Passing the Torch: Mesorot and Looking with Hope Toward the Future of Yeshiva University

By: Shayna Herszage  |  May 11, 2021

By Shayna Herszage, Managing Editor

Mesorah. It is a word we use on a regular basis in Yeshiva University. Colloquially, it refers to the collection of notes gathered for a class over the years that is passed along to future students. Literally, it means the passing on of something, such as a responsibility or a set of knowledge, from person to person. Overall, it is a term that represents the giving over of something from one person or group to the next, marking the end of one era and the beginning of another.

Throughout my final year as a YU undergraduate student, I struggled to come to terms with the impending mesorot. My time in Yeshiva University has been filled with many communal goals, and so many of these goals still have a long way to go. When I, along with my graduating peers, leave, who will take our places and continue the path toward what must be accomplished? What if the mesorot end here?

In my first semester, for example, I heard tangentially about the “Infamous Gay Panel of 2010” while I wrote an article about Ben Katz (YC ‘11), a YU alumnus and LGBTQ+ activist. I had never heard of the panel before, and neither had most of my peers. In the beginning of my time at YU, the discussions surrounding LGBTQ+ inclusion on campus were kept muffled at best, but more commonly they were shut down entirely.

Since then, much has changed. LGBTQ+-friendly events including “What Helps and What Hurts: Mental Health and LGBTQ+” and “Being LGBTQ+ in an Orthodox World” took place as YU-sponsored events. The YU administration has begun, after years of persuasion, to openly engage in dialogue about LGBTQ+ presence at YU, making progress by starting an LGBTQ+ support group through the Counseling Center. Such open recognition of LGBTQ+ students at YU would have been almost unheard of in my first semester — but three years later, so much within the realm of LGBTQ+ acceptance has become a reality at Yeshiva University.

Nonetheless, there is still a lot to do in order to make Yeshiva University truly a place of LGBTQ+ equality. The YU Pride Alliance, a club which attempted to attain official YU club status in 2020, has been repeatedly denied approval. In response to a culmination of homophobic acts and rejection of LGBTQ+ inclusion and dialogue, several students and alumni have filed a lawsuit against Yeshiva University. While this lawsuit has not yet come to a close, its initial filing stands as a testimony in itself to the fact that the YU community’s journey toward LGBTQ+ inclusion is well on its way.

Another issue whose progress I have witnessed at YU is reproductive health education. In 2013, before I came to YU, a controversy sparked: a Stern College for Women student, Dasha Sominski (SCW ‘14), posted an anonymous survey on Facebook, titled “YU Sex Ed and Questions of Acceptable Sexual Promiscuity.” Soon afterward, she received an email informing her that her housing scholarship had been revoked due to her post about such a topic. Yeshiva University’s anxieties about reproductive health education resulted in efforts to silence its discussion, regardless of the effect it had on students.

The summer before my final year at Yeshiva University, Sarah Liberow (SCW ‘22) and I organized Health Education for Students Society (HESS). HESS, we decided, would be a club dedicated to educating YU undergraduate students about reproductive and sexual health. This club was particularly necessary due to the fact that many YU students had not taken a reproductive health education class in high school, and many of those who had been exposed to such a class reported that it was not of adequate educational quality.

We knew, given YU’s discomfort around the issue, that getting HESS approved on the Beren Campus would require nothing short of a miracle. Sarah and I designed a survey about sexual activity and reproductive health education which we posted on social media and sent in group chats. Our aim was to have a collection of data which we could show to the Office of Student Life in order to support our claims that Yeshiva University students did not have the reproductive health education backgrounds they needed. Within minutes, survey responses began pouring in.

Soon after I posted the survey online, a friend sent me an article about Sominski’s controversy. I was terrified, but there was no going back: the survey had been posted, we had over thirty responses and I had made up my mind that HESS was going to happen, no matter what it took. For weeks, I waited to receive an email like the one Sominski had received seven years prior — but fortunately it never came. HESS was not an easy club to get approved — it required almost a full semester of meetings, strategies and countless emails before our first event was able to take place — but it was approved nonetheless. 

The approval of a reproductive health education club on the Beren Campus of YU is a big step toward confronting a topic that used to be avoided altogether. However, much like the journey of LGBTQ+ inclusion, the development of reproductive health education accessibility at Yeshiva University is far from finished. During my time as co-club head, we only had one full semester for events; there is still so much more to learn. Additionally, we acknowledge that many of the students on the Wilf Campus have also been denied reproductive health education for most of their lives — will a Wilf student see what is missing in their community and run a parallel chapter? 

The Yeshiva University of my first semester is not the same as that of my final semester. For that I am proud of myself and my peers, and I am thankful for those who have helped these changes come to fruition. But I also recognize that a great deal of work has yet to be completed, and I call upon the current and future students of YU to continue what has been started. As Rabbi Tarfon states in Pirkei Avot, “It is not your responsibility to finish the work, but you also may not abandon it.” We must not grow comfortable with how far we have come to the point of stagnation, especially when we consider how much ground we still need to cover. 

As I prepare to graduate, I look at how much has been accomplished and I feel tremendous pride. I also look at the outstretched hands of students prepared to continue the fight for change, and I am full of immense hope for the future of Yeshiva University. The work is not yet finished — will you pass the torch?