By Anonymous, YU Pride Alliance Writing Committee
There is a pervasive assumption amongst my fellow Modern Orthodox Jews that YU as an institution is incompatible with an LGBTQ identity, an assumption only heightened by the school’s ongoing response to the Pride Alliance club on campus. As a gay student who chose to come to YU, I have often been asked with varying levels of incredulity why I chose to enroll at Yeshiva University at all. This assumption is so pervasive that even when meeting fellow gay YU students, often one of the first questions we ask each other is “so why did you come to YU?” For a long time, I found it hard to answer this question; I never saw any reason not to go to YU. Through a considerable amount of hearing other perspectives and much introspection, I have begun to comprehend exactly what this question is aimed at.
While YU is an Orthodox institution, it is home to a great many Jews from all walks of life with all sorts of perspectives. I know students in YU who are Reform, Conservative, Open Orthodox, left-wing Orthodox, and other identities that can’t be confined to a single denomination, many of whom do not agree with the university’s stance on LGBTQ Jewish practice. Yeshiva University is a unique modern Jewish institution in that it allows for students to learn from the greatest minds in Jewish thought, take classes in cutting-edge Jewish scholarship, and still get a top-notch secular education. Why should I, or anyone else, reject the opportunity to learn, grow, and develop my Judaism just because the way I love and live a Jewish life is frowned upon by a vocal contingent who don’t even necessarily make up the majority at this school?
The reasons I chose – and continue to choose – YU, are quite similar to that of my straight peers; I, like most other queer students, have the same values and goals as other YU students. The ability to have regular and easy access to constant minyanim, a peer network of fellow Jews both in and out of college, a bustling Beit Midrash and a vibrant learning environment; along with the fact that YU is one of the only institutions where I can fill my mornings with world-class Gemara and Tanakh classes and my afternoons with world-class Math and English classes –are all reasons why students – gay or straight – find YU an attractive option.
All of this is in addition to the luxuries many who are currently enrolled at YU may even take for granted: the ease with which I can keep kosher on campus, the fact that I do not have to explain to any faculty member that I won’t be able to complete an assignment due on Shabbos, or worry about having class or midterms during Yom Tov. These are just some examples of the amenities that YU offers to someone living an Orthodox life in college. None of them become less enticing because I am gay. LGBTQ Jews are part of the Washington Heights community; we have our friends and family, our Shuls and Rabbis in the community and around campus. Anyone who believes in YU as an institution should not find it strange that the very same things they appreciate and admire about YU also attract people who love differently from them.
Additionally, like all undergraduate programs, Yeshiva University accepts developing young adults, people who are just starting to explore their personal identities as they grow into adulthood. Is it preferable that they go to a college where their Jewish identity is less respected, where Jewish life is less vibrant and Jewish studies are an afterthought? If a student realizes their queer identity after fostering relationships with fellow students and teachers, after making a life at YU, should they uproot their life because this identity is disapproved of? Synthesizing several identities into a unified whole is a core part of the Modern Orthodox worldview, and students will find their own peace with being both Jewish and queer and their own way to reconcile their faith with their LGBTQ identity. Would we prefer to keep such students away from Modern Orthodox institutions at such a foundational stage in their development?
Most fundamentally, that question – “so why did you come to YU?” – bothers me because it assumes that Yeshiva University does not, and should not, want queer students. This is a massive overgeneralization: YU is a large institution made up of many individuals. In my own experience, it is clear that many of the teachers, rebbeim, and staff at YU are accepting of their LGBTQ students, a feeling recently corroborated by an open letter signed by over 1600 faculty, alumni, and students in support of YU’s LGBTQ students and the YU Pride Alliance (YUPA). At the same time, it has become clear in recent weeks that there is a vocal and powerful subset of the YU administration that views its queer students as, at best, a confusing embarrassment. The university is unwilling to say publicly that they do not tolerate queer students, but their treatment of the Pride Alliance suggests that they are unwilling to accept queer students as a valid part of the Jewish community. In light of YU’s stance regarding YUPA, it is clear that “why did you go to YU?” is a gesture towards the question that dare not be spoken: “why did you go to YU, when it’s not for people like you?”
It does not need to be this way. We can have Orthodox institutions, where gay students aren’t treated as an embarrassing stain, where we are not given subtle (and not so subtle) hints that we are not welcome. Orthodox communities are often hostile towards queer people, especially queer young adults. We fear rejection and bullying from our peers, demonization from our teachers, and abandonment from our families. Many gay Yeshiva University students are not publicly queer Jews, but instead, have a gay identity so far hidden from the outside world it is known only to a half-dozen prized and trusted confidants. It is a terrifying and awful way to exist; having to constantly hide this part of yourself to evade bullying, homelessness, and hate. Yeshiva University can do better for us. It can lead the way towards a brighter future for Judaism, one where gay Jews such as myself do not have to exist in doubt and fear or face discrimination. I hope that one day this will happen, and I will feel safe enough to sign this article with my own name.