Everyone Belongs in Yeshiva

By: Phillip Nagler  |  September 19, 2019

By Phillip Nagler, Opinion Editor

Last year, two LGBTQ+ events were organized by the College Democrats, both of which happened to be held on the Beren campus. One of them was a presentation given by Ben Katz, an openly gay YU alumnus who works for Shoval, an organization that aims to achieve tolerance and visibilty for the LGBTQ+ community in Israel. The other was a speech by Deborah Glick, the first openly lesbian woman to be elected to the New York State legislature. 

Many student leaders teamed up and fought hard to get these events approved. This is no secret to the student body, as addressing the LGBTQ+ community has been a point of contention in YU for a long time. What many students are not aware of, however, is that there was a push to have these events (or at least one of them) on the Wilf campus, which many have argued is a yeshiva setting. The two student leaders who were the organizers of these events were not specifically told why these events could not be held on the uptown campus. But the message the school was conveying was nevertheless obvious: the yeshiva campus is not the appropriate place to have an LGBTQ+ event. 

Yet, whether it would like to be acknowledged or not, there are gay (in this context, gay is to be read as an umbrella term for all types of sexualities) students who study in our yeshiva. These students are legitimate and belong here, just as any other student does.

By denying permission for LGBTQ+ events to occur on the men’s campus, it can be implied that gay students should not be encouraged to open up about their sexualities, as the institution is asserting that it is inappropriate to even start such a conversation in a yeshiva setting.

This is not just the mindset of Yeshiva University, but rather of many yeshivot, including many of the Israeli yeshivot that YU students attend in their one or two gap years. Mention of sexuality is rare during a yeshiva gap year. In my own year in yeshiva, I can only recall one time it was brought up. My rabbi, during an open philosophical discussion, asked the students of the shiur (lecture) how we thought the Orthodox community should deal with the LGBTQ+ dilemma, as many gay people are part of the Orthodox community. I distinctly remember that this was the only philosophical topic in which there was silence — nobody decided to contribute to this conversation.

A close friend of mine came out as gay when he was in yeshiva. He felt so out of place and lonely when he came out, as it is virtually unheard of to come out in yeshiva. However, when he joined his university’s LGBTQ+ Jewish club, he felt like he finally belonged and felt normal in a Jewish community.  This type of resource is not currently available to the students of our university. 

University is a time where we are not just learning new academic and religious knowledge, it is also a time of self-discovery and introspection. For some, this includes discovering one’s sexual identity and figuring out how to be comfortable with it. Most students never had the opportunity to talk about sexuality before they got to college, which makes it all the more important to confront.

It is actually quite ironic that homosexuality is scantly mentioned in yeshiva, because marriage is a widely discussed idea. The union between a man and a woman through marriage is a very sacred tradition in Judaism, and of course this should be taught. But how are gay students supposed to react to these topics? There appears to not be much of a choice in marriage. The options are to either get married to a woman, or be unable to fit into mainstream Orthodoxy.

And what happens as a result of this?

Well, many gay people end up leaving Orthodoxy, as they feel they have no place in the community. Or, some gay men take a different approach — they marry women.

This isn’t something the Orthodox community likes to admit, but many gay men and women are in heterosexual marriages. A friend of mine recently sent me a Facebook post which described a gay Jewish man meeting two Orthodox men in a queer vacation spot. These two men had been together for five years, but their relationship was a secret, because they both have a wife and kids.

Hearing stories like these greatly saddens me. My heart goes out to these two men who are forced to hide their relationship and most likely live in a state of constant fear and guilt. What really makes me anguished, though, is that these men have wives – women who have been living in a marriage that has been an absolute lie from the moment it started. 

Suffice it to say, we do not want marriages like these to continue happening. It is time for us to start opening up and talking about sexuality in the Orthodox Jewish community so that proper actions can be taken toward acceptance and these events are prevented in the future.

One could argue that gay students are a minority of the yeshiva, and therefore time should not be devoted to talking about LGBTQ+ issues. However, it benefits both gay and straight students to engage in and think about this topic. 

One day, G-d willing, many of the current students of YU will have children of their own. A big responsibility of having children is being prepared to accept them, no matter who they are. A parent does not get to decide whether their kid will be gay, straight, cis, or trans. However, if one does not realize that their child may be LGBTQ+, they are potentially setting up their future relationship for failure. Neglecting or rejecting a child’s sexual or gender identity can tear a close relationship apart. It is the duty of a good parent to be open and ready to fully accept their children. 

Now, credit must be given where it is due. A statement was made by President Rabbi Berman that a team of faculty members has been made in order to “address matters of inclusion on our undergraduate college campuses, which includes LGBTQ+.”This is a step in the right direction, but I wonder whether this will be enough, because it will take a lot more than meetings behind closed doors to solve this complex issue.

Who else should we enlist to help? We should enlist student leaders by allowing them to run LGBTQ+ events on both campuses. We should enlist rebbeim by encouraging them to speak about being sensitive to  LGBTQ+ people within a halachic framework. We should enlist professionals who work for non-profit organizations that specialize in bridging gaps that exist between LGBTQ+ people and the Orthodox community.

  I recently had the privilege of attending the panel featuring the scholar and journalist Sivan Rahav Meir.  While I don’t remember the exact quote, something she said really stuck out to me. She was somewhat joking, but she said that Jewish people are very good at talking a lot, and are not afraid to talk about anything. So let’s take Rahav Meir’s advice and stop being afraid, and instead, finally start talking.

Photo: Wilf Beit Midrash