Joel Holds Sentimental, Sometimes Tense Final Beren Town Hall

By: Mindy Schwartz  |  March 23, 2017
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President Joel spoke at his last town meeting on the Beren Campus Wednesday, March 22nd to fairly full crowd of students and faculty in Yagoda Commons. After a warm introduction given by SCWSC president Lizzi Peled, President Joel reciprocated the sentiment, proclaiming, “I love you guys. You are just wonderful… and still my children,” as he took to the podium. Joel began by professing his affection for the open Q & A format: “I am going to miss the town hall meetings because [then] I don’t know what the water pressure is in the showers. Commencement was nice but this is the best.”

While President Joel joked that he would particularly enjoy this Q & A because these are “hashtag not my problems” any more, before taking questions he also invoked the idea of counting up in sefira to emphasize that he is still president for 77 more days, during which “me and my team can still add value. There is no resting for Yeshiva University.”

President Joel proceeded to answer a number of student questions, beginning with Senior Lizzi Peled, who asked the president about the university response to the upcoming Westboro Baptist Church protests. Joel adamantly condemned the group but also stressed that those who would respond with protests in kind are “stupid” and should really be “ignoring” them so that “they don’t become the story.”

A number of questions touched on the religious values of the university and its direction as a Torah U’Maddah institution.

Junior Rivkie Reiter asked that the president share his thoughts about YU’s past and future efforts in “interacting with the LGBTQ+ members of the student body.” President Joel started his response by again saying that this issue is “hashtag not my problem,” a joke that was not so well received by some in the crowd.

Reiter then posed her follow up question: “Since it is hashtag not your problem,” how does the university plan to make queer members of the student body “feel included and not ostracized?” President Joel clarified that “of course it’s my problem, since I have children and grandchildren.”

In answering Reiter’s questions, President Joel first discussed the past, calling the 2009 “Gay Panel” hosted by Wurzweiler School of Social Work a “historically appropriate moment” that “was incredibly important because it made it safe to talk about these issues.”

In discussing current policy, President Joel noted that “YU runs into a dilemma” because of the “limits of halacha.” President Joel insisted that YU must make sure there is “no discrimination” and that everyone feel “safe” and “comfortable,” even touting the fact that the university hires “gay teachers, trans teachers.”

But he was also quick to state that, when it comes to the LGBTQ+ community’s “lifestyle choices,” as he called them, “we are not in the position to promote the LGBT agenda” because “the price in engaging in some issues will also be the price of tearing apart the community.” “We are bound to American law and to Torah law,” he said, “and we are not going to be apologetic about it.”

Building on the theme of religious rifts, Junior Chani Grossman asked Joel if he thought the “divide between internal religious communities” at YU was a problem and, if so, what could be done about it. In answering, President Joel invoked his well known “big tent” metaphor to describe the YU community and encouraged different segments of the university population to “engage in these discussions” even if the problem is “never going to be solved.”

On the potential for political rifts in the current climate, President Joel emphasized that “we don’t all need to agree” but “we need to look past all the nonsense and theatrics” and listen to each other. In what seemed like a dig at the infamous Ben Shapiro event held in the fall, Joel said that if the Republican Club wants to, it “should bring pro-Trump speakers” and “the Democrats should bring their speakers,” but cautioned that students should “use your heads before you bring a big speaker on campus who is going to say things which are hateful…it is a private university that is values based, so we do have the right to say ad kan [up until here].”

Senior Rivka Abbe followed up that comment by asking how YU as a “value based university” balances “vetting” of what is taught in classes that doesn’t align with what the university represents. President Joel insisted that the while “we do not want the syllabus to pass through the Roshei Yeshiva…the dean and provost and increasingly Rabbi Penner and Rabbi Brander have been sensitizing faculty with that is in the tent and what is not.”  This approach to academics at YU, he noted, is “a direct mesorah from the Rav.”

  A number of students also asked the President about Stern facilities. Junior Chana Morgenstern asked that the very uncomfortable chairs populating the majority of classrooms on the Beren campus be replaced. President Joel responded that administration could “look into the budget” but also wished that YU students could see other universities and realize how good YU’s facilities really are.

The Town Hall got a bit heated when Morgenstern replied to President Joel’s flippancy that “with all due respect you don’t have to sit on these desks for five hours a day,” a comment to which the president clearly seemed to chafe, although he tried to pass it off at a joke and turned to other faculty in the audience for a response. Dean Nissel diffused the tension by joking that half the chairs should be replaced every year to ensure quality.

Sophomore Lilly Gelman asked why the Stern College Dramatics Society has to perform the Spring play in Koch auditorium, instead of using the theater uptown. President Joel was quick to note that next year SCDS will be performing in the uptown theater, news which garnered applause from the audience.

Still answering Gelman’s question, President Joel went on to stress that students “will have to be understanding” as problems come up with this arrangement and be willing to negotiate with “the other side.” When Gelman furthered questioned why it seems like the female students are the ones who always have to be understanding, Joel answered that Stern have to remember that they “need to have sensitivity because in the center of uptown is a classic litivish yeshiva.” Adding to his  answer, President Joel also took credit for making the “presence of women on the men’s campus a daily [reality]” for example, by “insisting on five women’s bathrooms” in the newly renovated uptown library.

Junior Dalia Seger asked why the women’s sports teams can’t play in the uptown gym, to which President Joel responded that, while women’s practices have been allowed uptown after blinds were put on the windows, “when it comes to games I have no control over who is coming and what they’ll be wearing” so “that was the deyuk [distinction] I struck with the Rabbeim.”

President Joel stressed the tension inherent in all of these questions, including the more logistic ones: “I’m always saying how far is it going to bend before it breaks—breaks the tenor of the place and the quiet acceptance of different members of the population.”

President Joel ended his final town hall by sharing the thoughts he gave at the Chag HaSemicha on Sunday March 19th, quoting past presidents’ injunctions for what Yeshiva University must be, and then adding his own insight based off a comment by Rav Hirsch that we “should strive to see as God sees and do as God does.”

As a final signoff the president concluded, “Thank you and bless you,” and then, going for the joke one more time, finished with, “And now, hashtag not my problem.”

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