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Jewish teens tackle world issues at Yeshiva University’s Model UN

The Hebrew High School of New England delegation: (l to r) Dr. Nicole Brackman, Simon Ganeles, Akiva Garfield, Arianna Bouchard, and Avigayil Halpern.

The Hebrew High School of New England delegation: (l to r) Dr. Nicole Brackman, Simon Ganeles, Akiva Garfield, Arianna Bouchard, and Avigayil Halpern.

By Cindy Mindell

STAMFORD – 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, we would give them the entire Gemara.” 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 YUNMUN, the Yeshiva University (YU) National Model United Nations conference.

Collins, 17, is 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 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.

Connecticut students were represented on teams from Hebrew High School of New England (HHNE) in West Hartford and Westchester Hebrew High School in Mamaroneck, N.Y.

“[Sam Collins’] 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 school’s 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.”

Delegates arrive at the conference 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 delegations must submit a position paper for each committee their members will serve on, before YUNMUN opens.

Dr. Nicole Brackman, coach of the HHNE team, was approached last year by HHNE student Miriam Young, who suggested that the school field a delegation. “I think it’s a terrific forum for teaching debate and research skills, awareness of international issues beyond what’s in the news, and a recognition that smaller countries have a say in how policy gets made,” says the history teacher. “I don’t think there are very many ways for kids, especially in Jewish day schools, to get that awareness. The UN is vilified in the Jewish press as being anti-Israel, but on the level of operating committees, there’s a tremendous amount of work that gets done that is essential and effective.”

This is the second year HHNE has sent a delegation, and the first time for senior Avigayil Halpern of West Hartford. “I joined the delegation because I really wanted to have the experience of engaging with other Jewish students who shared my interests in politics and changing the world,” says Halpern, who represented Tunisia on the International Telecommunications Union committee (ITU). “I hoped to gain better public speaking and negotiation skills, as well as a sense of the scope of global politics.”

In preparation, Halpern wrote position papers about the two topics the ITU would discuss, from the perspective of Tunisia’s national interests, and researched both Tunisia’s political and national goals and the general structure and procedure of the conference.

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.

“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.

The Westchester Day School delegation included two students from Stamford. (L to r): Judah Powers, Stamford residents Gedalia Koehler and Eli Pinker,  Sarah Nahmias, Eliana Worenklein, and Darcy Stack.

The Westchester Day School delegation included two students from Stamford. (L to r): Judah Powers, Stamford residents Gedalia Koehler and Eli Pinker,Sarah Nahmias, Eliana Worenklein, and Darcy Stack.

The Westchester Hebrew High School team included freshmen Gedalia Koehler and Eli Pinker, both from Stamford. “YUNMUN is a wonderful organization where students learn public-speaking skills and off-the-cuff debating skills,” says Jennifer Atlas, who has been coaching Westchester’s team for six years. “We track the news about the countries we represent and the students become experts on those nations.”

Marc Zharnest, YU’s inernational director of outreach, who first participated in the conference as a student in 2003 and is not one of its longest-tenured staff members,  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.

“I particularly enjoyed having the chance to spend time with friends who live in other places, who were brought together by this conference,” Halpern says. “Adena Kleiner, the Secretary General, talked the first night about how we can work to change the world, not just in the future, but also right now, and that spoke to me.”

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 Tuesday morning, 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 U.K., who now 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 multifaith 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 Oxfam 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 say, ‘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. Three schools took home the top three prizes for Best Delegation: SAR Academy in Riverdale, N.Y.; Maimonides School in Brookline, Mass., and Melvin J. Berman Hebrew Academy in Baltimore. 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.


Comments? email  cindym@jewishledger.com.

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