Build Us a House in the Air of the World: How Building 245 Lexington Challenged YU’s Religious Identity.

By: Yitzhak Graff  |  November 2, 2022

By Yitzhak Graff

It was 7:00PM on a pleasant spring evening and hundreds of women had gathered in an empty lot on the east side of Lexington Avenue, between 35th and 34th Streets. They congregated to mark the joyous occasion of the groundbreaking of Stern College’s newest classroom building. More than half the student body had shown up that evening, May 9, 1967, to hear speeches, sing, and dance in celebration. Even CBS news had their cameras rolling to cover the event, but the administration was nowhere to be seen.

The story of the classroom building began in 1961, when Dr. Belkin’s administration announced a plan to expand the universities’ facilities called the ‘Blueprint for the 60s.’ In the first half of the decade, construction was relegated to the Washington Heights campus. Furst Hall, finished in 1962, and Morgenstern Hall, completed in 1964, were part of the first phase of the plan. In March 1965, the second phase of the Blueprint for the 60s was announced. The updated plans included the Gottesman Library building in the Washington Heights campus and a new dorm and classroom building for Stern College in Midtown. 

These proposed buildings for Stern were sorely needed as the college had far outgrown the size of its original building on 253 Lexington which was only able to accommodate around 100 students, in addition to administrative offices, the cafeteria, and the library. Despite this, the College continued to admit more and more students despite the limitations of the facility. By 1966, the undergraduate student body had swelled to over 500 students, making the need for more classroom space very urgent. 

In November 1966, YU announced that the funding for a classroom building was secured, and construction would begin in mid-December of that year. One-third of the funding was to come by means of a grant, worth $795,509, from Title I of the Higher Education Facilities Act of 1963 (HEFA). The purpose of this act was to encourage American universities  to expand their physical facilities to accommodate a growing student population. HEFA offered grants and loans to both undergraduate and graduate schools. In addition to the grant for the 245 Lexington classroom building, YU received $3,568,717 in grants and $4,117,000 in loans to aid in constructing the Gottesman Library and Belfer Hall.   

The student body of Stern College was optimistic that they would soon see construction on the new building begin, but after the lot was cleared no construction commenced. The administration gave no explanation for the delays in construction, despite their public confidence in the project in November.

After five months of waiting, the outgoing student government staged a mock groundbreaking, or ‘dig-in,’ as they called it, as a demonstration of the student body’s frustration with the delays in the construction. Rochel Sperling, the President of the Stern College Student Council, spoke at the dig-in encapsulating the student body’s frustrations: “The physical conditions under which we are expected to acquire an education are a disgrace…“The higher echelon [sic] merely regards SC as a step-child in the YU family.” The Observer reported that, “Her words stimulated the crowd to cheers and dance.” 

Sam Hartstein, director of public relations, sent a memo to Dr. Belkin on May 10, 1967, the morning after the dig-in. Hartstein briefly described the students’ demonstration and characterized it as being “without any hostility and in very complimentary form to the university.” Hartstein was advising Dr. Belkin to ignore the demonstration by characterizing the students’ frustration as benign and ‘complementary.’ Although the administration did not directly respond to the students’ demonstration, they renovated an old police station on East 35th Street over the summer to be used as classroom and office space and were able to alleviate some of the overcrowding for the Fall 1967 semester. 

The student population of Stern College continued to steadily grow each year, making the overcrowding of the Stern’s instructional facilities more acutely felt. The combined population of Stern College and the Teachers Institute for Women (TIW), both of which held their classes in the Midtown campus, was estimated to have been around 1,000 students at the start of the Fall 1968 semester. Over the course of the 1968-69 academic year, the editor of the Observer, Fayge Butler, along with Beverly Koval, the President of the Stern College Student Council (SCSC), and other student leaders threatened to turn the empty lot into a park twice  before ultimately organizing the students to go on strike in February 1969. 

Faced with the potential embarrassment of media coverage of the picketing, the administration began to open up to the students about the causes of the delay. Sidney Schutz, the administration’s general counsel, met with the student leaders to discuss the cause of the construction delays. Schutz explained that YU decided to change the original 1966 plans and had to resubmit the new plans in 1967 to remain eligible for the federal grant, but YU ran into a problem securing the money because of a freeze of Federal government funds due to the Vietnam War. It was only after the funds were thawed in the spring of 1968, Schutz noted, that YU was able to secure the grant money and begin taking bids from contractors in December 1968.  

Schutz’s claim of a freeze of education funds is suspect, since it contradicts evidence from an official New York State government publication. Under section 105 of HEFA, the Board of Regents was responsible for distributing the HEFA grant money in the state of New York. The Board of Regents published a report in 1969 detailing how they executed the HEFA grant program during the previous five years. The report contains no mention of a freeze of funds for the program, rather it reports that $21,311,997 of title I HEFA grant money was given out to New York State schools in Federal Fiscal Year 1968, July 1, 1967 – June 30, 1968; the exact time when Schutz’s freeze of federal funds was supposed to have happened. 

Although no other explanations for the delay exist in YU’s archive, evidence from published reports on HEFA suggests that the delay had something to do with YU’s status as a religious school before 1967. In 1965, congress passed the Higher Education Act of 1965 (HEA), which included several amendments for Title I of HEFA. Most of these amendments expanded the grant program, but there was one key limitation added. Section 111 of HEA prohibited the funds from Title I of HEFA to be used for a facility that would house ‘sectarian instruction’. One of the listed examples of sectarian instruction was the “education of students . . . to prepare them to teach theological subjects.”

The classroom building on 245 Lexington was supposed to host the Teachers Institute for Women (TIW) in addition to the regular Stern College classes. The TIW was a program that educated teachers to work in Jewish Parochial schools and gave its graduates Bachelor and Master of Religious Education degrees. YU had been conferring BREs and MREs to the graduates of its Teachers Institute since the school’s first graduating class in 1925. These graduates went on to teach Limudei Kodesh in Talmud Torahs and Parochial Schools. The degrees of Religious Education fell firmly in the definition of ‘sectarian instruction,’ because they were explicitly catered towards schools that taught “theological subjects.”

As long as YU intended to use its new facility to confer degrees of Religious Education, it was not eligible for the grant.This exact issue was likely a significant factor in YU’s decision to apply for a non-sectarian charter in December 1967. Once YU obtained its non-sectarian status, it began a process of phasing out all degree programs that were considered sectarian instruction. 

By the time construction commenced in March of 1969, YU was probably making plans to completely revamp its teachers’ schools and offer standard degrees of education. Already in October 1969, YU was able to petition the Board of Regents to amend its charter by erasing the clause that granted YU the ability to confer degrees of Religious Education and replacing it with the non-sectarian Bachelor and Master of Education degrees. When the building was completed in September of 1970, YU no longer had a school offering degrees of religious education.

The reorganized Jewish education program was divided up between the existing schools within YU. Undergraduate Bachelor of Education degrees were conferred by the undergraduate schools, and Master and Doctor of Education were initially placed in the domain of Ferkauf. In 1983, a donation from David J. Azrieli created an independent Graduate School for Jewish Education under his name.

Though not the only cause for secularization in YU, the need to remain eligible for the grant money to build 245 Lexington was certainly a significant factor. Positive or negative, the consequences of the secularization process continue to manifest not only in the University’s corporate structure but even in the physical built environment of the campus. 

I would like to thank Deena Schwimmer, Hindeshe Lee, and Emily Apterbach for their assistance helping me research this topic in YU’s Library and Archives, as well as the hardworking librarians at the Library of Congress who fearlessly tracked down my most elusive source. For further reading on the events of the 1969 Strike, see Benjamin Koslowe’s Honors Thesis. 

Beverly Koval, President of SCSC, speaking at the official groundbreaking ceremony, March 26,1969