don't recall names but remember faces and I don't think it's right to take it personally. Each person has their own issues with YU and it will probably stay that way; the student body is diverse enough to allow for all of us to pleasantly disagree with one another. But even if you do disagree with President Joel's methods, you can't argue with his passion, with the fact that he has a vision of what he wants to do and is trying to implement it. And that's a very difficult thing to do, to win everyone's trust, to placate one group and soothe the other and woo yet another committee by promising them this but that means taking it away from that one. It's a delicate game and a difficult one and it would cause me endless headaches. Which is why I'm glad it isn't my role.

So I guess what I'd like to say is thank you. Thank you to the President for being so open and willing to speak and interact with the students, thanks for giving of your time to attend functions, events, dinners or Chanukah parties (even if you meet extraordinary personalities there, I can't help but think that sometimes you would like evenings to yourself), thanks for opening your home to us on Shabbat and thanks for all the amusing and entertaining anecdotes. And for providing material to speak about (or quote.) And thank you also for the serious moments, the times where you say something and it comes across as really honest, like your statement about the dignity of man and how you feel that man really is ennabled and ennobled. That was one of those authentic, meaningful statements that it's really important to hear. I appreciate.

It's a party at YU with President Joel at the helm...I've never been so entertained. Here's hoping you are, too.

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