Diversity Club Seeks to Break Down Borders Between YU Students
A new club at Yeshiva University is seeking to celebrate the differences among the student body, whether in skin color, sexual orientation or country of origin. Dubbed “the Diversity Club,” this club will focus on emphasizing the fact that each student is more than just what makes him or her distinct, said the club’s founder, Rivkie Reiter.
Reiter, a senior at Stern College, founded the club when she realized that Yeshiva University was more diverse than she originally thought. “People, myself included, love to joke about how homogeneous Yeshiva University is,” Reiter said. “But that’s an oversimplification.” To Reiter, the fact that the student body is quite diverse is often overlooked. “We have the Sephardi Club, we have the International Club, and they try to celebrate specific niche cultures, but there are so many other things that make students at YU different from one another,” she said.
The idea for the club came after a few informal conversations Reiter had with friends at Yeshiva and Stern College who represent minorities on both campuses, such as gay and convert students, along with a few other underrepresented groups. After a few meetings with Chaim Nissel, University Dean of Students, in which Reiter and a group of friends explained the lack of outlets for students who fall outside of the average YU student type, the idea for a “Diversity Club” was born.
Dean Nissel said he thinks the Diversity Club, with its purpose of educating the YU community about diversity among the student body and the challenges different groups experience, is very important. “Getting to know the ‘other’ is essential, and one of the keys to reducing xenophobia and intolerance,” Nissel said. “We can acknowledge our differences and still accept that people are more alike than different.” Everyone is created in the image of God, and therefore everyone deserves to be treated with respect, Nissel explained.
Clubs with similar missions have sprung up in Yeshiva University in the past. “The Tolerance Club” was founded by Avi Kopstick in 2008 with a mission to to spread “the notion that every person, within YU and without, deserves to be treated with dignity and respect,” according to the Tolerance Club’s one-time newsletter, published for the entire student body in November of 2008.
The board of the club, Reiter said, is still in its formative stage and sign-ups to join the club are still available. Ideally, Reiter explained, the goal would be to eventually expand and have specific subcommittees, like a Sephardic Committee, a Convert (or “Jew By Choice”) Committee, and an LGBTQ+ Committee, among others. At this point, however, the priority is getting the club off the ground. Some other more immediate goals include running joint events with other clubs, like the Sephardic Club or Active Minds. In addition, Reiter hopes the club can run some faculty-centered events in which it can bring in speakers with minority-centric stories to share with students to help them see the world through their eyes. Reiter and Pittler say they’ve also been talking to Dean Nissel about a particularly exciting speaker that the University is bringing in and how to spread the news to as many students as possible.
“I think it’s a great platform for people from all different backgrounds and groups to come together,” said Alex Pittler, a senior at Stern College majoring in accounting who contributed to the club’s creation during its early stages by making flyers and tabling at the Beren Club Fair. Pittler acknowledged that YU has a lot of clique problems and believes this club will give people a chance to be themselves while learning more about other students and their backgrounds. “Hopefully, this will become the club that helps cross those invisible boundaries between students,” she said.
In addition, Pittler hopes the club will enable students to come together as a stronger unit against anti-Semitism, reaching further than just Yeshiva University. “There are enough miscommunications and misunderstandings between us [Jews] and the outside world... I think this club will help us work towards eliminating much of that within ourselves.” Pittler believes that working through individual differences in the student body will let the university become all the more united against broader issues like anti-Semitism.
“I think a club that supports, promotes, and provides a safe space for individual differences which might not be accommodated by other spaces or clubs is incredible and very necessary,” said Courtney Marks, an openly gay pre-med student at Stern College. She explained that although she is fully “out” to her Modern Orthodox family members, she finds the YU environment somewhat suffocating. “Many students are afraid to speak out about their differences,” she remarked. Marks regards a group setting like this club as the perfect outlet for these students and believes it’s “very healthy to have on campus.” The reality is, she said, “a lot of people feel like they can’t be their true selves since they might not necessarily see or know anyone on campus with a similar identity, orientation, or feelings.”
“I think it’s a great idea,” said Yonah Taurog, a third-year Math and Computer Science major and the only Vietnamese-American student at Yeshiva College, about the club. “It’s never a good feeling to be the outsider kid.” Taurog recalls a specific incident from a shabbaton this semester on the Beren Campus in which a Yeshiva College student he didn’t know at all approached him and asked, “Where are you from?” When Taurog replied, “I’m from Texas, what about you?” the student said, “No, I mean where are you really from?”
“Anyone who doesn’t feel like they belong here shouldn’t be feeling that way,” Taurog said.
Reiter believes that the Orthodox community is often too hesitant in opening its mind to variation, leaving many students feeling overlooked. She brought as an example the idea of "ashkenormativity,” a term that refers to a perception of all Ashkenazi-related practices and customs as the “norm” (a phenomenon especially present in most American communities), and a subtle yet significant disregard for all non-Ashkenazi groups. Another issue, she explained, is the way in which the Orthodox community generalizes about and overlooks its Baalei Teshuva and converted community members and the unique issues they might face.
“So while YU has some clubs that represent different ideas and cultures,” Reiter argues, “the Diversity Club is here to celebrate what makes us unique, and remind ourselves of everything that connects us.”