By Molly Meisels, Editor in Chief
Resident Advisor training on the Beren and Wilf campuses incorporated historic firsts this academic year. Along with the usual emotional support and values training, on Monday, August 19th, RAs were given a session on LGBTQ+ sensitivity. The sensitivity training, called “Respecting Differences,” was led and facilitated by Michele Demry, an Orthodox psychotherapist with a private practice on the Upper West Side. Demry says that the training was meant to “increase sensitivity and awareness.”
When asked about what prompted this training, Dean Chaim Nissel, YU’s Dean of Students, says, “We have discussed LGBTQ issues in the past and this year we decided to bring in an outside professional to help guide the discussion.” According to the RAs in attendance, the information presented during the two hour session was basic and included definitions of the identities encompassed by LGBTQIA+. Demry tells the Observer, “Much of what I presented were current facts, educational information, and questions to stimulate thinking.” The session was full of fact and one RA says that it lacked emotion.
Over the last few months, advocates have been pressuring Yeshiva University to provide visibility and support for its LGBTQ+ students. That is why, when Mordechai Levovitz, the founding director of Jewish Queer Youth (JQY), an Orthodox organization for LGBTQ+ young people, heard about the training, he was hopeful. However, he wonders why no Orthodox LGBTQ+ organization was involved in the process. He does not understand how one can teach LGBTQ+ sensitivity without a member of the LGBTQ+ community and is disappointed that there was no LGBTQ+ representative present to plead a personal case. He fears that the training was not intended to help LGBTQ+ people, but meant to throw YU LGBTQ+ advocates a bone, allowing YU to paint themselves as “progressive and accepting.”
The Counseling Center opted for a straight therapist who is not affiliated with Orthodox LGBTQ+ groups in the tri-state area, rather than an expert on LGBTQ+ issues. Demry, while an experienced therapist and successful educator, works on dozens of issues and is not particularly focused on gender and sexuality. She works with university counseling centers to help them run educational workshops, and says that “topic matter is dependent upon the needs of the university.” When she worked for NYU’s Health Center she provided crisis intervention “in areas of suicide prevention, trauma, sexual assault, LGBTQ concerns, substance abuse, eating disorers, unplanned pregnancy, and illness.” A LGBTQ+ YU student who wishes to remain anonymous told the Observer that while they believe Demry’s training is “a step in the right direction…if [Demry] doesn’t specialize in LGBTQ+ issues and advocacy, then there’s no saying whether or not what [she] said was accurate or appropriate.”
Ellie Parker, SSSB ‘20, a Resident Advisor at Beren, says that the session was reactive instead of proactive. The training’s title, “Respecting Differences,” came into play strongly, as RAs were encouraged to take LGBTQ+ issues on a case-by-case basis and act according to their comfort levels and the comfort levels of students on their floors. Parker states, “It was very much a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ situation.” With regards to how to act when a student hangs up a Pride flag or a “Safe Space” sticker, RAs were told that allowing it is never a definite yes, as it must be a conversation with others who share the area — the goal being not to make those who disagree with LGBTQ+ lifestyles uncomfortable either. Additionally, the training had no mention of referrals to resources for LGBTQ+ students and it did not offer the RAs tips on how to connect LGBTQ+ students with support, clinics, hotlines, Jewish LGBTQ+ organizations, or other LGBTQ+ students. Nissel says that the “YU Counseling Center staff was present at both trainings…and we discussed how to best help all our students.”
While Parker gave the Observer insight into the Beren RA training, three Wilf RAs decline to comment on their training, saying that it makes them “uncomfortable” to do so. Beren RA opinions on the training were split on ideological lines. Parker says that “the [RAs] who lean to the left said that ‘we should accept gay people,’ and those more to the right [said], ‘I don’t want gay people on my floor’.” Demry told a Beren RA that the Wilf training was a mixed bag. Half of the men in attendance were receptive and aware, while the other half were making light of the serious topic. Levovitz says that these jokes could have been avoided “if a LGBTQ+ facilitator or student were there to make it human.”
Parker says that the reactive nature of the session indicates “our attitude towards gay students at YU. [It’s not] — ‘I’d love to make this a place you’d want to go.’ It’s really a place of — ‘If you’re here, I guess we’ll make you comfortable’.”
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Some edits were made from the original post to reflect an updated quote from our sources.