Panel “Being LGBTQ+ in an Orthodox World” Sponsored by Yeshiva University

By: Adina Bruce  |  December 15, 2020

By Adina Bruce, Website Manager

Yeshiva University will sponsor a panel titled “Being LGBTQ+ in an Orthodox World”, on December 20 over Zoom. This event was inspired by the influential and controversial “Being Gay in the Orthodox World” panel held 11 years ago. 

As advertised on the event Facebook page, and in an email sent to the Yeshiva University student body, the panel will feature four current students and alumni of Yeshiva University who identify as part of the LGBTQ+ community. These speakers will share their personal stories and experiences in relation to their identity and the Orthodox Jewish community. Dr Jenny Isaacs, associate professor of psychology at Yeshiva College, will moderate the event. According to the anonymous event organizers, there will also be a Q&A of chosen pre-submitted questions for the panelists.

The goal of the panel as stated in the email sent to students is “to provide our community with the chance to hear and learn from the experiences of current and former undergraduate YU students to foster empathy, sensitivity, and compassion.” Also stated in the email is that the panel will not feature discussion of the perspective of halacha (Judaic Law), nor YU’s position on LGBTQ+ individuals. While inspired by the 2009 “Being Gay in the Orthodox World” panel, this panel will feature students representing a wider spectrum of the LGBTQ+ community.

Although open to the public, Yeshiva University students and alumni have been given priority in registration. The main advertising for this event has been done through a Facebook page and Facebook event, that — as of the time that this article was written — has over 500 respondents. Eli Saperstein (SSSB ‘23) who plans to attend the event expressed his excitement because “I have never experienced anything like this … especially since I was not here for the 2009 panel.” He explained further that: “[i]t feels like a beginning step of creating permanent change by eliminating stigma.”

Discussion around the place of LGBTQ+ students at Yeshiva University has been heated in the past few years. Within the last year a protest, numerous editorials, opinion pieces, and open letters have argued for the need for acceptance and inclusion of LGBTQ+ students within Yeshiva University. The increase demands for acceptance has also been met with counter arguments, citing the halachic (religious legal) incompatibility of condoning homosexuality. Despite the increased conversation, the panelist organizers explained to the YU Observer, that there has been “very limited opportunities or instances of LGBTQ+ individuals, themselves, sharing their personal stories and experiences.” 

Progress has also been made this past year with an email sent out to the student body by Dean Chaim Nissel titled “Fostering an Inclusive Community.” In this email, Yeshiva University faculty committed to concrete initiatives and policies in regards to LGBTQ+ students. However, the approval of a club aimed at specifically servicing the LGBTQ+ and ally student community was explicitly rejected. Furthermore nothing was stated regarding explicitly LGBTQ+ related events, which historically have either been blocked by Office of Student Life (OSL) or have a more challenging event approval process. This policy does seem to be changing, with an event titled “LGBTQ+ Safe Space” approved in the last Spring semester — though it was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic — and another this semester titled “Mental Health and LGBTQ: What Helps and What Hurts.” 

Despite approval by the Dean’s office, it was reported to the YU Observer that posters put up on the Wilf Campus were taken down multiple times by multiple Rebbeim. In contrast, other faculty have expressed their support of the event. An email sent to students by a faculty member of the English department encouraged his students to attend the event.

The 2009 “ Being Gay in an Orthodox World” was considered groundbreaking for changing the conversation around LGBTQ+ individuals within the Orthodox community. The original panel featured four gay male alumni and an undergraduate student who presented their personal stories in relation to being gay in Yeshiva University and the Orthodox community, followed by a Q&A. The panel, run by the Tolerance Club and the Wurzweiler School of Social Work, was moderated by Rabbi Yosef Blau, mashgiach ruchani (spiritual advisor) of RIETS. Nava Billet, a Yeshiva University presidential fellow at the Wurzweiler School of Social Work opened the event and final remarks were stated by Dr. David Pelcovitz. Over 700 people were reported to have attended the event, packed into Weissberg Commons, with 100 more turned away due to lack of space. 

Although the event itself was received positively by those at the event, there was some controversy afterwards. Before the event, a letter was posted around the Wilf Campus, stating: “The Torah’s mitzvos [commandments] and judgments are eternally true and binding. Homosexual activity constitutes an abomination. As such, publicizing or seeking legitimization even for the homosexual orientation one feels runs contrary to Torah.” It was signed by several Roshei Yeshiva. Additionally, after the event, another letter was written by the president and Menahel at the time Richard M. Joel and Rabbi Yonah Reiss, respectively, “to reiterate the absolute prohibition of homosexual relationships, according to Jewish law.” The panel was also criticized publicly by Rosh Yeshiva Rabbi Mayer Twersky in a sicha (discussion) in the Glueck Beit Midrash. 

Controversy notwithstanding, people who were involved with and who attended see the panel as having changed the conversation around the topic for the better. Mordechai Levovitz, a panelist on the 2009 panel and founder of Jewish Queer Youth (JQY) — an organization aimed at supporting Jewish LGBTQ+ youth — reflects on the panel as being historic: “[T]here was no denying that the student body was a different place after the panel. During the following semesters, nearly a dozen YU undergraduate students came out of the closet, and one even wrote a Commentator article and signed it with his real name (groundbreaking at the time).” He cites the legacy of the panel as influential on the current activism happening at YU now, “gay students began forming [a] community at YU, something that grew and continues to this day. The video of the panel went viral and had thousands of views, and was credited in changing, and even saving, hundreds of lives.” 

When asked by the YU Observer about his thoughts on the event 11 years later, Rabbi Blau reflected that “in retrospect I think it’s fair to say that it altered the dialogue. Not many single events can say that. People were more open in talking about their lives, which I believe literally may have saved lives … the dialogue became much more nuanced”

Talking to the YU Observer about why she became involved in the event, Isaacs referred to the original panel as being “inspiring and moving.” Although this year’s event was inspired by the 2009 panel in that “it shares the message of trying to foster understanding”, she hopes that this year’s event will have a different impact. “We are now 11 years later and we are hopefully coming from a different perspective both within the school and within the larger community. I think the last one was a shock to the system. I hope now we’re at a point that this isn’t shocking. We don’t want to raise issues of debate, whether halachic [related to Judaic Law] or on how YU views this issue. We want people to focus on the actual message.” Isaacs concluded by saying, “For me this isn’t just part two this is part one of a new discussion.”