Sitting on the steps of the St. Elmo's chapter house on Locust Walk, Yoni Perla (C' 24) smiles as he talks about the community he's created during his four years at Penn. Whether he's hosting a dinner at his frat or designing puzzles for people who text him on Shabbat, Yoni is eager to share his culture and faith with those around him and learn from them in return. As someone who "doesn't give a shit about musical comedy", yet is also a leader of Mask and Wig, he is always ready to hang out with friends and bring joy to others. But's not just at his frat or in his clubs. He also volunteers as a companion for people with dementia as part of Penn Alzheimer's Buddies and hopes to continue bringing community and care to the elderly as a doctor after college. You can be sure to spot Yoni on Locust biking past with a big smile on his face.
Name: Yoni Perla
Hometown: Riverdale, New York
Major: Computational Biology
You’re involved in St. Elmo, obviously. Can you tell me about that?
Freshman year, we weren't on campus until the spring because of COVID. I was definitely struggling to find community and friends. I would say I'm a very outgoing person. It was easy for me to meet people, but [really developing] close relationships was something I struggled with freshman year when there was no constancy in anything.
Joining a group like Elmo helped because suddenly I had this network of people that I felt more intrinsically connected to. It felt like a really tight–knit group. Once I came back in the fall of my sophomore year, I actually lived in the house. That was an insane experience, living right on Locust Walk. Elmo’s is a really cool place. It's a place where I feel very comfortable and people are kind of free to be themselves.
Speaking of tight–knit groups—what made you decide to join Mask and Wig?
I joined fall of my freshman year, pretty much on a whim. This girl who had graduated from Penn told me it was a good community, something she thought I would like. I did some studio art before coming to college. It was just like one of my hobbies, so I wanted an outlet for that. But more so I was just looking for a fun group of people.
And did you find that kind of community?
One hundred percent. The crew is really fun. I often say, "I don't give a shit about musical comedy." I'm kind of there to hang out with my friends, mess around in the shop, and also to put on a cool production. There's something really nice about putting on a show, a thing that people can come and enjoy and watch. And I had a part in doing that. It's definitely a gratifying experience. But theater is not at all a passion of mine. I like to build, and I like to kind of hang around with the people that I build with. And also the broader company. Mask and Wig is divided into four sections, but we very much operate as one club.
Is there a particular moment that encapsulates the experience of the group for you?
One of the highlights of Mask and Wig every year is going on tour. My sophomore year, we went to Cancun. And I remember being on the bus and pulling up in front of the resort, and I was like, "What the fuck did I do to get here." I just kind of helped construct a pirate ship. I was drilling wood together and cutting wood and helping out with the show, of course, but it was a very surreal experience. Like, wow, I got to Cancun through my college comedy group. This year, I had the opportunity to be one of the tour directors. That was a gratifying experience, giving other people that really amazing experience.
There’s some perks to being in a club that’s 150 years old. And thankfully we’re gender–inclusive now.
Mask and Wig went gender–inclusive last year, and you just welcomed new members for this year. As a senior member of the club, how does it feel to see those changes?
It's wonderful to see those changes happen. Those are changes that we really wanted as a club, and it’s awesome that we got to see [them] implemented. I would say that the company has only gotten better over my time here. Both in terms of talent and people. It’s fabulous.
You mentioned being part of the Orthodox Jewish community here. Could you talk more about your faith?
I come from an Orthodox family in New York. So I have Jewish schooling from nursery through senior year [of high school]. I spent a year post–high school in northern Israel studying Talmud philosophy up on a mountain on a kibbutz. All these things encapsulate that I definitely have a very strong background in Jewish religion.
Coming to campus, I wanted to be involved in bringing some of my faith to other communities that I was in. That was something that was really important to me: not limiting my Jewish practice or observance to just strictly Jewish spaces, like Hillel. I've often organized Shabbat dinners here for my fraternity. That's really cool because I get to now share this experience that I grew up doing every single week with people who have never done it before. And they can get a glimpse of the way I was raised. It also opens up conversations for other people to voice how they grew up, what their religious background is like.
That's something that's really nice, trying to make that religious identity more holistic, not trying to stay confined to one particular space. I also did external affairs stuff, interfaith work, for Hillel. I had such a close—knit community that I loved growing up in, but I really wanted to expand beyond that and see how I could explore Judaism and my religious identity by interacting with people who are from different backgrounds.
I talked to a friend of yours from Mask and Wig, and he said I should ask you about how you observe Shabbat.
Yeah, that’s a great point. Growing up, what [Shabbat] meant was not actively using electricity on Shabbat, sundown to sundown. It means you're not actively cooking during that time, trying not to work either. As much as I can, I've tried to strike a balance for that observance during college. Mask and Wig does a spring show round which is about ten weeks long, shows every Friday and Saturday night. As part of my Shabbat observance, I like to go to prayers at Hillel or host/attend some kind of Shabbat dinner on Friday nights. So, that would have conflicted with the shows that we do. The club has fully let me not do the Friday night shows and has been super accommodating. It's one of the things I definitely appreciate most.
Recently, I started doing something because a lot of people would text me over Shabbat, and I wouldn't respond. It was totally fine that they were texting me, I didn't care, but like people would just forget that I wouldn't be responding for some time. So I set up an auto—response on iMessage, and I make a puzzle every week. Then when people text me over Shabbat, it auto–replies with a puzzle for them to solve. So it kind of resulted in a funny outcome. Now, people actively text me over the Shabbat in order to get responses from me to get the puzzles.
Do you think that your experience at Penn transformed your faith at all?
Navigating faith as an adult is a really hard thing to do. It's complex. If I'm going to be off my phone from Friday to Saturday night, what does that look like in terms of studying, communicating with friends, responding to emails, just being an active member on Penn's campus? So that's the pragmatic side of navigating the identity.
It's also how comfortable I am just showing that side of myself, when that side is a bit of an anomaly. In a lot of ways, [coming to Penn] really strengthened my religious identity because I've learned that I could be really comfortable changing my observance. I've become a lot more confident in myself to express my religious inclinations or beliefs.
It’s also about trying to create community in whatever space I am. That transcends those religious spaces. Sometimes that's creating community through the religious means that I knew growing up—hosting a Shabbat dinner or Passover seder. But sometimes it's like, just what does it mean to create an active community? Cooking for friends, being a really social person, inviting people over to places. There's a lot of ways that you can create community that are just more basic human principles and don't necessarily stem from anything religious.
In a similar vein, how has Penn changed how you think about academics?
So I took a gap year after high school. I was at this school, Maale Gilboa, that was a yeshiva. There are no grades. You’re there just to learn. And somehow within that framework, I worked harder than I have any year of college, even though there were no external drivers. I put a lot of heart into it. The reason I'm bringing that up is coming into college, I wanted to remain flexible and passionate about learning in general. And I knew I wanted to eventually go to med school, so I already had the career angle going, but at the same time, I wanted to make sure that I was still kind of focusing on classes and learning for the sake of learning. In Hebrew, we call it learning lishmah. So freshman year, I took a lot of different courses, experimenting a lot. I changed my major probably five times over the course of my freshman and sophomore years.
“Learning for the sake of learning”—how does that fit into your current philosophy about college and what its goals should be?
Freshman year, I was more like, “I'm here to learn and obviously get a good degree, get a job, but I don't need to kind of fixate on the career stuff.” Over time, I've realized that at least for myself, your career is really important. And now I've definitely invested more effort in that. Everybody's coming from a different place. A certain career or certain job can mean very different things for different people, in terms of their financial background, what their family structure is like, where they see themselves in ten years. So I think I've become much more realistic. Maybe a little less romantic. I think that's probably the best way to say it: less romantic about college, and studying and learning in college.
Medical school admissions does make it harder. I have not found myself to be as confident as I would have liked to be to kind of just take whatever classes I wanted, or maybe take more credits a certain semester, because I think I have become somewhat fixated on my GPA. And I know that stuff is something people in a lot of pre–professional tracks struggle with. But I find at least with med school admissions, it seems like they stress your grades more so than any other track. So it's a little frustrating. Some of the smartest people I meet here don't have particularly good GPAs. I truly believe that your grades say very little about you and your capacity to think.
What kind of work would you like to be doing in medicine?
I volunteer with Penn Alzheimer's Buddies. Through that club, I've established a relationship with this man with early–stage dementia in a nursing home. I think that's been a really impactful experience for me, and I think it’ll continue to be in my medical journey, in some capacity. I want to definitely work with older patients. I think that's probably where we're failing most in the healthcare industry. As the population continues to age, generations are just getting older, and older people are living longer, but our brains aren't getting any better. Our bodies are living longer, but we're living with tons of ailments and not necessarily leading happy lives.
There are two things that I keep in mind for my career. One, the thing people mostly focus on, is what do you want to be doing? What kind of role space do I want to be in? But the second question I ask myself a lot is, what do I have to offer? Like the question employers want you to answer, but for you to answer for yourself. What new things can I bring to this space? How do I contribute in some way? For me, I think it’s my ability to work with older people. I really actually enjoy that experience. And I think I have a knack for connecting with older people.
Favorite building? Van Pelt fourth floor, music library room. It’s beautiful.
Favorite place to eat on campus? My neighbors’ house, on South 41st.
No skip album? The Lost Boy by Cordae.
Favorite movie? The Iron Giant.
There’s two kinds of people at Penn… Those who actively choose to walk on Locust and those who avoid it.
And you are? I actively choose to walk on Locust. I go out of my way.