By: Michael Cinnamon  | 

Out of the Closet; Homosexual Student and Alumni Speak to Standing-Room-Only Crowd on Wilf Campus

On Tuesday, December 22, four gay men, one an undergraduate student at Yeshiva and the other three YU alumni, spoke to a packed crowd in the Wilf Campus’ Weissberg Commons.  For two hours, the four panelists presented their personal narratives dealing with being gay in Yeshiva and in the general Orthodox world.  The sponsors and participants intend this panel discussion to be the first venture of a continuing forum that will focus on these and similar issues within the Orthodox community.

The program was organized by the Wurzweiler School of Social Work and the Yeshiva University Tolerance Club.  A student-run club founded last year by Avi Kopstick (YC ’10), himself one of the panelists, YUTC describes its goal as “recognizing diversity and promoting tolerance within the YU community.”

The event began with opening remarks from Nava Billet (SCW ’08),  Presidential Fellow for Wurzweiler, who spoke in place of Wurzweiler Dean Sheldon R. Gelman.  After Ms. Billet, Rabbi Yosef Blau, Mashgiach Ruchani at YU, introduced the panel and his role as moderator. 

Following the personal narratives, the panelists answered numerous questions about their experiences, about homosexuality and Judaism, about possible future discussions, and about what steps the Orthodox community should now take.

Originally, the event was scheduled to take place in a somewhat smaller venue in Furst Hall, but due to the overwhelming public response and the number of online RSVP’s, the location was changed to the larger Weissberg Commons in Belfer Hall.   Even so, the room was considerably over capacity, with many in the audience sitting on the floor or standing towards the back and sides of the room.  Estimates of the crowd’s size put it at roughly 700 people, with at least 100 people denied entrance entirely due to overcrowding.

The audience was composed of students from YU as well as many other universities, including NYU, Columbia, Queens College, and the University of Pennsylvania, various members of both the Yeshiva faculty and administration, and others. 

The crowd largely supported the panelists, with many bursts of applause interrupting the speakers, and numerous audience members writing messages of support on the index cards given out to the audience for the purpose of submitting anonymous questions.

However, the response to the event has not been entirely positive.  In the days before the event, after the posters advertising the event began popping up on campus, numerous copies of a detailed, satirical sign with the byline “Being Bestial in the Jewish Community,” a clear takeoff on the actual event poster, which was entitled “Being Gay in the Orthodox World,” appeared in close proximity. 

Additionally, a few hours before the event itself, someone posted a letter bearing the signatures of between 5 and 7 Roshei Yeshiva (depending on the copy at hand) in various locations around the Wilf Campus.  The letter read as follows:

The Torah requires that we relate with sensitivity to a discreet individual who feels that he/she has a homosexual orientation, but abstains from any and all homosexual activity.  Such sensitivity, however, cannot be allowed to erode the Torah’s unequivocal condemnation of homosexual activity.  The Torah’s mitzvos and judgments are eternally true and binding.  Homosexual activity constitutes an abomination.  As such, publicizing or seeking legitimization even for the homosexual orientation one feels runs contrary to Torah.  In any forum or on any occasion when appropriate sympathy for such discreet individuals is being discussed, these basic truths regarding homosexual feelings and activity must be emphatically re-affirmed.

Although the identity of the letter’s author has not yet been determined, and although some have called into question the authenticity of the letter, sources close to Rabbi Hershel Schachter, a Rosh Yeshiva at YU, confirmed that the letter and his signature are legitimate.

About twenty minutes after the panel began, an alarm went off in Belfer Hall.  Jeffrey Rosengarten, vice president of Administrative Services, announced that an inoperative fan in one of the building’s elevators had triggered the alarm.

The full impact of the event remains to be seen, and many issues are yet unresolved.  Still, Mordechai Levovitz, one of the panelists, termed the event “more successful and more positive than I could ever imagine.”  He is also hopeful that the YU community will see more such events in the future.  “It’s amazing how the miracle of discussion and learning can elevate an issue from the depth of depression to the height of inspiration.  We must continue.”

**Update, 12/25/09**

Earlier today, a letter was posted outside the Glueck Center Beit Midrash on official RIETS (Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary) stationery, and bearing the names of Yeshiva University President Richard M. Joel and RIETS Dean Rabbi Yona Reiss.  The text of the letter follows:

Message from the President and Menahel of RIETS

In light of recent events, we want to reiterate the absolute prohibition of homosexual relationships according to Jewish law.  Of course, as was indicated in a message issued by our Roshei Yeshiva [see above], those struggling with this issue require due sensitivity, although such sensitivity cannot be allowed to erode the Torah’s unequivocal condemnation of such activity.  Sadly, as we have discovered, public gatherings addressing these issues, even when well-intentioned, could send he wrong message and obscure the Torah’s requirement of halakhic behavior and due modesty.  Yeshiva has an obligation to ensure that its activities and events promote the primacy and sacredness of Torah in our lives and communities.  We are committed to providing halakhic guidance and sensitivity with respect to all challenges confronted by individuals within our broader community, including homosexual inclinations, in a discreet, dignified and appropriate fashion.

President Richard M. Joel                   Menahel Rabbi Yona Reiss