By: Nechama Lowy | Features  | 

Clarifying the Role of Women on Shabbat on Wilf

In recent years, the question of to what degree YU’s undergraduate women should be incorporated into the Wilf campus Shabbat experience has come to light, as more single YU women have begun to reside in Washington Heights.

Rabbi Yosef Blau, Senior Mashgiach Ruchani for Yeshiva University and RIETS, lives close to the university and spends most of his Shabbatot with the YU community on Wilf. He has seen Washington Heights become a popular singles community of late and explained, “in the last few years, more and more women have moved to the neighborhood around Yeshiva. Before that, the issue of women being around on Shabbos was not an issue, because they weren’t there.”

Although women are welcome into the Wilf campus library, cafeteria, and other buildings during the week, on Shabbat, women are not allowed to eat meals with the men in their dining hall. The same policy exists on Beren, where men are not allowed to eat with the women on a normal Shabbat.  

Rabbi Blau suggested that within the Wilf campus student body who stays in for Shabbat, “there is a preference for the ‘Yeshiva’ atmosphere; they’re staying in for the Yeshiva experience.” The administration feels that a large population of the students have a preference towards spending their Shabbat in single-sex environments. YU has long been opposed to hosting coed Shabbatonim on the Wilf campus in order to preserve this Yeshiva environment. Dovid Simpser, President of SOY, recalled, “two years ago there was a huge push to make coed Shabbatonim uptown.” In order to ensure that this large population of YU’s men would remain comfortable on Shabbat, the Roshei Yeshiva decided against it.

While full-scale Shabbatonim have been explicitly disallowed, the rules for individual women participating in Shabbat activities are less clear. When asked if women are allowed to attend the Shabbat shiurim and tisch events, Rabbi Blau responded that “it’s a good question, because it rarely happens. It is unclear, because I don’t think it’s come up.” However, Simpser asserted that “women are allowed at all minyanim and programming, besides for meals, even the tisch,” stating that it is a huge misunderstanding when women assume they are not allowed at any programming besides for the minyanim.

The lack of clarity surrounding these policies has resulted in confusion among members of the student body. In October of 2017, a group of current Beren students and female graduate students entered the Furman Dining Hall, where Wilf’s Shabbat meals are held, and took seats at Seudah Shlishit. Neither Simpser nor Rabbi Blau was able to confirm if anyone complained, but Simpser, who was sitting at Seudah Shlishit at the time, described that “the guys [who they sat close to] were super uncomfortable and got up and moved.”

Rabbi Blau approach the women to alert them that “the policy is to not have single women at the Shalosh Seudot,” but he did not ask them to leave. Rabbi Blau admitted that one of the women responded that she “was told there’s no such policy,” indicating that the guidelines are unclear.

The guidelines for the rules of Shabbat and minyanim are not written down anywhere.“None of this is a rule, this is just the way the place runs,” explained Rabbi Blau.

Another ambiguity surrounds the leadership roles that women are permitted to partake in at minyanim. Simpser reported that when the Klein @ 9 minyan was started (in 2016, by Simpser and several others), it was decided that “women can’t speak at the bimah, but they can definitely give the chabura.” The reason for this policy is that Klein @ 9 was built to service all students while maintaining the Yeshiva atmosphere. In this case, the gap of time between davening and the dvar Torah is small and does not give male students a chance to leave, should they desire to not be present for a speech given by a female. The chaburot, on the other hand, are given after kiddush and attended by students based on personal preference.

This subtle distinction appears to be the minyan’s attempt to balance different values. “The Yeshiva has a certain character and it incorporates different things that may not always be consistent but reflects the complexity of the place,” explained Rabbi Blau.

According to Rabbi Blau, Klein @ 9 is the first Shabbat day minyan on Wilf at which students speak after davening. “Prior to [the Klein minyan] the only people who ever spoke were rabbis or roshei yeshiva. In the [Glueck] Beit Midrash, I speak Friday night. If I’m not speaking, it’s a guest speaker or a Rabbi...Shenk shul has a rabbi and he gives the speech,” he recalled.  

On Shabbat Chanukah of this year, Stern College Junior Lilly Gelman gave the dvar Torah from the bimah after the Klein minyan. Several weeks earlier, SOY Vice President Noah Marlowe asked Lilly to speak after davening, but she had not been able. On this particular Friday night, the minyan’s gabbai, Sam Gelman realized that no one had signed up to give the dvar Torah. Lilly volunteered on the short notice to fill in this need.

While Rabbi Blau asserted that “it occurred without consulting others, which does indicate it was done to make a statement,” the leaders of the minyan claim it was a miscommunication and not done to cause controversy. “We didn’t ask Dovid or Noah because they weren’t there that week and it was already Friday night, but I figured that since Noah already asked me, it was okay,” recalled Lilly. Explaining his reasoning for asking Lilly, Sam indicated, “I don’t think it was ever said that women can’t give the dvar Torah, it was just something that I assumed based on the conversation and what the minyan was going to be like, but it turns out that I was wrong. It was a miscommunication.”

In regards to Marlowe originally asking Lilly to speak, Marlowe explained that he too misunderstood what the policies were. Marlowe, Simpser, and Sam had been speaking about allowing women to speak at the bimah, “but it was kind of informal, we did not come to a clear policy,” explained Marlowe. Simpser further elaborated that “there is no code book and no rule book, everything is a conscious decision. People in charge of Shabbos programming discuss and, case by case, there comes a consensus.”

Most students go home for Shabbat Chanukah, so there were only about 30 students present at the minyan. Neither Lilly nor Sam received complaints after the dvar Torah was given.

Nevertheless, there were clearly some who were uncomfortable with this incident. Rabbi Menachem Penner, Dean of Undergraduate Torah Studies and RIETS, was contacted regarding the incident. It is unclear whether it was a student who attended the minyan who relayed his displeasure to Rabbi Penner or just someone who got word of the situation. Subsequently, Rabbi Penner spoke with Simpser and Marlowe and clarified that while women can give chaburot, they cannot give the dvar Torah from the bimah.  

Both Sam and Simpser confirmed that, while women are not in official leadership roles at the minyan, they are included in some aspects of the minyan’s operation. For example, a current project that Klein @ 9 is working on is changing the mechitzah. The current mechitzah is a curtain that closes off the back left corner of the room. Sam elaborated that, “whether that’s to put [the mechitzah] down the middle or make it less of a curtain,” they do consult with women about decisions pertaining to how comfortable they are in the minyan.

A female student who resides in Washington Heights, but prefers to remain unnamed, reflected upon the overall attitude towards women at the minyanim, noting that she refrains from attending minyanim on Wilf on Shabbat due to her discomfort of feeling like she is not welcome. “Women who live in Washington Heights are no peculiarity, but at the YU undergraduate level, we are understandably and fittingly an irregularity”, she said. “I feel uncomfortable being in the Wilf gender minority on Shabbat. Not all men who enroll at Yeshiva University expect that female students will partake in their religious communities, so my participation feels like an overstep into understandably partially unwelcoming territory.”

The issue of roles on campus is not exclusive to Wilf. This year as well as last, the Torah Activities Committee (TAC) has invited YU men to come to the Beren campus for Shabbat to complete a minyan for women to attend. One might, therefore, have thought to look towards Beren’s policies towards these visiting men and expect them to be consistent with those of their counterparts. As it turns out, however, there is actually a pattern of men being more limited on the Beren campus than females are on Wilf. Relaying his experience coming downtown for Shabbat in order to complete a minyan, Simpser expressed that “men feel excluded on Beren. Men are not allowed to go to programming downtown on Shabbat.” He elaborated that, apart from minyanim, he was told he cannot listen to speakers or shiurim.

Officially, the men who spend their Shabbat downtown, also known as “Minyan Men”, have separate meals and programming, but are welcome into the dorm lounges and any programming that takes place in the Beren beit midrash. Adina Cohen, the Vice President of TAC, explained that the reasoning for these policies is not so unlike the explanation given for Wilf’s policies. “There is a large population of women on campus who prefer not to have coed programming and, in addition to the value of davening tefillah b’tzibur, we also strive to maintain the all-women’s feel of Shabbat on Beren campus.”

In response to these concerns of making everyone comfortable, there are subtle differences between the way Shabbat is run on Beren and Wilf, nuances that Simpser attributed to the more “imposing presence” of Rebbeim on the uptown campus. One such difference is the policy regarding women kissing the Torah after Torah reading. Yael Green, Student Recruiter of the Shabbat Enhancement Committee, stated, “the current policy is that a man will take the Torah out of the Ark and he will hold it at the front of the women’s section and Rabbi Rozensweig, the Shabbat rabbi, will announce ‘at this point we invite everyone to come forward and kiss the Torah.’” On Wilf, the leaders of the Klein @ 9 minyan do not offer the opportunity for the women to come up and kiss the Torah. Upon being asked if a similar policy to allow women to kiss the Torah has ever been discussed on Wilf, Simpser replied that he “doesn’t know if it would be allowed, but it has also never come up, to my knowledge.”

With more female students residing in the Heights, there is a call for more transparency regarding the current policies, as well as reevaluating them based on the needs of the community. While the status quo might ensure the comfort of a large population on Wilf campus, the developing community deserves to know the guidelines, as well as have a voice in the conversation that affects their Shabbat experience. Understanding guidelines for the current programming may enhance Shabbat as well as limit any further miscommunications between the student body and heads of programming.