A female student helping herself to dinner in the Yeshiva University cafeteria usually stands out like plant life on Mars. But, in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy and the resulting influx of 200 Stern College women onto the men’s Washington Heights campus, the usual monotonous cafeteria scene was transformed.
Men and women, equally represented, stood together in lines and sat together at lunch tables, chatting, laughing and enjoying the co-ed hiatus.
“Biggest party of the year,” joked Josh Pianko, a senior. “Guess it took a hurricane — but who’s complaining?”
Stern’s campus — like much of Manhattan below 34th Street — lost power Monday evening and returned on Saturday night, and students were permitted to re-enter the dorms late Sunday afternoon. Classes for Stern women resumed on Monday. No students were injured in the hurricane, and they updated themselves on the rapidly changing circumstances through a stream of e-mails, Facebook messages and tweets. Women’s classes were cancelled all week, and the Stern dorms were officially closed to students on Wednesday evening.
While many students sought refuge with friends and family, accommodations near and within YU’s uptown campus were provided. While YU was initially prepared to vacate a male dorm for female usage, the measure proved unnecessary, with students placed instead with families and in all-female apartments. Joint weekend programming for men and women was also planned.
“Thanks, guys, for your generous offers to share your dorms with Stern women,” read one housing director’s Facebook status Tuesday afternoon, attracting a couple dozen “likes” and a sprinkling of comical comments. “To be clear: women will be housed exclusively with families and in female apartments. Your concern is appreciated.”
“Finally feels like a real university experience,” commented Joanna Ross-Tash, sitting comfortably at a mixed lunch table on Thursday afternoon. “It feels natural to have the men and women finally together. It’s ironic that it took an unnatural circumstance to finally neutralize the often strained male-female dynamic on campus.”
Yaniv Singerman, a sophomore, said, “I’ve gone to co-ed events before on campus, but there’s always this intimidating sense of expectation, like you’re supposed to meet someone. The last couple of days, with women around in the [cafeteria] and in the library, have just felt natural. No shidduch [matchmaking] agenda or anything.”
To be sure, the aftermath of Sandy for Yeshiva and Stern undergrads has been more than an excuse for socializing. Men’s classes, which resumed Wednesday, were in full swing. And many students spent time volunteering in ad-hoc efforts to help Sandy’s victims elsewhere.
But the newly (and “one-time-only,” stressed President Richard Joel in his address to the student body on Wednesday) co-ed scene was not met with unanimous enthusiasm.
“It’s downright disorienting,” said Mordechai Smith, senior. “Having our library and lounge become one big social scene is not conducive to getting work done. This situation has made me newly appreciate of having an all-males college.” Qualified Smith, “Don’t get me wrong —I have no problem with co-ed social events or clubs, but not when school’s in full swing.”
Men’s classes resumed on Wednesday.
In the Washington Heights Lounge noise levels were at a dull roar this week, with men and women milling around, joking and chatting into the wee hours of the morning.
“I honestly don’t think some of these guys know what hit them,” said Noah Small, a junior. “The lounge, the library, Nagel’s Bagels,” said Noah, gesturing dramatically towards the small café in the lobby of the main library building, “This is our safe zone. And, all of a sudden, it’s full of women!”
But, bottom line, according to Small, “It’s healthy. It’s fun. It’s just a chance to interact normally. I think, even for those who are clearly uncomfortable with it, it’s a good experience.”
Nodding along in agreement while Small spoke, Mordechai Gilbert, a second-year student, chimed in, “But what was with the girls soccer game on our quad last night? That was pushing it.”
Coming together as a student body, the men of YU and the women of Stern took part in a number of volunteer efforts to help in the aftermath of the disaster. On Thursday afternoon, over 70 students traveled by bus, cab or car down to the Lower East Side to provide food, flashlights, batteries and water to residents there, still without power.
“We walked up 16 or 17 flights of stairs, in the dark, using the flashlights we had brought to bring food and water to elderly individuals who hadn’t yet been able to make it out of their buildings,” said Margot Reinstein, president of one of the student councils on campus. “We didn’t realize the severity of the situation until we went downtown and saw for ourselves.”
Student volunteer efforts have continued. One student independently started a flashlight drive; another baked 50 challahs to send downtown, for both Jewish and non-Jewish storm refugees alike. Said Reinstein: “In the Heights, we’ve come together as a community, making sure all students, men and women, are safe. But, we’ve moved beyond our own community to help the greater New York community as well. It’s our responsibility.”
On Friday, students were gearing up for a co-ed Shabbat on the Washington Heights campus. The hurricane, which hit in the middle of midterms, has been disorienting for everyone, but the university has “handled this crisis in an extremely sensitive and professional manner,” said Tamar Schwartzbard, a presidential fellow at the office of student life. “The administration has worked to ensure that every single student is comfortable and safe. There’s no convenient time for a hurricane, but the student body has really come together in the face of this disaster.”
Many students took issue with the term “disaster.” Concluded two Stern women, before dissolving in a fit of laughter, “Who knew a hurricane would turn out to be the ultimate mixer? This beats homecoming and orientation combined!” The laughter stopped abruptly, as they realized a reporter was in their presence. “You’re keeping this anonymous, right?”
Hannah Dreyfus is a junior at Stern College.