Enough is Enough: Yeshiva University Students Protest LGBTQ Discrimination
Citing years of administrative pushback against LGBTQ representation on campus, a group of Yeshiva University students have scheduled a march “to prove that LGBT+ students belong at Yeshiva University.” The march, titled “We, Too, Are YU,” is scheduled for September 15 and planned through the YU College Democrats. Molly Meisels, a senior at YU’s Stern College for Women and president of the College Democrats, explains that, in the past two years, YU administrators declined requests for LGBTQ events as well as rejected student applications to found a Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) club on campus. “I along with a bunch of other student advocates have been working hard with the administration to try doing something, but it was going nowhere,” Meisels says.
Meisels describes a “complete lack of LGBT representation” at YU. “If there is any discussion of LGBT individuals on campus, it is always negative and always involves homophobic rhetoric.” The offensive speech comes from both the administration and students. “It’s a social thing,” explains Dov Alberstone, an openly gay senior at Yeshiva College. “It’s the things that people say in their day to day conversations. In normal social interactions people have, you get a sense that being gay is the worst thing you can be.”
In addition to permitting a Gay-Straight Alliance and LGBTQ events, the College Democrats are demanding a statement from YU President Rabbi Dr. Ari Berman condemning homophobic rhetoric, an administrator whose role it is to promote diversity on campus and sessions about tolerance and acceptance of LGBTQ students at YU orientations. According to an article in the YU Observer, Stern College’s student newspaper, LGBTQ sensitivity training took place at the fall 2019 resident advisor training, but LGBTQ students and advocates were unsatisfied with the content.
YU, an institution operating under Modern Orthodox Jewish law, which many interpret as prohibiting homosexuality, has struggled with reconciling its observant religious ideology with the progressive leanings of some of its students. Although some events, such as a 2018 presentation about the LGBTQ conversation in Israel and the return of Joy Ladin, a transgender woman and professor of English at Stern College, after her transition in 2008, point to headway in LGBTQ representation, other incidents, such as the rejection of a Model UN topic paper on sexual minorities and student testimonies of homophobia, indicate the persistent challenge. Most pushes towards LGBTQ representation come from student advocates and are often met with ambiguous or contentious responses from the faculty and staff. With the march, students hope to bring YU LGBTQ issues into public conversation and push the administration to make progressive change.
When asked to comment on the march and LGBTQ representation at YU, Mechal Haas, senior director of communications, said they would be releasing a statement. At the time of publication, no statement has been released.
The genesis of the event was a confrontation Meisels had in April 2019 with the Office of Student Life regarding a YU College Democrats event hosting New York State Assemblywoman Deborah J. Glick. Glick, the first openly lesbian or gay member of the New York State Legislature, was scheduled to speak on May 2 about minority representation in New York City politics. Meisels says that two weeks before the event, members of the Office of Student Life requested that Glick not speak about LGBTQ topics. Despite this request, Glick spoke about her LGBTQ journey, as well as student support for LGBTQ rights. “At that moment, I realized that advocacy needed to be promoted in a different form,” Meisels says. “Working with the administration was not cutting it.”
For the march, the College Democrats have partnered with Jewish LGBTQ organizations Eshel and JQY (Jewish Queer Youth). According to Meisels, Rabbi Steven Greenberg (the founding director of Eshel and a YU alumnus) and Joy Ladin will be speaking at the event.
Courtney Marks, a junior at Stern College and march organizer, describes the importance of LGBTQ representation on campus. “If you have people who are out and proud, it inspires people to be themselves and to realize there’s a place for you in the Jewish community, there’s a place for you on this campus, there’s a place for you in this world,” she says. While Marks, herself a member of the LGBTQ community, “made friends at YU from all different walks of Jewish life,” she sees the struggle closeted students face in an environment that discourages LGBTQ representation. “It takes a toll on your mental health. If no one in the school is there to support [us] it pushes people deeper into a cycle of self-hatred and shame,” Marks says.
Albertsone said there continued to be an “undercurrent of support for conversion therapy” among certain faculty members at the university, despite its illegal status in New York State. “You can’t see it unless you fall into it somehow,” he says. Rafi Reyes, a former YU student now studying at Touro College, attended conversion therapy in Israel this past summer at the advice of a YU rabbi. With plans to return to YU, Reyes met with YU faculty to discuss the homophobic harassment he had faced on campus. “They told me that I had a conflict with Judaism,” Reyes says, “and that I should leave YU.”
For Marks, this march is not only about changing YU’s policy regarding LGBTQ clubs and events. “It’s about making it a safer place, socially, for students,” she says. “I don’t want [future students] to say, ‘Where was someone a decade ago to fix this?’ when almost every other school in the country has addressed most of these issues.”
The LGBTQ stigma discourages students from coming out, either as LGBTQ or as allies, causing challenges for student leaders lobbying for LGBTQ representation. “I know how scared people are to be associated with anything relating to the [LGBTQ] issue, but they need it, and they want it,” Meisels explains. She has had difficulty finding students to speak at the march because of the “environment of fear,” Meisels says. “You want to advocate for the community, but those people are scared because YU is such a toxic environment for LGBT community members that they don’t even want to be associated with events that will help them.” Meisels chose to run the event under the College Democrats to allow closeted students to march as allies or members of the College Democrats without fear of being “outed” by their participation. Although the College Democrats is an approved club at YU, receiving funding from the Office of Student Life to plan programming on campus, the march has not been approved by the Office of Student Life.
The number of LGBTQ students currently attending YU remains unclear. According to Alberstone, the only “official measure” is a Whatsapp group of 35 YU LGBTQ members. That number, however, “certainly does not reflect the total LGBT population on campus,” Alberstone says. “I know a number of LGBT people who are not in the group. Many don’t want to join for fear of being found out.”
Last year’s student council presidents Shoshana Marder, Amitai Miller and Nolan Edmonson recalled the difficulty of campaigning for a mostly underground community. Throughout the 2018–2019 academic year, Marder, Miller and Edmonson held multiple meetings with Berman and other YU staff members. According to Edmonson, last January, he, Marder and Miller met with Berman to discuss increasing LGBTQ representation on campus. “I sensed a great deal of hesitation that almost bordered on apathy,” Edmonson says. “I think that either [Berman] thought this community was not large enough, or the potential upside of such an initiative not great enough, to merit any sort of meaningful response.”
This perception, Alberstone says, reflects a greater issue within the Orthodox world. “It’s not that there are a certain amount of gay people and they’re oppressed. It’s much more insidious than that,” he explains. “People understand that they can’t be homophobic, but that they also can’t support homosexuality, so instead they don’t say anything which instills this social value of marginalizing gay people. It keeps people from coming out, it keeps it taboo, and it keeps gay people afraid.”
Miller cites the “revolving door” of student leadership, through which issues get lost once student leaders graduate, as another obstacle in achieving lasting success. To ensure that the LGBTQ agenda did not fade once the three presidents graduated, Marder and Miller held a meeting in May with incoming student leaders to discuss LGBTQ representation on campus, the steps that have been taken so far, and what needs to be done in the future, says Miller.
Bureaucratic stagnation is another obstacle in the fight for LGBTQ representation, and there is confusion surrounding who has the authority to make decisions about LGBTQ topics, says Marder. “Nobody feels like they have the power to make decisions,” she explains. Marder believes that many administrators want to help further LGBTQ representation on campus. “As much as they want to help, they don’t feel like they’re the person in charge.”
According to an anonymous YU staff member, this past summer, a meeting was held during which the issue of LGBTQ policy and authority was discussed. The meeting included Berman and representatives from student support services such as the Office of Student Life, Housing Office, Counseling Center, Disabilities Services and Academic Support. The anonymous staff member says that no conclusive solutions unfolded.
Because of the ambiguity in authority, progress and public conversation about the issue rarely occur. “Things have not been completely stuck, but the pace is ridiculously slow,” Marder explains. “Nothing is ever said about it, and people interpret the silence as unacceptance.”
“YU and the Orthodox world, in general, are really good at not saying exactly what they think, but people understand how things are perceived,” Alberstone says. “No faculty member will say that being gay is wrong or gay kids are unwelcomed, but they certainly are not going to make a push or an effort against kids saying things like ‘that’s so gay.’”
YU, however, has not always been silent on the issue. In 2009, YU’s Tolerance Club and Wurzweiler School of Social Work sponsored a panel titled, “Being Gay in the Modern Orthodox World,” according to an article in The New York Jewish Week. The panel, attended by nearly 700 people, included gay students and alumni from YU, with administrators moderating the discussion and commenting after the panel. While staff from both the university and the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary—YU’s rabbinical school—participated in the event, Richard Joel, president of YU at the time, and members of the rabbinical school’s faculty released separate statements distancing themselves from the event, the article reports. The article states that “the program was the latest example of an internal debate…over the limits on acceptance of behavior condemned, according to leaders of the Orthodox community, by the Torah and Jewish law.”
Records of this “debate” exist from as far back as 1993 when, according to an article in the YU Commentator, one of the university’s student newspapers, YU refused to march in New York City’s Israel Day Parade until parade sponsors revoked the marching permit of Beth Simchat Torah, a gay and lesbian synagogue in Lower Manhattan.
In 1994, a controversy arose over an attempt to dismantle an already existing Gay-Lesbian club at YU’s Cardozo Law school. According to a series of Commentator articles, YU separated itself from its rabbinical school in the late 1960s to maintain the status of a non-religious institution, allowing YU to request government aid. Because of this government assistance, banning the club risked financial consequences. The articles also cited a case—Schiber v. St. John’s—in which St. John’s University, a Catholic institution, unseated a Jewish student leader, claiming that his maintaining the position infringed on their religious values. The Appellate Division of the Supreme Court of the State of New York ruled that, despite St. John’s religious status, it was unable to prove that leaving the Jewish student in his position violated their ideology. According to the Commentator article, attorneys believed YU’s status as a nonreligious institution as well as this precedent would have made it difficult for YU to argue that providing resources to the Gay-Lesbian club infringed on their religious ideology. The Cardozo case did not end up going to court.
YU’s Office of the General Counsel did not respond to requests for comment on YU’s legal status and any legal concerns regarding the recent rejection of a GSA.
Current LGBTQ advocates on campus have not indicated plans to take legal action, hoping that the march will propel the necessary changes. “I think that this format of a rally and march, a historic form of peaceful protest, is the medium to [make changes] because you’re showing passion,” Marks says. “The more people we can get out in support of this, the more influence it will have on what happens. When people march in a large number, you can’t ignore it.”