What is Yeshiva Poetry Society?
Yeshiva Poetry Society is the organization responsible for bringing performance poetry to Jewish high schools. It is a movement that embraces the highest ideals of the Modern Orthodox community and perpetuates them by passionately embracing Jewish text, culture and spirituality, while also engaging with the beauty and wisdom of all poetic traditions.
YPS is rooted in the values of the yeshiva, the values of discourse, of careful listening, of earnest debate, of refracting the eternal questions ‘Who am I?’ ‘Why am I here?’ ‘Who should I be?’ through the prism of Jewish history, Jewish text and Jewish culture. The belief that every individual is unique and has something to teach, and that meditation and introspection - sometimes by raising difficult questions or facing harsh realities - enables people to better fulfill their purpose and serve their Creator, these are the beliefs that suffuse the mission of YPS.
These values are manifest whenever students are given a theme (or “prompt”) that encourages reflection - freedom, masking, truth telling - and then gather to enthusiastically hear one another’s work. The results can be inspiring, thought provoking, humorous, or even disagreeable, but there can be no doubt of the value to the students who wrote the poem, or to the audience that listened.
Of course, sophisticated engagement with poetry in all its forms is at the heart of YPS’ mission. Each event that we organize has a formal component determined in collaboration with the school that is serving as host. Students have been challenged to work in classically Western forms, like sonnets and odes, as well as Eastern forms, like pantoum and haiku. They have performed in free verse and in rhyming verse. They have composed poems inspired by the work of Billy Collins (as assignment that amused Mr. Collins according to one teacher who mentioned it to him at a book signing).
In a media landscape where students are bombarded by selfies, tweets, viral videos, the shrill trolling of online comments sections and a thousand other distractions where language is rarely refined and words are seldom chosen with care or sensitivity, the act of writing thoughtfully, deliberating over word choice, meter and rhyme, followed by the experience of listening to other people’s responses to the same assignment, serves as a reminder that words still carry great meaning and that poetry, both written and spoken, is still a potent medium for sharing and tackling ideas and forging a connection to others.
The primary activity of YPS are slams, competitive readings and performances rather than a journal (though it would be lovely to publish one), or an internet forum (though we have a Facebook group where students share their work). In a school year that gives students many opportunities to meet (and compete) with peers at other schools in the form of athletic teams, debate, mock trial, chess and college bowl, no program previously existed that catered to students with an interest in the arts.
YPS strives to enhance students’ educations through the conviction that by encouraging students to become better poets, they also become better writers, thinkers, listeners and communicators. The impact will be manifest in a thousand different ways. Some students may develop a lifelong habit of reading poetry. Some may transition their experience performing poetry into a career in the classroom, the courtroom or the stage. Some students may come to read the psalms in their daily prayers or the high holy day liturgy with greater attention and concentration. Some may choose careers as writers. But whatever the outcome, Yeshiva Poetry Society is there to educate, empower and inspire.