A recent move by the Yeshiva University administration has revealed fractures among students, faculty and staff members regarding what LGBTQ inclusion on campus should look like and who has the right to decide. Administrators at the Modern Orthodox Jewish institution announced plans two weeks ago to create a new LGBTQ support club, sanctioned by the university and its rabbis. At the same time, the university continues to refuse to recognize the existing LGBTQ club formed by students, the YU Pride Alliance. The two have been mired in a messy and ongoing lawsuit for over a year.
The new club, which currently has no students and has yet to be formed, would be called Kol Yisrael Areivim, a Hebrew phrase meaning “all Jews are responsible for one another.” The announcement says the club will be a place for LGBTQ students to “gather, share their experiences, host events, and support one another while benefiting from the full resources of the Yeshiva community—all within the framework of Halacha [Jewish law]—as all other student clubs.”
“We are eager to support and facilitate the religious growth and personal life journeys of all of our students to lead authentic Torah lives, and we hope that this Torah-based initiative with a new student club tailored to Yeshiva’s undergraduate LGBTQ students will provide them with meaningful support to do so,” Rabbi Ari Berman, the university’s president, said in the announcement. (Yeshiva administrators declined a request for comment through a university spokesperson.)
Reactions to the announcement ranged from celebration to outrage to head scratching.
Supporters of the university-sanctioned club say it is an unprecedented step for the Orthodox institution, one that should be welcomed as an effort to support LGBTQ students within the university’s religious framework. They argue rabbinic approval of the club quiets dissenting voices in a student body that skews conservative.
Others, including the YU Pride Alliance itself, object to a student club started by administrators and say the university continues to deny LGBTQ students what they’ve demanded in court—a club of their own, run by them and supported like any other on campus. The group also argued against claims in the recent announcement that their club has ties to a national movement that “promotes activities that conflict with Torah laws and values.” They say their club is a support group, just like the new one proposed.
“Unfortunately, the administration created this new initiative alone, without any student input, student participation, or student leadership,” says a written response from the YU Pride Alliance. “It therefore falls short of the simple request we have been making for years—an LGBTQ student club on equal footing as all other student clubs.”
“If YU is genuine in its offer to provide these resources to the actual LGBTQ student club—not the shell of one it created—there is a path forward.”
The Kol Yisrael Areivim club is the latest development in an ongoing saga. The YU Pride Alliance lodged a discrimination lawsuit against the university in April 2021. They argued the university is subject to New York City human rights law and is not a religious corporation, under New York law, and can’t bar an LGBTQ club as a result. After a New York trial court judge ruled in the club’s favor in June, the university requested permission from the U.S. Supreme Court to not recognize the club until the end of the appeals process. The Supreme Court justices decided in a 5-to-4 vote this September that the university must first go through the state courts before they’ll consider the case and that the university would have to recognize the club in the meantime.
The university then sent an email to students saying YU would “hold off on” on all student club activities during the High Holiday season while the university “immediately takes steps to follow the roadmap provided by the US Supreme Court to protect YU’s religious freedom.” In response, the YU Pride Alliance agreed to a temporary stay, which grants the university permission not to recognize the group until court proceedings are over. The case will now continue to be hashed out in the New York court system. The university is being represented by the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a Washington, D.C., law firm focused on religious freedom issues.
The YU Pride Alliance continues to operate without the blessing of the university. The group has an active board of student leaders and hosts off-campus events such as book clubs and community service projects, but it doesn’t receive any university funding and has no meeting space on campus.
A Range of Reactions
Administrators said in their announcement that the framework for the new club “reflects input and perspectives from private conversations with current and past undergraduate LGBTQ students.”
Mordechai Levovitz, a Yeshiva University alum and clinical director of Jewish Queer Youth, a support organization for Orthodox LGBTQ young people, doesn’t buy it. He said LGBTQ students and alumni were reaching out to one other after the announcement to figure out who had been consulted about the new club. He couldn’t find anyone. He said even staff members at the university counseling office and office of student life appeared to be in the dark.
“It seems suspect,” Levovitz said. “It seems kind of silly. It borders on being foolish. And certainly it lacks the basic respect for the issues at hand here, which are that LGBTQ young people in nonaccepting environments are really at risk for higher levels of suicide and self-harm and mental illness and anguish and all of these really real things.”
He believes the rabbis were well intentioned in sanctioning the club, but the new club felt more like a stunt to make a point in the lawsuit than a genuine effort to support students, given that the students feeling discriminated against weren’t involved in the planning or forming of the new club as far as he can tell. He also is unsure how the new club differs from the original.
Left unsaid in this very public debate is that many believe this move is about whether or not the club supports students having sex, given that a dominant Orthodox interpretation of Jewish law prohibits same-sex sexual relationships and discourages premarital sex. Some supporters of the existing LGBTQ club believe this was the subtext of the university’s announcement that the new club will help LGBTQ students “navigating the formidable challenges that they face in living a fully committed, uncompromisingly authentic halachic life within Orthodox communities.” Administrators also contended that the original club is part of a wider movement that supports non-Torah ideals.
But “nowhere in any of the Pride Alliance’s mission statements does it talk about sex or relationships,” Levovitz said. “It has to do with basically everything this rabbinic club seems to want—supporting students, creating a sense of comradery, creating a safe space on campus where queer students can talk about things that are pertaining to them, maybe bringing in some speakers, creating some events.”
A rabbinical student at Yeshiva, who’s disappointed with the administration’s stance toward the YU Pride Alliance, said while many of his classmates view the group as encouraging of LGBTQ students having sex, the club has never advocated such stances. The rabbinical student, who requested anonymity, said making LGBTQ students feel respected and accepted, as YU Pride Alliance contends, is different than pretending religious strictures don’t exist.
“I don’t think [leaders of the YU Pride Alliance] are going to say, ‘everyone should be celibate’ … I don’t think anybody who’s honest with themselves says that,” he said. “But there’s a big difference between saying you have to do what you have to do because you’re a human being and saying it’s mutar [religiously permitted].”
The rabbinical student has a sibling who came out as gay and decided to have nothing to do with Judaism after being ostracized in their religious community. The university’s ongoing lawsuit and its unwillingness to work with existing LGBTQ student leaders feels personal to him, he said.
“How can I … say I care about you … and I love you and I don’t want anybody else to be treated the same way as you when the institution that I’m getting my smicha [rabbinic ordination] from is sort of completely undermining that?” he said. “Part of the reason I’m becoming a rabbi is because I believe everybody deserves a connection to HaKadosh Baruch Hu [God] and we should do our best to include people in our communities, even if it’s hard.”
He’s worried about the effects of the lawsuit on his family relationships as well as his job prospects.
“The first thing anybody is going to say when you’re a YU rabbi, you’re a YU graduate, you went to one of the graduate schools, people are going to say, ‘Oh, are you a homophobe?’” he said. “It would make me reticent about sending my kids to YU or encouraging my students to go to YU because they have to answer the question for a decision they had no say in.”
Faculty members share similar concerns that the lawsuit casts a pall on their academic pursuits and on the public image of the university. Abraham Ravid, co-chair of the Yeshiva University Faculty Council, said the lawsuit inevitably comes up when he’s at academic conferences and when graduate students interview for jobs. He added that while the majority of faculty members support the YU Pride Alliance, and have signed petitions saying so, there are divisions within the council on the issue, which has been a “distraction” to other work he wants to get done.
He wishes the new club had been proposed to members of the YU Pride Alliance as a compromise before the lawsuit was filed.
He’s also concerned about the negative news coverage the controversy over the club has generated, instead of “positive news and stories about achievements by scholars, either on the religious or secular side.”
“It’s distressing to most of us,” he said.
Natan Ehrenreich, a senior at the university, believes the views of faculty members and supporters of the YU Pride Alliance don’t necessarily represent most of the student body. He said the framing of YU’s lawsuit as university leaders and rabbis fighting the will of the student body is “entirely wrong.”
“I think there is a silent majority of students on campus who are deferring to the university and the Roshei Yeshiva [the rabbis] for religious judgment,” he said. “I think one side is a lot louder than the other. I think people who supported the club are a lot louder.”
He views the Kol Yisrael Areivim club as a move toward greater inclusivity and believes it was a good-faith effort by the rabbis to support the needs of students. But he also believes it’s important to religious liberty that the university’s rabbinic authorities decide the LGBTQ club’s mission and scope, and that’s why he supports YU’s stance in the ongoing lawsuit.
“I want to see this case framed as an issue of pluralism, that’s the way I see it,” he said. “I see it as populations who disagree with one another in this country able to have institutions that disagree with one another.”
Fighting the Culture War
There are also divisions over the ways in which non-Jewish organizations have thrown their support behind the university in this case. The rabbinical student who did not want to be identified noted that a number of Christian organizations submitted amicus briefs on the institution’s behalf, including the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities, the Association of Classical Christian Schools, and the Archdiocese of New York.
“It’s not YU’s job to fight the culture war,” he said.
Levovitz is also disturbed by the involvement of the Becket Fund, the religious freedom law firm, and the way this dispute within “a tiny university of a tiny people” has turned into a national religious liberty fight.
“There’s also kind of a systemic issue here of Christianity, particularly right-wing Christianity, using Judaism and the Jewish community for their own means,” he said. “Every time this goes to press, every time this goes to the Supreme Court, the Becket Fund looks like heroes to the Christian right.”
The firm represented Hobby Lobby, the arts and crafts company that stopped offering insurance coverage for contraceptives to employees, and initially raised concerns about how recognizing same-sex marriage would affect religious freedom nationally. Eric Baxter, vice president and senior counsel at the Becket Fund, said the firm is purely secular and nonpartisan and takes on all kinds of First Amendment cases, including many on behalf of religious minorities. He said he’s currently representing Muslims in the U.S. Navy who want to keep their beards, Sikhs in the U.S. Marines who want to wear their turbans and Native Americans in Oregon who want sacred lands restored. The Becket Fund takes all of its cases pro bono and is funded by private donors.
“A win for Yeshiva in this case is a win for people of all religious traditions,” he said. “The law that protects one faith protects every other faith on the same basis.”
Ehrenreich, the senior at Yeshiva, agreed that these alliances are being made outside the Jewish world because the university and other entities concerned about religious liberty have genuine interests in common.
A Yeshiva administrator who is also a graduate student, and who did not want to be identified, said the student body is “very, very split” right now and that the new club could be a much-needed and sincere compromise—and better than having no LGBTQ supports. Yeshiva University attracts some conservative-leaning students who go there to be immersed in a religious environment and avoid some of the liberal ideals of a secular campus.
“So this idea that they’re being told you have to be accepting of people you feel don’t follow your religion properly” makes them uneasy, he said. “They’re feeling a little bit pushed out.”
“Both sides are feeling hurt by the discussion that’s going on,” the graduate student said. “Neither side seems to be willing to just sit down and have a discussion about what’s going on and about how to solve the problem without lawyers.”
Levovitz said members of the YU Pride Alliance also came to Yeshiva University for a religious community and education.
“The students in YU are at YU because they love YU,” he said. “They want YU to be better. They want the best for themselves and the university. This is their school. They’re choosing to be there.
“The irony here is there already is a queer organization, a queer community, on campus,” he added. The only difference between the old club and the new one is “they’re not being recognized.”