Student Union Leader Works to Promote Tolerance as well as the Students' Welfare
She says that politics for her is a means, not an end. "It is a means to realize an outlook, to navigate to what we believe."
She is Yaira Cohen, a 25-year-old graduate student who is the first female chairperson of the University's Student Union. Cohen's outlook includes mutual tolerance among Israelis, fostered by a respect for multiculturalism. It is part of her zeal to do some good for society, whether the broader society or the student body that she leads.
"If I were not at the head of the Student Union, I couldn't do this," the Haifa students' leader says of her program to build bridges between sectors of the student population, as well as between generations. "I don't think that someone else could do this if he or she didn't believe in it," she adds in verbal demonstration of this do-good ardor.
She contacted Habad to run a model Seder to show all students on campus what the Jewish holiday of Passover is all about. It was an unprecedented act for an overwhelmingly leftist, secular student organization and body. She called on Eskesta, the Ethiopian students well-known dance troupe, to perform near the students caf? the day after so-called Land Day, an annual political event at the end of March that arouses much tension throughout the country among Israel's Arab community. Her thought was that Jewish and Arab students watching this performance would help diffuse tension on campus. She believes she can bring about moderation through activities.
She also allocated funds for the students' celebration of Id al-Atkha, a Muslim holiday. The purpose was twofold. One was to teach Jewish students about Arab holidays, just as Arab students could learn about Passover at the Habad Seder. Yaira interrupts herself to make a point of informing her interviewer that an Arab member of the Student Union had helped to organize the Seder. She explained the other purpose like this: "We can't escape the different populations on campus."
The welfare of the students is another preoccupation of the head of the Student Union. "It's sometimes impossible to imagine how some students cope with their problems," she sighs. She cites economic problems as the most prevalent, and would like to increase the number of scholarships that the Student Union itself awards. This perhaps unprecedented action for a students organization was initiated several years ago, before took Yaira took hold of the reins. She is quick to point out that the recipients are required to donate ten hours of work in the community each week.
Students have other problems, emotional and academic, and often taken them to Yaira or to another student on the Student Union rather than to the Dean of Students or to counselors in the University's Berman Center for Psychological Counseling and Career Guidance. "It's easier to approach another student rather than the establishment," she remarks.
That may be true, but it keeps the chairperson's phone ringing day and night. She said she had prepared for an active year by lessening her course work. Besides trying to promote her peace agenda on campus and lending a sympathetic ear to students, she sits ex officio on various University committees. She is also the liaison between students with complaints against, say, a lecturer or the Dean of Students or even the University management. She had been in office for only several months when she talked to Focus, but it was enough time to admit that the task "has greatly changed my life."
The chairperson took her most recent fight, for the construction of a Students Center, to the Board of Governors this past June. An appropriate facility where students can hold dances, parties, club meetings, and other cultural activities is sorely lacking on campus, she feels. The Governors concurred, calling on the University management to give the project priority, including formulating a construction timetable.
Yaira, a native Jerusalemite who came to Haifa to study, in part because "the open air and sea radiate an atmosphere that suits me," majored in sociology and political science as an undergraduate. Her activism first found an outlet in social causes, such as battered women and the emotionally disturbed. She decided she wanted to work in the field of youth rehabilitation; as a result, she is doing her Master's degree in criminology.
Asked for a reaction to being the first woman to chair the Student Union at Haifa, Yaira uttered a terse, "It's about time." The position itself gives her great satisfaction. As she put it, "I am happy because I can get things done." Yaira Cohen may be soft spoken, but she speaks with assurance, and she knows what she wants to do.
The Student Union secretary who set up the chairperson's appointment had asked how long the interview would last. The interview was now over. It was 10 o'clock in the morning, and as though on cue, her cell phone began to ring. During the course of the interview, Yaira had undone the short ponytail in which her hair was tied. She now put her hair back into the ponytail. It made it easier to handle the phone as she walked down the corridor.