By: Doniel Weinreich | Features  | 

Embracing YU’s History of Student Protest

In my three years at Yeshiva University, there has yet to be a major student protest on campus, though one is planned for next week. In my first year, when the Westboro Baptist Church was to protest on campus, I advocated a counter-protest. At the time, several people responded to me with something along the lines of “YU’s just not that sort of place” or “protesting just isn’t part of the culture here.” This stands in contrast to many other contemporary colleges, where student protest seems to be a regular occurrence and a significant element of the culture.

Historically, though, YU is exactly that sort of place. In our institution’s 133-year history, there have been many student protests, of which many were tremendously consequential. For the purposes of this article, I wish only to discuss internal protest over school matters; political protest warrants a separate treatment. Student protest at YU starts at the very beginning, before there was a Yeshiva University or even a Yeshiva College, back when there was just Yeshiva Etz Chaim (an elementary school which would merge with RIETS in 1915 and close in 1924) and Yeshiva Rabbeinu Yitzchak Elchanan (RIETS). Student protest is what led to the creation of the college itself.

The RIETS Strikes

At the time of its founding in 1897, RIETS catered primarily to recent European immigrants and their children. The directors of RIETS conceived of it as a traditional European yeshiva where people would study Torah for its own sake. RIETS’s founding documents attest to a mission of preparing students for the “Hebrew Orthodox Ministry,” and its initial announcement promised “instruction in the language of the land,” but its directors — from the older generation — deemed passable English to be sufficient. The students were not content with this. The younger generation conceived of their time at RIETS as preparation for the American rabbinate, and they realized that Yiddish-speaking, uneducated rabbis would not be able to meet the needs of the American laity. The students knew that the European model was not sustainable in this new world. In those first few years of RIETS, many students would go to secular preparatory schools in their spare time so that they could then go on to university.

The tension between the directors and the students came to a breaking point in January of 1906 when the directors prohibited all secular studies at penalty of the students’ stipends. The students at RIETS responded by going on their first strike, learning in an adjacent building instead of in RIETS. They also took their cause to the local Yiddish newspapers, where they released statements and published their demands, which included a secular curriculum, leadership changes and public speaking instruction. The strike ended several weeks later when the directors installed Rabbi Moshe Zevulun (Ramaz) Margolies as president, who was sympathetic to the students’ demands.

Rabbi Margolies’s post, however, was largely ceremonial, and despite promises, little changed. Protest resumed again in 1908 after 15 students approached the directors demanding they keep their promise. The directors responded by revoking their stipends — effectively expelling them on the spot. Outraged, the student body once again went on strike, pledging not to return until the directors kept their promise of instituting secular studies. This time, students went on tour to local synagogues where they explained their cause to the supportive masses. The Yiddish papers were overwhelmed with letters in support of the student strikers. The strike only ended when RIETS redefined its mission as the pursuit of “Torah v’hokhma” (Torah and wisdom) and the training of modern rabbis. Committees were established to create curricula and standards, and Rabbi Bernard Levinthal was installed as president. The directors even agreed to pay students back-stipends for the period of the strike. The students had won. RIETS would continue to develop its secular curriculum and Bernard Levinthal would eventually be succeeded by Rabbi Dr. Bernard Revel, who would push forward the creation of a Yeshiva College.

Cafeteria Boycotts

The YU Commentator was founded in 1935, and in 1938, it first recorded a student demonstration. The cafeteria caterer from the previous year was greatly disliked by the student body. As the school year began, both the Student Organization of Yeshiva (SOY) and the Yeshiva College Student Council (YCSC) passed a resolution demanding his removal. Negotiations with the caterer stalled as the students boycotted the cafeteria until an oversight committee was formed that would have the power to remove the caterer if warranted. The lockout only ended after two months when a committee was formed and the caterer posted a $500 bond of good faith. However, the students saw little improvement in the quality or quantity of the food, and another cafeteria strike was held in December until the caterer reduced his rates.

This was but the first student struggle involving the cafeteria. In 1962, the administration failed to keep promises to give office rooms to the student councils and the yearbook in the newly dedicated Furst Hall. The administration also would not allow YCSC to install vending machines as they had in other buildings, which was a key source of their revenue. In response, the students boycotted the cafeteria for lunch on Nov. 28, 1962. The night before the boycott, student council representatives went around campus distributing letters and putting up posters explaining the cause and requesting cooperation. According to the YCSC president, the boycott was “98% effective.”

Issues with the cafeterias continued in 1989, the first year of the YU Dining Club, which was started due to student action. The previous year, student councils had conducted surveys and questionnaires, and a petition at Stern for a meal plan was signed by half the student body. However, when students arrived in the fall, they discovered that cafeteria prices had risen tremendously. Students were upset with the declining balance nature of the plan (identical to how the meal plan worked until this year), as well as the fact that they perceived the food as more expensive and inferior in quality to local restaurants. On Dec. 7, 1989, YCSC held a day-long boycott of the cafeteria. The boycott immediately led to a committee meeting where prices were reduced and portions were increased.

Boycotts of the cafeteria continued in 1992, when the administration announced that the now-mandatory meal plan would rise from $1000 to $1300. After the administration refused to listen to student complaints, another boycott was held. YCSC organized discounts with local restaurants, and over the course of the day, a mere fifteen Yeshiva College students ate in the cafeteria. Student councils also sent out a mass mailing to parents urging them to call the dean in protest of the increase. The increase still went into effect the following year, but a student committee was able to negotiate some price decreases.

Unlimited Cuts and the Yeshiva College Senate

Clashes with the administration in the ‘40s and ‘50s were mainly limited to referendums and editorials, with little active protest. During this period, YC’s student council passed numerous resolutions against the administration on a variety of issues ranging from tuition increases to dorm curfews and extracurricular requirements. There was even a minor demonstration in March 1959, at which senior students danced on Amsterdam Ave. before taking the GREs in protest of it being a requirement to graduate with honors. But the next major demonstrations would take place in the late 1960s.

For years students had been demanding that the administration allow unlimited unexcused absences — or “cuts” —  from class, an idea 89% of students supported, according to a Student Curriculum Evaluation Committee survey at the time. Administration and faculty pointed fingers at each other for lack of instantiation. In the fall of 1967, students started demanding more student input on these sorts of policy matters. Some articles in The Commentator at the time even made allusions to student boycotts that were happening at other colleges, though a boycott was not explicitly threatened at YU.

On Dec. 14, 1967, YCSC held a massive open meeting in Lamport Auditorium attended by nearly 600 students. At the meeting, 496 students voted to support YCSC if they decided to strike. Coverage of the meeting appeared in The Commentator alongside coverage of the recently established University Senate at Fordham University, with YU students suggesting it be imitated. The Senate at Fordham was composed of administrators, faculty representatives and student representatives; they would create policies and report directly to the president.

In this case, striking proved unnecessary at first. In a faculty committee meeting that included student leaders, held two weeks later, the faculty voted to allow unlimited cuts for juniors and seniors. The proposal was to go before a full faculty meeting on Jan. 10. However, at that faculty meeting, no action was taken to implement the unlimited cuts plan. The next afternoon, the student council met. Despite the YCSC president’s reluctance to strike throughout the ordeal — considering it a “last resort” — the council voted to stage a boycott of classes on the first day of the spring semester. “That last resort has been reached,” remarked the president. It was only under threat of this strike that another faculty meeting was called for Jan. 22, at which the unlimited cuts policy was finally officially approved.

Although unlimited cuts were finally implemented, calls for student involvement in policy decisions — particularly in the form of a University Senate — did not die down. At the end of the year, a joint committee of faculty, administrators and students was announced to discuss the future of the unlimited cuts policy, as well as other academic matters. However, in a meeting one week later, YCSC rejected a proposal for such a “Senate” to only serve in an advisory capacity and demanded that students have a voice in a real policy-making body.

As the 1968 school year began, there was no Senate in place. Newspaper editorials attest to student fury at this delay. It was perceived by the students as standard procedure for the administration to form ad-hoc committees and string students along until issues died down. Students again began discussing recent boycotts at other colleges as a possible solution for themselves.

After being brought up at Student Council meetings, the Senate steering committee met for the first time on Nov. 26. Negotiations dragged on as the faculty and students on the committee disputed the breadth of the prospective Senate’s power and the proper level of student representation on faculty committees. After four months of tedious negotiations, the YC Senate was approved in March. At no point was there ever a concrete threat of student strike over the Senate, but the prospect, as well as the happenings at other universities, loomed large over this saga. It was only due to the students’ persistence and their previous activism that this monumental power shift occurred.

Stern Struggles For A New Building

During this same period in the late ‘60s, the hardly decade-old Stern College for Women (SCW) was having its own student struggles. The early years of SCW were plagued by inadequate facilities. For the first decade of SCW, students were housed in midtown hotels, and the only classroom facility was a small building on the corner of 35th St. and Lexington Ave. Promises were made regarding new buildings in Fall 1964, and at the beginning of the school year in 1965, a new building (now Brookdale Hall) was acquired for use as both classrooms and a dormitory. The lot adjacent to Stern (now Stanton Hall, located at 245 Lexington Ave.) was eventually bought, and in Nov. 1966, a large state grant was given; construction was scheduled to begin in five weeks. However, as the end of the school year arrived six months later, construction had still not begun, and the lot remained empty.

On May 9, 1967, approximately 250 students gathered at the empty lot, and the Stern College Student Council (SCSC) held a faux groundbreaking ceremony in protest of the delays. Students were particularly frustrated by the lack of communication regarding the delays, as well as the sentiment that the administration was indifferent towards SCW. Two new buildings had recently been built on YU’s uptown campus, and Stern students were starting to accuse the administration of treating SCW like a “step-daughter” rather than a “legitimate daughter.” Student leaders spoke about the necessity of the protest and then took their shovels and broke ground, accompanied by dancing and singing. The protest ceremony was covered on CBS Evening News.

Another year passed and SCW enrollment swelled to 1000 students, all of whom were still cramped in the same tiny building originally built for 100. No progress had been made. This started to change in Oct. 1968, when SCW’s student newspaper The Observer printed a special edition. After constant delays, student leaders had decided to take matters into their own hands and build a park on the still-empty plot of land. In addition to serving as a protest of the delays, students and faculty reckoned that creating a park would improve student life and the aesthetic quality of the campus; students lamented the unpleasant and dirty “barnyard” appearance of the empty lot next to their school. The special issue included detailed plans for the park by a real architect and explanations of the various subcommittees involved. This seems to have been a real plan, not an inflated bluff.

The plan got the administrators’ attention. They promised construction bidding would close in December, and accordingly, the park plan was called off. But after more delays, bids weren’t opened until Jan. 20, and all were declined, as the costs exceeded the estimate that was made years previously. Furious over these developments, student leaders decided their only recourse was a strike, which was approved unanimously at a massive meeting of over 400 students in Koch Auditorium. Leaders planned a detailed schedule with constant pickets in front of the Stern building, a “learn-in,” and even provisions and entertainment.

Under threat of this major strike, student leaders were called to a meeting directly with President Belkin. President Belkin communicated to the students a plan to reduce the cost of the building, and he guaranteed them that construction would begin within two months. The strike was called off. The students had won. Bids were finalized, and ground was finally broken on March 26, 1969.

Facilities struggles resurged at SCW in 1991. Still confined to just Brookdale Hall and the main building at 245 Lexington Ave., Stern was running out of space. Bunk beds had recently been introduced in the dorms, and students reported an extreme shortage of living and studying space, as well as subpar maintenance. These frustrations were exacerbated by the recent completion of a pool complex uptown. Students once again alleged they were being treated as second-class citizens. 400 students signed a petition to the administration but received no response. Student outcry eventually led to the formation of Stern’s Student Life Committee (SLC) to improve conditions at SCW. The SLC was able to make some progress, including acquiring new phones, obtaining access to athletic facilities and commissioning a beit midrash. In 1999, a new petition over delays in the renovation of new buildings would garner 400 signatures.

Concerned Students Fight Secularization

Photo Caption: Students protest the secularization of the college in 1970.

Photo Credit: Yeshiva University Archives

In 1969, due to a recently passed NY State law preventing private sectarian institutions from receiving state funding, YU started discussing a plan to restructure. Students voiced concerns that the separation of RIETS and YC would be the end of the synthesis entailed by YU’s motto of Torah U’Madda and that it might put YU on the path to complete secularization, as happened with the previously religious Harvard and Yale. These fears were enhanced by new promotional materials that failed to emphasize the place of Torah in the curriculum and catalogs that failed to mention the religious studies requirements. The administration attempted to quell these anxieties, insisting that all the changes were purely rhetorical, external and superficial, and that the substance of YU’s religious programs and requirements would remain unchanged.

Students, however, remained concerned. The SOY president was vocally worried that YU’s religious studies requirements for undergraduates might be found in violation of the law and that YU would dispense with them to preserve their funding. On Feb. 19, 1970, SOY voted in favor of a strike at the discretion of its president. Under this threat, the administration called for a meeting in March between all student leaders and President Belkin himself. President Belkin again reiterated that the restructuring was only on paper and that the Judaic requirements would not change, but this accomplished little. In April, a group dubbing themselves the “Concerned Students Coalition” (CSC) formed and brought demands to President Belkin which included that RIETS be incorporated together with the undergraduate divisions of YU and that the catalogs that failed to mention Judaic requirements be updated. The students received no response to their demands, and as a result, the CSC decided to picket the Chag HaSemicha scheduled for April 12.

On the day of the Chag HaSemicha, 200 male students — almost entirely from the semikha program and the undergraduate division of RIETS (now the Mazer Yeshiva Program) — rallied in front of the building, and 50 SCW students picketed in front of Gottesman Library next door. Students were divided about the rally; no student leaders in YC participated, nor did many students from the Erna Michael College (now the Isaac Breuer College). Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik (the Rav) initially discouraged his students from protesting, but as he spoke at the ceremony, he was informed of the protesters outside, and voiced his support for their cause. In his speech, the Rav lavished many praises on President Belkin, whom he trusted completely, but nonetheless voiced both concern about the possible dissolving of Judaic requirements as well as anxiety about the future when Belkin would no longer be in charge.

President Belkin was upset by the Rav’s remarks, and had a meeting with him later in which he assured him that the religious character of the institution would not change. Belkin also agreed to take the concerns of the CSC seriously and made minor concessions, including raising the salary of rabbeim and agreeing to appoint religious advisors.

This was unsatisfactory to the CSC. On May 18, over 100 student members of the CSC marched into administrative offices to deliver an open letter demanding Belkin meet directly with students to address their concerns and demands, including that RIETS faculty be involved in administrative decisions such as admissions and curricula. President Belkin agreed to meet with CSC students, but no new concessions were made.

Students Strike For Faculty

The next decade at YU saw many instances of students standing up for their faculty, particularly at SCW. Until this point, seemingly the only major incident was the dismissal of a German professor at YC in 1952. Student outcry was loud, but no demonstration occurred. This would change in the ‘70s.

Due to the financial circumstances at the time, President Belkin announced a freeze in faculty salaries and hiring in 1971. It was also announced that five SCW faculty would not have their contracts renewed, including a popular history professor. Students immediately planned petitions and letter-writing campaigns on behalf of the history professor, though they were unsuccessful.

Once again, in Dec. 1973, five SCW faculty members were dismissed. Stern students immediately formed a committee to negotiate with administrators, demanding students be involved in faculty decisions, and planned a strike for the next week. Administrators met with students in the hours before the planned strike and agreed to have a student committee review the budget. The strike was averted this time. The same year, a popular economics professor at YC was also not rehired. YCSC sent a strongly worded letter to the administration protesting and considered striking. In seeming protest, the senior class voted for that professor to receive the Senior Professor Award at the end of the year.

Tensions between the administration and faculty remained high over the next few years, as professors attempted to unionize in the face of inadequate salaries and long freezes. At some points, YU professors even boycotted all non-class activities. But students next got involved in the spring of 1976.

In April 1976, with no students or department chairs consulted about the decision, six full-time faculty members at SCW received letters of probable non-reappointment. Student leaders attempted to negotiate with administrators, but the administration was unresponsive. On Thursday, April 29, students at SCW went on strike, demanding both the reinstatement of those professors and that no other professors be dismissed in their stead. For a full week, no Stern students entered the classroom building, instead picketing and studying immediately outside the building. In a show of solidarity, the entire faculty joined the strike. The first day of the strike went unacknowledged by the administration. It was only on Friday — the second day of the strike — that the administration agreed to negotiate with the leaders of the strike on the following Monday.

On Monday, May 3, strike leaders finally met with administrators. The administration agreed to  have student input on future decisions involving faculty reappointment and tenure but refused to rescind the non-reappointment of the six professors. At a student meeting that night attended by over 200 students, a narrow majority voted to continue the strike.

The strike was only resolved another two days later, on Wednesday, May 5, when administrators guaranteed that two of the professors would be kept on for the entirety of the next school year and signed an agreement to form a student committee that would be involved in all future decisions regarding faculty promotion, tenure and dismissal. All six non-reappointments were fully rescinded the next day in accordance with a resolution sent by SCW faculty to the administration after an emergency meeting.

The following years would see more student activism on behalf of faculty, though none would approach the drama or success of the week-long strike of 1976. The next year, an English professor of 25 years at YC approached his mandatory retirement. Petitions circulated and a myriad of letters poured into The Commentator in support of the beloved professor. Eventually, the newly-installed President Lamm agreed to extend the professor’s contract another year. That same year, an unsuccessful petition at SCW for a dismissed English professor amassed 200 signatures.

Petitions over tenure denial also circulated at Stern in 1982 and 1983. In the latter case, almost two-thirds of the student body signed, and many wrote personal letters to President Lamm. The frustration culminated in a 50 person sit-in at the semi-annual Gottesman lecture in Koch Auditorium, but to no avail. Just as their YC peers had done in 1974, the senior class voted to give the professor in question the Senior Professor Award. YC students would again give a Professor of the Year award to a departing professor in 1999, when a mass of letters failed to reverse the tenure denial of a popular Political Science professor.

The Revel Crisis

Photo Caption: An outpouring of support for the Bernard Revel Graduate School at the 1991-92 protests

Photo Credit: Yeshiva University Archives

Notwithstanding a 100-student protest outside Morgenstern Hall over security — which led to the creation of the local shuttle — in 1979, the next major instance of student protest began in 1991 and continued for months. In December 1991, a Commentator editor overheard YU board members discussing a plan to close the Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies (BRGS) due to financial cutbacks. He broke the story in the subsequent issue of the paper, prompting immediate student action. Petitions circulated, flyers were hung, hundreds of students donned black armbands and a Committee for the Preservation of Revel (CPR) was formed. Many students considered this the death of Torah U’Madda and an existential threat to the future of Modern Orthodoxy. How could YU not offer graduate degrees in Jewish Studies? Women were particularly upset, as Revel was perceived as one of the only places for women to engage in advanced Torah scholarship.

Just one week after breaking the story, The Commentator published a special issue devoted to it. Student journalists engaged in a detailed analysis of Revel’s finances, questioning whether closing the school would, in fact, lead to substantial savings. The special issue included a massive full-page petition signed by 1,112 students.

Active protest ensued swiftly. Over 250 students gathered in front of Furst Hall, where they marched up to Rabbi Lamm’s office to hang the petition on his door. In another protest held a few days later, 300 students formed a human barrier in front of Furst, preventing entry for afternoon classes, and then marched up to Rabbi Lamm’s office again. Chants included “Save Revel Now!”, “Whose School? Our School!”, “No More Lies!”, “Jewish School, Jewish Studies!” and “Let Our People Stay!” Even some YU faculty members participated in the protests. 100 Stern students later held a rally on the midtown campus. On another occasion, students held a “learn-in” in the lobby of Furst. Posters plastered the entire school, and hundreds of students sent personal letters to President Lamm. The student body seemed unified in its support of preserving Revel; that semester, the Yeshiva College Dramatics Society even donated the proceeds from one of their shows to the CPR. Outside members of the Modern Orthodox community also began to make fundraising pledges in attempts to keep BRGS afloat.

On Jan. 15, 1992, President Lamm announced the formation of an advisory task force to explore the possibility of preserving BRGS. The task force would fully analyze BRGS’s programs and recommend how they could remain viable with minimal cost. Tension remained high, with students questioning the selection process for the task force and the confidentiality surrounding it. CPR leaders held their own press conference after President Lamm announced the task force.

The task force released its report in February, outlining the “minimalist position” for what a restructured BRGS could include while being academically viable. After the release of the task force’s recommendation, students continued to exert pressure on the administration, holding pickets on both campuses during Parent’s Day.

Soon after the task force gave their recommendations, an independent financial analyst gave a report to President Lamm. The report recommended some restructuring and claimed that anywhere from $2.3 million to $­2.7 million would need to be raised over the next five years. At that point, pledges had already exceeded $3 million.

As students awaited President Lamm’s decision, protests continued. On March 12, 1992 — exactly 3 months after the closure plan was first announced — protests were still garnering 150 students. Over the course of the entire ordeal, students held four demonstrations, two learn-ins, two pickets and one sit-in.

On March 27, it was officially announced that Revel had been saved. The task force’s recommendations had been accepted. The graduate programs would continue, with a reduction from 40 to 32 courses per year. The announcement was received positively by the students and faculty. They had won again.

It bears mentioning that many of the leaders and participants in the so-called “Revel Protests” comprise the current crop of Modern Orthodox thought leaders. Many are educators and roshei yeshiva, including at YU. The current editor-in-chief of Tradition helped lead the protests, and the current president of YU, Rabbi Dr. Ari Berman, participated.

Rally For MTA

Photo Caption: On February 17, amid ambiguity and confusion over MTA’s future, the entirety of MTA held a one hour rally outside Furst Hall.

Photo Credit: Yeshiva University Archives

The last major demonstration at YU in the 20th century would occur in the spring of 1999. In January, rumors started to circulate that YU was considering closing MTA, its high school for boys. This was justified by administrators on the basis of declining enrollment, financial problems and even space — YC, whose campus is shared with MTA, was near its maximum capacity at the time. In response to these rumors, there was an outpouring of public support for MTA by alumni, parents and even YU faculty. MTA administrators disputed the reasoning for the potential closure. The YU administration clarified that MTA would remain open during the next year and that the matter was merely “under consideration.” Some speculated that the stated reasons were a ruse and that the real impetus was politics and YU’s desire to “get out of the high school business.”

The administration’s backtracking didn’t alleviate people’s concerns. The MTA administration demanded a concrete decision from President Lamm by the Feb. 17 deadline for sending out acceptance letters. The demand was ignored, and on Feb. 17, amid ambiguity and confusion over MTA’s future, the entirety of MTA held a one hour rally outside Furst Hall, which featured speeches, chants and tehillim led by then MTA mashgiach Rabbi Yitzchok Cohen.

On March 10, facing immense public pressure, YU issued a press release asserting that MTA would remain open and affirming YU’s commitment to the institution and its mission. However, one week later, President Lamm dismissed MTA’s principal Rabbi Michael Taubes, with many attributing the move to his public protestations. (Taubes returned to MTA as a rebbe in 2008, was appointed Menahel in 2011 and currently serves as Rosh Yeshiva.) In response, undergraduates at YU — with the support of RIETS roshei yeshiva — circulated a petition for his reinstatement. Their efforts were unsuccessful, and President Lamm appointed a new principal shortly thereafter.

Concluding Thoughts

Where do these tales leave us?

It is quite staggering, in retrospect, to consider the sway that student leadership once held at YU. Students were united behind their leaders, who pushed hard for real change and influence in university matters. This stands in contrast to today, when nearly every decision in the institution occurs in a top-down fashion in which students have become complacent. The Senate that students had fought so hard for has been defunct for years. 

Any close look at YU’s history reveals recurrence. Students are faced with many of the same problems today as they were in YU’s past. Today we must deal with an administration that constantly undermines student autonomy, a president who seems to be both unaware of and uninterested in the issues facing undergraduates, a mistreated and discontent faculty, rampant student cheating, dilapidated facilities, rising costs and declining course offerings, among many other issues. 

Few, if any, of these problems are new. As many editorials over the years in YU’s student newspapers attest, the administration depends on student complacency and short memory. They have repeatedly committed to giving students more of a voice, only to ignore them later. Our predecessors in these sagas knew that this could not stand. Without them, our institution today would be non-existent or unrecognizable. They acted.

What will we do?

Featured Photo Caption: MTA students and faculty protest against the school’s potential closure.

Featured Photo Credit: Yeshiva University Archives