Leah Joshowitz, a junior at Hillel Academy of Pittsburgh, has been spending months preparing to defend the human rights record of Sudan.
Not that Joshowitz is a proponent of civilian murders or sexual violence against women and girls or the forced evacuation of thousands of innocents from their homes. She’s not.
But going through the exercise of learning about a country of which she previously had little knowledge, and the art of compromise, was an invaluable educational experience for Joshowitz as a participant in YUNMUN, Yeshiva University’s National Model United Nation’s program for Jewish high school students.
Five students from Hillel — Joshowitz, Yael Itskowitz, Shira Itskowitz, Ezra Kraut and Jacob Wiesenfeld — traveled to New York last month to join with 500 other high school students from countries around world — including Brazil, South Africa and Israel — to participate in the 26th annual competition.
Advocating for Sudan was a challenge, Joshowitz said, but it was a good challenge.
“We had to learn how to present extreme opinions in a very moderate way,” she said.
YUNMUN, which is run by YU students and administered by the school’s admission department as a recruitment tool, is a “major production,” according to Gayle Kraut, the local volunteer who runs the Model U.N. club at Hillel.
“At least 50 schools show up,” Kraut said, adding that Hillel has sent a delegation for “numerous years.”
The competition is a “simulation of the workings of the real United Nations that gives students an opportunity to experience and learn about the complex landscape of international diplomacy,” according to YUNMUN’s website. “In advocating for a given country, students must conduct thorough research of that country’s interests and policies across a wide range of issues and concerns, adding both to their knowledge of world affairs and to their appreciation of and facility with research, preparation, communication and critical evaluation.”
The event runs for two-and-a-half days and is held off-campus at a conference center.
YUNMUN may be the only Model U.N. in the United States that draws solely from Jewish day schools, Kraut said, and its impact extends beyond the educational.
“It’s a way for the kids to network,” she said. “A lot of it is social, but the kids take it very seriously.”
Kraut, an attorney, has been coaching Hillel Model U.N. students for eight years. It is one of the only clubs at Hillel that is coed, she said.
“It’s such a great experience for the kids,” Kraut said. “It challenges them to think more creatively, especially when they are given a country where they really have to look at things from many perspectives.”
Countries must be studied holistically, she said, with aspects such as geography and religion taken into account, and advocacy for a particular country sometimes can stretch the way the children are used to thinking.
“The students may have to take a view opposed to their own personal views and be convincing to a committee that may have opposing views,” Kraut said.
Each year, the school is assigned a different country, and students are assigned to various Model U.N. committees, allowing them to tackle different issues.
“The students learn how to negotiate and compromise with other countries with different agendas,” Kraut said.
The issue of honor killings, for example, posed a challenge for the students, who took the position that it should be in a sovereign county’s own hands to resolve the issue and not for the U.N.
“It’s a sensitive balance,” Kraut said.
The Hillel students have been meeting weekly for the last five months to prepare for the competition and to write their position papers.
While Hillel did not take home any awards this year, the students nonetheless “felt really good about how they did,” Kraut said. “I was really very proud of them.”
In addition to honing her negotiating skills, Joshowitz appreciated the opportunity to meet and socialize with other Jewish students from around the world.
“As someone who goes to a small school, I think it is great that Hillel made it possible for me to attend YUNMUN and to meet new kids from around the country,” she said. “I totally will do this next year. It was so much fun.”
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at email@example.com.