By Fruma Landa, Editor in Chief
After years of fighting to break the silence surrounding the needs of LGBTQ+ students on campus, a fight I have been involved in as a board member of the YU Pride Alliance (a group of LGBTQ+ students and allies), the existence of LGBTQ+ students on campus has been acknowledged and validated. On September 3, Dr. Chaim Nissel, vice provost for Student Affairs, introduced the “Fostering an Inclusive Community” letter signed by Dr. Yael Muskat, director of the YU Counseling Center, Rabbi Yaakov Neuburger, Rosh Yeshiva of Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary (RIETS), Dr. Rona Novick, dean of the Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education and Administration, and Dr. David Pelcovitz, Gwendolyn and Joseph Straus chair in psychology and Jewish education at the Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education and Administration. This team, dedicated to the inclusion of LGBTQ+ individuals, was formed by President Rabbi Dr. Ari Berman and previously led by past Senior Vice President Josh Joseph.
As an LGBTQ+ rights advocate on campus, this letter feels like a personal accomplishment. I have spent countless hours pushing through the frustration of what felt like futile attempts for change, facing obstacle after obstacle, determined to pour every last bit of strength into this cause. Now, finally, I, along with many others, see the fruits of our labor. I want to commend and express my gratitude to this panel and YU for breaking the silence and publicly showing their commitment to furthering dialogue surrounding LGBTQ+ students on campus. This letter, screaming of success and triumph, has the potential to be the start of life changing changes for LGBTQ+ individuals in YU. Yet as I read the words: “forming a new club as requested under the auspices of YU will cloud this nuanced [Torah] message,” my initial feelings of victory and gratitude dissipated, leaving me hollow. A club, a chance to build a space where queer students are guaranteed to feel safe and accepted, was denied.
The reason for the denial, as cited in the letter, is that a club would cloud Torah nuances. With such a bold claim, there are shockingly no sources cited to back it up. What nuances would be clouded? Will there be a shiur (Torah lecture) dedicated to explain the logic and sources behind such a statement, or is it based on homophobic beliefs shielded by the guise of religion? The Statement of Principles clearly states that halacha (Jewish Law) “does not prohibit orientation or feelings of same-sex attraction, and nothing in the Torah devalues the human beings who struggle with them.” I do not want to assume homophobia, but I am at a loss over what aspect of a club such as the YU Pride Alliance aiming to “foster awareness and sensitivity to the unique experiences of being a LGBTQ+ person in YU and the Orthodox community, and to advocate for their unconditional tolerance and acceptance,” according to the group’s mission statement, can cloud Torah nuances.
LGBTQ+ students don’t need another voice occasionally coming out of the woodwork at times of convenience to dictate what is and isn’t allowed, as these voices seem to be publicly absent when the queer community is looking for guidence and advice. Members of the LGBTQ+ community deserve the commitment of leaders who are committed to working with members of the LGBTQ+ community in opening a space for them in Orthodox communities. Just as LGBTQ+ people can’t choose when to be part of the LGBTQ+ community and when not to be, our leaders should not choose when to stand with the queer community and when not to.
Aside from the denial of a club abruptly putting a limit on acceptance of queer students, this message can further stigma, shame and fear regarding the identity of queer students simply due to a part of them that they can not change. Queer individuals in heterosexual-appearing relationships, for example, are not immune to the stigma and fear that often comes along with being part of the LGBTQ+ community. These individuals can be behaving in the same way as their fellow straight peers, yet instead of giving them a space in the form of a club “hoping to provide a supportive space on campus for all students, of all sexual orientations and gender identities, to feel respected, visible, and represented,” the notion that their very identity goes against Torah values is furthered. Regardless of one’s sexuality and religious practices, we are all a part of the YU community and deserve to feel unconditionally accepted.
The denial of a club is not a halachic decision — and frankly, I don’t see how it clouds Torah nuances. A club is necessary to foster a community, offer support and resources to marginalized individuals and help reduce harmful shame around an identity — aspects far removed from advocating for Torah prohibitions. Thus, there is no reason why an LGBTQ+ club cannot exist at a Yeshiva University college. The claim that a club goes against Torah nuances is offensive to the many queer students on campus who are committed to a Torah lifestyle.
If LGBTQ+ students of Yeshiva University aren’t going to be provided with a space to feel accepted on their very own college campus, how are they expected to believe they will be accepted into communities and shuls (synagogues) that align with their levels of religious commitment in the future? We need to actively accept members of the LGBTQ+ community with open arms and show them that they are wanted, valued members of our communities who will be accepted into our homes and hearts.
We cannot build a community without including all of us. Finally, the conversation of LGBTQ+ acceptance has publically begun at YU. My hope is that our leaders will become leaders who are consistently involved in the conversation and committed to working to build a better future — leaders we can rely on.
Photo Source: Leo Skier