By Molly Meisels, Junior News Editor
I stared at my Yeshiva University inbox and took a moment to recollect myself. It was just one line of text, but it elicited intense feelings of frustration and fury. The line was in response to an email I sent on behalf of the Wurzweiler School of Social Work’s Care Café initiative. The email read – “Have you ever wondered about the differences between sex and gender? Do you want to learn about the gender spectrum? Want to educate yourself on what it means to be non-binary?” In response to this non-antagonistic, school-wide email, a Wilf Campus student replied with, “You’re seriously not ashamed of yourself?”
The event advertised would have focused on educating the masses on transgender and non-binary experiences, and would have been especially important, seeing as transgender youths commit suicide at alarming rates. But its importance was lost on the YU student body. After my email was sent, students called the transgender speaker “it”, and many were disgusted that this event was about to be hosted by a Yeshiva University institution.
I have dedicated my years at YU to challenging the bigotry and intolerance of YU students. The war has yet to be won, and I doubt that it will in my lifetime. Intolerance is as ingrained in the YU psyche as dinosaur fossils in a mountain bed. The only way to achieve these changes is by planting small seeds. The trees will not blossom for decades, but the foundations for their growth exist. The battles in the war involve planting seeds of gender equality, LGBTQA+ representation, and overall tolerance towards those with viewpoints and/or identities which oppose the YU status quo. All the seeds I have been planting are with a Modern Orthodox society in mind, since I do not expect YU students and faculty to agree with certain facets of the LGBT lifestyle or the Feminist rhetoric. All I wish for is some common decency and respect.
I have written about common decency before. In an Observer article dating to February 2017, I wrote, “I am not okay with the lack of common decency that I observed: a decency that should accompany each of us from birth, and should remain with us until we die.” This was from an article titled “When Common Decency Isn’t So Common,” which I wrote sorrowfully after a male friend of mine was victimized by Stern students for being gay and wearing makeup. It was my first year at YU, and I was an 18-year-old freshman. I did not yet realize how deep the bigotry on our campuses ran, so what I witnessed appalled me. I was still in a state of adolescent idealism, and could not comprehend why YU students would treat someone they did not know – someone I loved – as an inferior, solely for his choice of gender expression. I remember sitting on my dorm room bed right after the incident, sobbing, and feeling complicit in the bullying tactics of my fellow students. I kept thinking – what do I do? How do I stand up for what’s right? That is when my advocacy journey began, and when my first article in the Common Decency series was published.
The second installment of the series was published my sophomore year, when I was already deeply immersed in the battles against homophobia and sexism raging on our campuses. The article was about a misogynistic flyer which hung across my dorm room, in response to the YU Feminists Club’s Wonder Woman movie showing. The flyer stated, “Stern for housewives presents: Superman; Sponsored by: Put Wonder Woman back in the Kitchen Club…” The flyer made me sick, and I felt the emotions of the first incident all over again. I was disgusted at the blatant attack on my values, which my peers would not allow me to espouse without a fight. A line I wrote in my article still rings true today: “Change seems to bring out the worst in the YU populace.”
I understand that YU is a Jewish institution which focuses on an observance of Torah law to the best of its ability, and that as an Orthodox institution, certain values are preached. However, aren’t all those conservative values of tradition trumped by values of respect? The Talmud states that an individual who shames another is akin to a murderer, and one should rather allow themselves to be thrown into a pit of fire than to purposely shame another. Judaism preaches derech eretz kadma l’torah – decency and kind behavior should precede Torah. We become so wrapped up with halacha – with what is “right” and “wrong,” that we disregard humanity. We disregard sympathy to mock a gay man, we disregard respect to spew misogynistic rhetoric, and we disregard compassion to tell a fellow student that she should be ashamed of herself for promoting open-mindedness.
This is not a question about Jewish law, and it never was. I believe that halacha is vital to Jewish society, and should be lauded as such, but not when it is used as a front for bigotry. People tend to say, “Why am I homophobic? Halacha. Why am I sexist? Halacha. Why am I transphobic? Halacha.” We tend to forget that the root of all religion is community. Part of community is acceptance, and it is not a means of crushing individuality. If we do not allow various viewpoints to blossom in the garden of Judaism, how do we expect to develop?
Tehillim (Pslams) says that the universe is built on kindness. It is not built on homophobia, transphobia, or misogyny. It is not built on whatever you think is the perfect way to live. I am not writing this so that you come to accept LGBT rights or become an intersectional Feminist. I am writing this so that a smidgen of respect is given towards those who are different than you, and that a hint of decency is directed at those who do not follow halacha as you see fit. These individuals deserve a voice. They are human, just like you are. Often times, they are Jewish, just like you are. Sometimes, they are Orthodox, just like you are.
The non-binary individual who was going to speak for the Wurzweiler Care Café initiative is Hannah Fons. She has a name. She has a voice. She has loved, lost, and conquered – just like each of you who are reading this article. She is not an “it” solely because you do not understand her and her lifestyle. She is not a thing for you to destroy mercilessly with words. I am not asking you to accept that the gender spectrum is larger than two extremes. I am not asking you to agree with what Hannah Fons would have to say. I am asking you – I am begging you – to treat all human beings with a dose of common decency. Help me in my journey of planting seeds, because Jewish strength lies in Jewish compassion, and without that compassion, who are we really?