By Rachel Jacobi, Science and Technology Editor
Yesterday, September 3, in an email sent out by Dr. Chaim Nissel, vice provost for Student Affairs, students were informed of a new development in the fight for the inclusion of LGBTQ+ students into the YU community. In the mass email, Dr. Nissel promised that new initiatives had been formulated to “generate awareness and sensitivity, and help our students develop a thoughtful, halakhic [in line with Jewish Law], value-driven approach to their interactions with the wide spectrum of people who are members of our community.”
This announcement comes following a year that was particularly turbulent in terms of LGBTQ+ activism, and countless attempts by YU students and student leaders to have the administration acknowledge LGBTQ+ students as part of the YU community. These attempts include a petition for a safe space, controversy about LGBTQ+ awareness signs on campus, and the brief disbandment of the YU College Democrats club following an organized “We Too, Are YU” march for LGBTQ+ student rights at the start of the 2019 Fall semester.
Rabbi Dr. Ari Berman, president of Yeshiva University, announced yesterday to the YU Observer of this new development, stating: “This is a highly charged, highly emotional subject. We are the bearers of a 3000-year-old Torah tradition. Our LGBTQ+ students are our sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, family, and friends. At the heart of our Jewish values is love – love for God and love for each of His children. I thank the committee for their detailed work in bringing the full plethora of our values to bear in formulating their initiatives, and I share in their optimism that their ongoing efforts will further enhance our beloved Yeshiva’s undergraduate culture of belonging.”
These initiatives have been formulated by a team that was created by Berman and led by former Senior Vice President Josh Joseph. This team includes Dr. Yael Muskat, director of the Counseling Center; Rabbi Yaakov Neuburger, rosh yeshiva, 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.
In developing these new initiatives and steps, the team has met with alumni, student leaders, inclusion experts, members of other faith-based organizations, and individual students over the course of four months. In their announcement, titled ‘Fostering an Inclusive Community’, they wrote, “Through these conversations, we have gained perspective, awareness and sensitivity to the unique experiences of diverse groups within Yeshiva University and the Orthodox community, and fully appreciate the importance of understanding, inclusion and acceptance of all students.” They further promised: “We are announcing concrete additional steps to ensure that our undergraduate campus environments continue to be supportive of all our students, with the goal of fostering an inclusive community of belonging. While this will be part of a larger, ongoing, campus-wide effort to identify educational and support programs for all those who feel marginalized, our initial initiatives will focus on increased support for our students who have raised concerns regarding sexual orientation and gender identity.”
This announcement introduces a concrete, multi-pronged plan to ensure the inclusiveness of LGBTQ+ students. The first step includes a reaffirmation of the protection of all students from discrimination based on race, gender, national origin, sexual orientation, or gender identity.
The second step includes a promise that diversity training for administrators will be immediately implemented this semester, and will focus on sensitivity and inclusion towards diverse student groups, emphasizing the inclusion of all sexual orientations and gender identities. This training will be further developed to include all staff, students, and faculty.
Further, the YU Counseling Center will have a clinician with LGBTQ+ experience. A Warm Line will also be available this semester to report or talk about any concerns about discriminatory behavior, including harassment and bullying. Finally, they promise a continuation of the conversation about the inclusion and acknowledgment of acceptance of LGBTQ+ students into the YU community.
In response to this announcement SCWSC President Shira Schneider SCW ‘21 remarked, “I appreciate the strides that this committee and YU are making in creating a more inclusive environment on campus, and I will do what I can to further this culture and represent the needs of the student body as best as I can.” Akiva Poppers, SOY president, similarly expressed that, “This is a well-written letter, and I applaud the team of administrators, psychologists, and rabbanim for expressing themselves with some level of lucidity. To be clear, this is not a statement from the Student Government, but rather one from the administration and rabbanim. As a member of Student Government, I have always and will continue to look for ways to cultivate and create an accepting, warm, and safe environment for the entire Student Body.”
Notably, the ‘Fostering an Inclusive Community’ announcement also included a response towards the creation of a formal club, stating that, “The message of Torah on this issue is nuanced, both accepting each individual with love and affirming its timeless prescriptions. While students will of course socialize in gatherings they see fit, forming a new club as requested under the auspices of YU will cloud this nuanced message.” This is possibly in reference to the repeated attempts of the YU Pride Alliance to be acknowledged as a formal club by the YU administration. A bisexual Wilf Sy Syms School of Business student expressed his frustration over this decision. “By making exclusions and not treating [LGBTQ students] as equals it shows there is much more to be done,” he shared with the YU Observer.
The YU Pride Alliance, in a press release issued on September 3 by Vice President Chana Weiss on behalf of the 2020-2021 YU Pride Alliance Board, said:
“While the YU Pride Alliance is pleased to see the committee release a statement addressing matters present in our mission statement, albeit nearly a year after the committee was formed, we remain disappointed that YU continues to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. In meetings between our board and the YU administration, we have delineated that the ultimate course of action to achieve our shared goals will be the establishment of an official club for the YU LGBTQ+ community and we are deeply saddened that the YU administration is unable to recognize that.
“The administration has failed to be transparent about which halachic [Jewish Law] “nuances” are at odds with the club and, on the contrary, we stand firm in our belief that pikuach nefesh [the Jewish obligation of saving a life] necessitates the creation of our club. A club application was submitted for the upcoming semester and we remind student leaders of their responsibility to represent and advocate on behalf of the entire student body in dealings with the administration, rather than vice versa.”
Other students similarly noted that while they are grateful for the progress that is being made, they feel that this acknowledgment is not enough. Phillip Nagler, YC ‘20, former president of the Jewish Activism Club, who pushed for LGBTQ+ awareness last year, said, “After reading the email, I get the impression that these new policies-such as a Warm Line and a new counselor-are mainly just damage control. The main issue is that gay students at YU have been chronically ignored. None of these new policies seek to create real dialogue on the topic and ways of normalizing being gay in YU.”
Conversely, many YU students, clubs, and LGBTQ+ students have expressed a positive, and in many cases, relieved, reaction to the YU administration’s formal acknowledgment of LGBTQ+ students rights and inclusion.
Co-President of the YU College Democrats Sarah Brill, on behalf of the YU Democrats, shared with the YU Observer, “Dr. Nissel’s email this evening was a positive step in the right direction for the LGBTQ+ community on campus. Getting the administration’s feet wet in this ongoing issue will help so many students and I do not believe the administration realized that until now. That being said, there is still much to be done and like the saying goes ‘actions speak louder than words’ so hopefully the school can follow through on both what was outlined in the email, and other LGBTQ+ issues on campus. It is, however, relieving to know that YU is making positive changes that will make the university a better and more inclusive Jewish community.”
Courtney Marks, SCW ‘21, noted that, “Four years ago I was the only openly out person at Stern College, today they acknowledged we exist. Last year we marched demanding change and this is just the beginning, not the end, of how we are going to change the Jewish world. I am overcome with emotion right now. Four years ago when a rabbi said homophobic things in lecture I felt so alone, and like I would never feel safe at my own school. Today I feel hopeful that one day another gay student won’t have to go through the harassment and the isolation I felt but will feel loved and welcomed at YU/Stern.”
Zippy Spanjer, SCW ‘21, expressed to the YU Observer, “I’m glad the university is finally taking steps to acknowledge and include us LGBT+ members of its student body.”