In December 2009, Ely Winkler helped organize a panel of gay Orthodox men to speak to a crowd of nearly 1,000 people at Yeshiva University. But having just come out not long before, Winkler was too nervous to speak on the panel himself.
On Sunday, nearly 10 years after that event, he stood before a crowd of more than 100 people a few blocks away from the Washington Heights campus. Instead of feeling nervous as he addressed the crowd assembled to march to Y.U. and demand representation and resources for LGBT students on campus, this time around he felt frustrated.
“It was truly a revolutionary moment for Yeshiva University, for Modern Orthodoxy,” Winkler told the crowd, speaking of the earlier panel event. He then pointed out what was obvious to everyone assembled at nearby Bennett Park, and the reason for their gathering. “Ten years later, we’re still not on campus,” a reference to the fact that the students were denied a permit to make speeches on the Y.U. campus itself.
Although no major policy changes have been implemented at the school, LGBT students say the culture at Y.U. has become more accepting in the years following the panel event; this was partially a result of the increased visibility the event afforded and, according to alumni, personal support from former Y.U. President Richard Joel.
Now, LGBT students at the school appear to have gotten the administration’s attention in terms of policy.
On Sunday, the crowd marched through the streets of Washington Heights to the Y.U. campus to demand inclusivity trainings for resident advisers and staff and to be allowed to form a Gay/Straight Alliance club. The student-led group marched from Bennett Park to the school’s men’s campus on 185th Street wearing T-shirts emblazoned with the words “We, too, are Y.U.,” and waving rainbow flags.
In a statement to The Jewish Week on Monday, a Y.U. spokesman said that YU President Dr. Ari Berman had appointed the school’s senior vice president, Dr. Josh Joseph, to lead a team of rabbis and educators “to address matters of inclusion on our undergraduate college campuses, which includes LGBTQ+.”
Over the course of several months, the statement said, the team will “work on formulating a series of educational platforms and initiatives that will generate awareness and sensitivity and help our students develop a thoughtful, halakhic, value-driven approach to their interactions with the wide spectrum of people who are members of our community.” The initiative was first announced in an interview Berman gave to the Commentator, a Y.U. student newspaper, last week, several months after news of the march became public.
Molly Meisels, a senior at Y.U.’s Stern College for Women and an organizer of the march, found the announcement to be lacking. “You can’t make decisions about us without including us,” Meisels told The Jewish Week a few days after the march, pointing out that the team did not include LGBT students and that the president had declined to meet with organizers of the march. “It upsets me that this was the most they could come up with, and I hope that in the near future they decide to meet with us.”
Alumni and LGBT organizations are continuing to put pressure on the school this week with a campaign timed for the same day as Y.U.’s annual fundraiser. With the hashtag #PledgeNotToPledge, they are asking alumni not to donate to Y.U.’s campaign until the march organizers’ demands are met. Jewish Queer Youth, an organization supporting Jewish LGBT teens in the Orthodox community, is asking Y.U. alumni to support JQY’s campus resources instead of making a gift to Y.U.
The march showcased a community of Orthodox LGBT Jews who have become increasingly vocal in demanding change within the Orthodox world, which sees homosexuality as inconsistent with Jewish law. After years of asking for acceptance and recognition, calls for more substantive changes have grown louder in recent years.
Earlier this year, after the more liberal Orthodox rabbinical school Yeshivat Chovevei Torah denied ordination to a gay fourth-year student, an online fundraiser netted over $8,000 in 24 hours to send him to Israel, where he was ordained in May. As debates have raged in media, in synagogues and around Shabbat tables over the proper place of LGBT Jews in Orthodox communities, the contrast between the increasingly progressive views on social issues held by a portion of the community and the community’s simultaneous commitment to Jewish law has grown sharper.
The debates have also placed spotlights on a university that has educated thousands of Orthodox rabbis, teachers and community leaders as it grapples with its role in accommodating LGBT Jews. In 2008, Y.U.’s Stern College for Women allowed Joy Ladin, a tenured professor, to return to teaching. Her coming out, which was followed by an involuntary leave from teaching, and her subsequent return to the school set off a flurry of discussion about how an Orthodox school would respond to changing understandings of gender and sexuality. The panel event that took place the following year, in 2009, at the Wurzweiler School of Social Work, thrust that discussion into the Orthodox consciousness, leading to coverage from national media.
While bemoaning the fact that little progress has been made since 2009, Sunday’s march organizers wrote another chapter in the school’s history regarding LGBT students. Unlike the 2009 panel event, which featured gay men, the march was led by two students at Stern College for Women and highlighted the voices of lesbian, bisexual and transgender women in addition to those of gay men.
“I have been asked why we need to march,” Meisels told the crowd before the march. “I march because I value human life. I march because I have a stake in the outcome.”
To loud applause on Fort Washington Avenue, Meisels told the crowd why this cause was personal for her. “I’m not doing this as an ally, I’m doing this as a bisexual ally of the community that I advocate for,” said Meisels. “I march because I didn’t feel comfortable coming out until right now.”
Rachael Fried, a graduate of Stern College and current executive director of Jewish Queer Youth (JQY), an organization that provides support for LGBT teens in the Orthodox community, said, “Ten years ago I was the president of the Stern College for Women student council; I was in the closet afraid of rejection of my own school. I went to the panel and I realized the power of visibility and representation. It gets better because we make it better.”
Rabbi Steven Greenberg, founding director of Eshel, an organization advocating for greater LGBT acceptance in the Orthodox world, voiced the frustration of many of the protesters over the stagnant pace of change in the Orthodox approach to the LGBT community. “We LGBT Jews have grown tired of compassionate statements. What we need is compassion that stirs to action,” he said. “It is no longer acceptable to force LGBT Jews to pay an enormous psychological price for the Orthodox community’s theological comfort.”
“Modern Orthodoxy, do you want this to be your legacy?” asked Justin Spiro, a social worker and the current clinical consultant at JQY. “What halacha prohibits support groups and safe spaces from forming on campus? This is Torah? No, just the opposite.”
Speaking to the crowd at Bennett Park and punctuating her speech with the repeated phrase, “This is why I march,” Courtney Marks, a junior at Stern and a march organizer, spoke about homophobic comments she had heard from classmates and teachers at Stern. “We are not the punchline of your joke. We are human beings who deserve basic human decency,” she said.
As the protesters approached the Yeshiva University library, about a dozen students at the yeshiva sat on benches, watching the mass of people approach a police barrier and cracking jokes. Lined up behind the barrier, the protesters held their rainbow flags and began to sing familiar Hebrew songs, including one whose words translate, “The whole entire world is a very narrow bridge and the most important thing is not to be afraid.”
The boys on the bench grew quieter and stopped laughing. More students came to watch and supporters came running down the street to hand out rainbow cupcakes to the marchers. As the protest came to an end and the marchers headed down the block for a slice of kosher pizza, one of the boys who had been sitting on the bench laughing with his friends was engaged in conversation with one of the protesters. Instead of laughing, he was listening.