From Audience to Panelist: My experience at this year's LGBTQ+ Town Hall

By: Schneur Friedman  |  March 27, 2024

By Schneur Friedman

Early this month, right past the revolving doors of Beren Campus’ Lexington 245, YU students, faculty, and rabbis crowded into the English faculty’s second town hall to discuss the needs of LGBTQ+ students at YU. I beat the rush and took my place amongst the other three panelists. 

Almost exactly a year earlier, I’d taken a blue plastic chair towards the back of the room, asking no questions, making no comments, but listening. Back then, I couldn’t imagine sitting before the room sharing advice. At that point, while I was an openly gay student at YU, I hadn’t played an active role in the queer community or the YU Pride Alliance beyond attending events that fit my busy schedule. As a matter of survival, I’d confronted queerphobia, but it’d been simply that – survival: a reactive response lacking confidence or strategy. The whole prospect of advocacy for queer students had the aura of a massive, formal project; it was daunting, to say the least. 

In 2023, the novel concept of an LGBTQ+ town hall drew an interesting crowd; beyond YU students, staff, and me in my blue chair, there were journalists jotting notes and members of organizations who came to say their piece. That town hall’s energy was quite like a town hall politicians might organize on the campaign trail: formal, almost debate-like in how participants spoke and yielded to others. Breaking ground, it paved the way for this year’s event. 

It paved the way for me as well, giving me a better sense of my friends’ experiences and the questions many on campus had. The queer students who spoke gave me the confidence to speak up as a student at YU. Thanks to a medley of experience, introspection, and Tanya study – I began to view confronting hateful comments as an educational matter, asking individuals why they say/do what they do, and patiently meeting them conceptually and emotionally where they are at. No two conversations are quite alike; some last hours and dwell on the particulars of mental health, sociology, and linguistics. Others take minutes, consisting of a cocktail of Yiddish phrases and rabbi quotations. While not always easy, I’ve found it effective and empowering, as it focuses me on a solution rather than the ample, discouraging problems. 

I’d be remiss if I didn’t say this: this approach requires time to speak and think, not to mention patience. Baruch Hashem: my supportive parents, friends, and roommates create an environment where I can safely think and devote mental and emotional energy to this task. Unfortunately, many in YU and the wider jewish community don’t yet have this luxury.  

A year later, sitting on the panel, I was filled with a melange of excitement and nervousness. I felt that I’d grown in my perspective and understanding, but the specter of the town hall as a “formal conference” honestly still intimidated me. 

But, this town hall was different. While last year’s was full of journalists and others, the crowd before me was overwhelmingly fellow students, rabbis, and professors. The formal Q&A soon gave way to a casual group conversation in which panelists and audience members cracked jokes while sharing their thoughts. 

Beyond the vibes, the topics themselves were more personal: How can I be a better ally? What should I say when someone comes out to me to show them I care? How do you confront hate? How should I? What’s been your favorite part of being queer at YU?

Throughout the town hall, a few themes began to stand out. Perhaps the most prominent was the importance of individual connections and actions. The answers to the question “How can I be a better ally?” concerned talking to others about their needs and taking the initiative to say something when someone makes another feel unsafe. Similarly, when discussing how to confront hate, I offered the individual educational approach I mentioned before, and my co-panelists offered their perspectives about what each person could do. 

I gained a lot from the 2024 town hall, and many students I’ve spoken to feel the same. It proved that 2023’s event wasn’t a one hit wonder and actually moved the conversation forward. At one point an audience member asked a question concerning the experience of transgender students at YU. All of us on the panel were cisgender, so we couldn’t answer the question from our own experiences. This is despite the fact that, as my co-panelist Avery Allen (SCW ‘24) pointed out, there are many trans students at YU. The fact that no trans students felt comfortable featuring openly on the panel shows that there’s still much work to do to make Yeshiva University a safe place for all students.

We have a lot to do until the next town hall IYH, but suffice it to say I’m looking forward to it. I think you should too.