Jewish teen delegates tackle global issues head-on at Yeshiva University model UN

Click photo to download. Caption: A scene from the 24th annual Yeshiva University National Model United Nations (YUNMUN) conference. Credit: Yeshiva University.

By Cindy Mindell/Connecticut Jewish Ledger/JNS.org

STAMFORD, Conn.—The United Nations is in session. Sam Collins, Croatian delegate to the World Intellectual Property Organization, rises to address the debate on a topic currently occupying the Global Access to Knowledge Movement (A2K): Should free or low-cost smartphones be distributed to populations of developing countries?

He suggests, “Instead of giving them information, let us give them data; instead of giving them the halacha (Jewish law), we would give them the entire Gemara (Talmud).” Collins bolsters his argument further with a more pedestrian example: “Instead of giving them one ready-made slice of pizza, we give them all of the pizza ingredients and see what they create.” 

Welcome to the 24th annual Yeshiva University National Model United Nations (YUNMUN) conference.

Click photo to download. Caption: At the 24th annual Yeshiva University National Model United Nations (YUNMUN) conference, holding the Latvia sign is Melvin J. Berman Hebrew Academy (Rockville, MD) sophomore Natan Kelsey, and holding the Liechtenstein sign is senior Isaac Soltz, from the same high school. Credit: Yeshiva University.

Collins, 17, was one of seven delegates from Robert M. Beren Academy, a modern Orthodox day school in Houston and one of 46 participating Jewish day schools from North America, Brazil, and South Africa. From Feb. 9-11, the Stamford Plaza Hotel and Conference Center in Stamford, Conn., was home to some 450 teen delegates, who debated and untangled the world’s most crushing problems, breaking only for regular mandatory minyanim, optional study sessions, and kosher mealtimes. 

“The Gemara comparison fits into the context of YUNMUN by bringing a complicated intellectual subject and putting it into terms that can be understood by all,” says Laura Mitzner Paletz, a Beren alumna who has coached the Beren delegation together with her husband, Steven Paletz, for the last three years. “Sam was bringing forth the idea that, instead of giving the international community the answers to their questions, we should give them all of the data that produced that answer. That way, not only would they have the answer but they would understand the reasoning behind it and perhaps further expand the conversation by adding other findings.”

The Paletzes’ involvement in YUNMUN goes back to their high-school days, when Steven was a member of the Yeshiva University of Los Angeles High School delegation in 2010 and 2011. The two met while studying at Yeshiva University (YU), where they were both involved in the event in various capacities, including committee chair (Laura) and secretary general (Steven). They now volunteer at Beren Academy as a way to give back to the Houston modern Orthodox community.

Click photo to download. Caption: At the 24th annual Yeshiva University National Model United Nations (YUNMUN) conference, student Mendy Friedman of The Frisch School (Paramus, NJ) represents Israel. Credit: Yeshiva University.

Theirs is not an unusual story at this student-run conference. Many committee chairs, all YU students, first came to the event as high-school delegates. Marc “Ziggy” Zharnest, YU’s Gerald and Mary Swartz International Director of Outreach and Recruitment, first participated in YUNMUN as a high-school delegate in 2003, served as secretary general for the 20th conference, and is one of the event’s longest-tenured staff members.

This comes after six months of preparation. Schools apply in September and receive country assignments in November. The committees and debate topics are posted online in December, and each delegation must submit a position paper for each committee their members will serve on, before YUNMUN opens.

For the four delegates from Colégio Iavne in Sao Paolo, Brazil, the selection process began with a high score on the Bechina Yerulshalmit, an international Judaic and Hebrew course of study designed by the Jewish Agency for Israel and Hebrew University of Jerusalem. The students work with teachers on writing their position papers and presenting their points in English, and are coached by former YUNMUN participants.

“This conference shows us a different reality,” says Iavne delegate Rebeca Spuch. “We don’t normally get exposed to situations like this, where we have to act like grownups defending their country. I had never even heard about a Model UN. We would never have this experience in Brazil.”

This is the fourth year Iavne has fielded a delegation, after hosting a group of YU students who gave a presentation on the university at the day school. A Brazilian-Jewish family sponsors the delegation.

Click photo to download. Caption: Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks—former chief rabbi of the United Kingdom, who holds a dual professorship at Yeshiva University and New York University—speaks at the 24th annual Yeshiva University National Model United Nations (YUNMUN) conference. Credit: Yeshiva University.

“We want our students to get exposure to the environment of YU and to other modern Orthodox Jews around America, so we want them to get inspired and to understand what they represent in our country,” says Rabbi Saul Paves, Iavne’s principal of Jewish studies and the delegation’s faculty advisor this year. 

As a recruitment tool for YU, YUNMUN is run by the university’s admissions department and is heavily underwritten by the school. “These kinds of events are meant to entice kids to seek admission to these universities,” says Kathy Sklar, a 23-year veteran faculty advisor for the delegation from Akiva Hebrew Day School in Detroit. “We are one of YU’s feeder schools; all my senior applicants get admitted and a percentage always goes. YUNMUN offers so much intensity and value to these students—learning to understand and debate issues, being part of a political process, and there’s a strong social aspect as well. They have a great time and they take this very seriously.”

Indeed, Zharnest says that YU sets up the event to reflect the university’s “Torah U-Madda (Torah and secular knowledge) flavor,” from the decorations to the optional shiurim (Torah lessons) to the kosher food, to the committee chairs’ conduct. YUNMUN is the largest Orthodox Model UN, even though not all participating schools are Orthodox. “Everybody gets along, nobody is disrespectful, the students look at each other as the countries they’re representing and are friendly to each other,” Zharnest says. “We don’t force religion, but we don’t want anybody to feel uncomfortable—as long as they follow the basic dress code.”

In fact, while conference rules stipulate business attire and the university’s tzniut (modesty) policy, a female delegate wearing tzitzit was welcome.

“It is fair to call YUNMUN a ‘Jewish Model UN,’ considering that all of the staff and delegates are Jewish,” says Laura Mitzner Paletz, the Beren Academy coach. “Therefore, there is a certain understanding that exists regarding Jewish ideas and ideals.”

This year’s conference comprised 15 committees, with each of them meeting for five sessions. In addition to debating the agenda of issues set by each committee, delegates wrestled with unforeseen crises as well. At 2 a.m. on Feb. 11, members of the Security Council were awakened and called into an emergency session, designed by committee chair Paige Snyder: Word had just come in that India was funding Chechen rebels. Pakistan and China, responding to information that the U.S. was giving India military aid, were aiming nuclear missiles at the U.S. In reaction, the U.S. was now pointing its weapons at Pakistan, China, and Russia.

The Security Council had two hours to defuse the situation. By the end of their session, a ceasefire was drafted and passed by a majority of delegates, who also ratified a 30-day grace period for talks to determine a permanent solution.

The potential disaster and its resolution may only be hypothetical, but the skills honed in the exercise are taken seriously here.

On Sunday evening, as the teens prepared for two days of immersion as Croatian or Pakistani or Swedish diplomats, Secretary General Adena Kleiner (YU ’14) sent them off with an adult agenda.

“Walk into your committee sessions knowing that what you gain can be used to change the world,” she said at the end of the opening ceremonies. “Recognize that your words and arguments have resonance beyond these walls. Most importantly, I challenge you not to underestimate yourselves. Begin to improve the world today.”

Kleiner’s words followed those of keynote speaker Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, former chief rabbi of the United Kingdom, who holds a dual professorship at YU and New York University.

“I hope I will not be too controversial if I say that the UN has some room for improvement,” Sacks said, to laughter and applause. But, after a lifetime of forging multi-faith friendships both personal and political, Sacks can also tell the story of cooperation across differences. When a student asked how the worldwide Jewish community can foster support from non-Jews, Sacks invoked Irwin Cotler, the Canadian-Jewish Member of Parliament who organized his country’s first-ever National Justice Initiative Against Racism, in parallel with the government’s National Action Plan Against Racism.

“I spent 20 years trying to make friends in the non-Jewish community and because of those friends, I was able to go to European prime ministers and relate to them,” Sacks said. “That is why, when [anti-hunger group] Oxfam [International] wanted to support boycotts against Israel, I was able to invite the heads of that charity to our home, and together with the Board of Deputies of British Jews, we were able to back off from the boycott. We do have enemies, but if we go out to make friends, we will make friends. Avraham Avinu may have kept himself distinct. But because he was willing to fight and pray for the people of Sodom, when it came to the moment where he needed help from his non-Jewish neighbors, what do they call him? They says, ‘You are a prince of God in our midst!’ Go out, be true to our faith, be a blessing to others regardless of their faiths, and people will recognize that we are ‘princes’ and ambassadors of God.”

Less than 48 hours later, a now-hoarse Kleiner would bang the gavel to bring YUNMUN XXIV to an end, but not before each committee chair bestowed certificates for Best Delegate, and First and Second Honorable Mention.

SAR Academy in Riverdale, NY, took home the top prize for Best Delegation; Maimonides School in Brookline, Mass., came in second, and Melvin J. Berman Hebrew Academy in Rockville, Md., was third. The room echoed with school chants and cheers for winning delegates. Students were jumping, hugging, up on their chairs swaying to a recording of the rousing “Amar Rabbi Akiva,” the unofficial theme song of the closing ceremonies.

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Posted on February 17, 2014 and filed under Features, U.S., World.