For years, Yeshiva University has had a conflicted relationship with its LGBTQ constituency. In 2009, a student-organized panel on homosexuality drew fire from the administration and faculty members, kicking off a years-long feud about the place of LGBTQ students at the flagship Modern Orthodox institution. In recent months, conservative pundit Ben Shapiro gave a speech at YU in which he called transgender people mentally ill; the comment drew cheers from many in the audience, but fierce criticism from several students.
The developing tête–à–tête between the Orthodox institution and its student body continued this week, when YU became the unlikely location for the latest protest of the Westboro Baptist Church, the Kansas-based group that has achieved notoriety over the years for its aggressively anti-gay stance. The church announced on Twitter in February that it would protest YU’s “it’s OK to be Gay” attitude. Five Westboro members, all female, turned up on in Washington Heights on Monday morning to protest.
Speaking to The Jewish Week, protester Margie Phelps said the church decided to protest at YU because of the university’s strong pro-Israel stance — she referred to Israel as the “gay capital of the world,” pointing to Tel Aviv’s vibrant LGBTQ nightlife. (Phelps is the daughter of Fred Phelps, who founded the church.)
Students at the university used the protest as an opportunity to band together to support Orthodox LGBTQ youth. Despite the rain, about 30 counter-protesters from the YU community turned out to voice their opposition. Students held homemade signs that read “Hate is NOT a Yeshiva University Value,” “LGBTQ Students are Welcome In Yeshiva U.,” and “Chosen People Choose Love over Hate.”
Gedalia Penner, a senior at the university who is openly gay, said that YU has been largely accommodating to his needs. “I think that if YU is otherwise the right place for you, you should know that there are resources and people you could talk to at YU like me,” he told The Jewish Week. “There are empathetic rabbis, the entire secular faculty is basically incredible, extremely liberal, and the students are fine and understanding, they are the next generation.”
Still, Penner expressed some frustration at the university’s lack of response to the protest. “I was disappointed,” he said.
“There are empathetic rabbis, the entire secular faculty is basically incredible, extremely liberal, and the students are fine and understanding, they are the next generation.”
Last week, Yeshiva University sent out an email to students condemning Westboro’s upcoming protest. “We want to state in the strongest terms that Yeshiva University rejects and condemns the targeting of Jews and any human being based on religion, political affiliation or sexual orientation,” the statement read. It also encouraged students not to participate in the protest. They encouraged students to mark the day by raising funds for the Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services.
Several other students criticized the administration for what they described as a “missed opportunity” to support LGBTQ students.
“I don’t think YU did anything to actually support LGBTQ people,” said Doniel Weinreich, 20, one of the protesters. An Orthodox freshman from Teaneck, N.J., he said the protest was an “easy opportunity to counter the WBC.”
Weinreich, who felt the university’s fundraising campaign did not directly support Orthodox LGBTQ youth, started his own campaign to raise money for JQY, an organization that supports Orthodox LGBTQ youth and their families.
Asher Lovy, 25, a writer and activist, was one of the people who organized the counter-protest. “I organized it because I figured if the WBC was be there with their anti gay signs, there should be another group showing support for LGBTQ students, especially since YU wasn’t going to do it themselves,” he said.
Mordechai Levovitz, executive director of JQY and a 2009 YU alum, attended the protest. (Levovitz helped organize the 2009 panel on homosexuality.) While he was underwhelmed with the university’s response to the protest, he said that in general, life on campus has significantly improved for gay students since his time there. “The student body is overwhelmingly LGBTQ tolerant, compassionate and welcoming,” he said. Most people in the administration are also “LGBTQ-friendly,” he added.