Teens Tackle Global Issues

February 20, 2014
BY Cindy Mindell, Connecticut Jewish Ledger/JNS.org
Jewish delegates face off at Yeshiva University model UN
Berman Hebrew Academy (Rockville) students Natan Kelsey (holding the Latvia sign) and Isaac Soltz (Liechtenstein) take part in the YUNMUN Conference.  (Yeshiva University)

Berman Hebrew Academy (Rockville) students Natan Kelsey (holding the Latvia sign) and Isaac Soltz (Liechtenstein) take part in the YUNMUN Conference.
(Yeshiva University)

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 halachah, we would give them the entire Gemarah.” 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 Conference.

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 to 11, the Stamford Plaza Hotel and Conference Center in Connecticut 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 Gemarha comparison fits into the context of YUNMUN by bringing a complicated intellectual subject and putting it into terms that can be understood by all,” said 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, 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.

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.

“We don’t normally get exposed to situations like this, where we have to act like grownups defending their country,” said Iavne delegate Rebeca Spuch. “I had never even heard about a model U.N. 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,” said Rabbi Saul Paves, Iavne’s principal of Jewish studies and the delegation’s faculty adviser 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,” said Kathy Sklar, a 23-year veteran faculty adviser 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 politi-cal process, and there’s a strong social aspect as well.”

Zharnest said 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 Torah lessons to the kosher food to the committee chairs’ conduct.

“Everybody gets along, nobody is disrespectful, the students look at each other as the countries they’re representing and are friendly to each other,” said Zharnest. “We don’t force religion, but we don’t want anybody to feel uncomfortable — as long as they follow the basic dress code.”

“It is fair to call YUNMUM a ‘Jewish model U.N.,’ considering that all of the staff and delegates are Jewish,” said 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 its 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.

“I hope I will not be too controversial if I say that the U.N. 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,” said Sacks. “That is why, when [anti-hunger group] Ox-fam [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.”

Three schools took home the top prizes for best delegation: SAR Academy in Riverdale, N.Y.; Maimonides School in Brookline, Mass.; and Melvin J. Berman Hebrew Academy in Rockville.

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