Students, Allies and Activists March for LGBTQ Equality
A group of more than 100 YU students, alumni, LGBTQ allies and activists converged on Washington Heights on Sunday morning, Sept. 15 to march for LGBTQ equality and representation at YU. Organizers demanded a statement from President Berman condemning homophobia on campus, approval of LGBTQ-related events on campus, the creation of a Gay-Straight Alliance Club at YU, the appointment of an administrator to ensure LGBTQ equality and an orientation session about inclusion and tolerance.
The march, which was organized by the YU College Democrats Club in conjunction with Eshel and Jewish Queer Youth (JQY) — two noted Jewish LGBTQ advocacy groups — began at Bennett Park with remarks from organizers and advocates. The group then marched to the 185th St. Pedestrian Plaza on YU’s Wilf Campus, where they gathered to chant and sing outside YU’s Mendel Gottesman Library. Following the event, marchers had a pizza lunch at Lake Como sponsored by JQY.
“JQY is proud to support the courageous students at YU who are standing up for dignity, safety, and representation,” said Mordechai Levovitz, a former YU student who serves as JQY’s co-founder and clinical director. “On the ten year anniversary of the historic YU Gay Panel — which JQY was honored to organize — this march is indicative of the amazing progress that has taken place among the student body. We wish the same could be said about the administration, which seems to have regressed to censorship, excluding queer voices from conversations about LGBTQ+ issues, and ignoring students' requests for meetings.”
Though the event was organized by the YU College Democrats, the university itself did not sanction the march. “Yeshiva University strives to be a nurturing and inclusive environment for all our students, ensuring that every individual is treated with respect and dignity,” President Ari Berman said in a statement, noting the university’s pre-existing anti-harassment policy. Berman noted that prior to the march, he convened a team of rabbis and educators, led by Senior Vice President Josh Joseph, and tasked the panel with fostering initiatives to address matters of inclusion with respect to the YU community, including LGBTQ-related issues.
The Bennett Park rally that preceded the march featured speeches from march organizers Molly Meisels (SCW ‘20) and Courtney Marks (SCW ‘21), Founding Director of Eshel Rabbi Steven Greenberg, YU professor of English Dr. Joy Ladin, Ferkauf Graduate School of Psychology student Izzie Christman-Cohen, social worker and LGBTQ advocate Justin Spiro, alumnus and co-organizer of the 2009 YU Gay Panel Ely Winkler (YC ‘10), JQY Executive Director Rachael Fried (SCW ‘10) and Levovitz.
March organizers and supporters handed out “We, Too, Are YU” t-shirts, rainbow pride flags, pins, and signs with various LGBTQ slogans at Bennett Park before the rally. Meisels opened the series of speeches at the park outlining the goals of the march and thanking participants for joining their cause. “It takes a lot of courage just to come out here today, so thank you,” she said. Courtney Marks followed by speaking about the importance of the cause to her own personal journey, concluding her remarks by holding up a sign proudly declaring, “I am Gay and I am YU.”
“In 2014, I wrote in the Jewish Week [that those who identify as] LGBTQ who leave Orthodoxy are not going off the derech — there never was a derech for them in the first place,” Spiro said at the opening of his speech. “Yeshiva University’s actions of late have proven that this statement is just as true five years later.”
“Part of the problem,” he added, “is visibility. The administration at YU, and, more broadly speaking, the Modern Orthodox establishment, find it more convenient to pretend we don’t exist. Well, we do exist, and today, they will hear us.”
“By allowing evil rhetoric to be spread,” Christman-Cohen added in her speech, “YU is complicit in opening to the door and welcoming dangerous mental outcomes for many of its students.”
Kesser Frankiel (YC ‘20), who participated in the march to support a friend, considered it an unequivocal success. “I hope that YU meets some of the demands of the march. I hope they recognize the fact that there was a lot of support for this movement and that there is something that definitely needs to be done.”
Organizers originally intended for the speeches to occur at a rally on YU’s pedestrian plaza, which the university is charged with maintaining. However, their request for a permit to utilize sound devices at the rally was denied. “YU is trying to silence our voices and we aren’t being allowed to amplify sound in front of YU,” stated a since-removed Facebook post from the YU College Democrats. In a separate post that included a screenshot of an email from President Berman declining to meet with Meisels this week, the College Democrats commented, “They won’t even speak with us. They won’t even grant us a voice.”
Pursuant to New York City Administrative Code 10-108(g)(1), the NYPD Commissioner is directed by statute to deny a request to use an amplification device, such as a megaphone or public address system, within 500 feet of a school or house of worship, during such hours of operation. A YU spokesperson confirmed the university had no involvement in the permit denial.
As of the time of publication, the NYPD’s Office of the Deputy Commissioner for Public Information did not return The Commentator’s request for comment on the restriction, as well as its subsequent questions regarding why the use of sound devices was permitted for various YU-sanctioned events in the plaza.
When the marchers arrived at the plaza, they began to sing and chant in front of the library doors. A set of responsive chants was said by everyone in the audience, “We, too, are YU,” “Nothing about us without us,” “No more silence; no more fear! You are loved if you are queer,” as well as songs such as “Kol ha’olam kulo,” “Acheinu” and “V’ahavta l’reyacha.”
State Assemblyman Dan Quart (D-Manhattan), who shared a Twitter post in support of the event, was not able to attend, but stands in solidatory with YU LGBTQ students. “What these students are marching for is an important step to building a safe and supportive environment for LGBTQ students at Yeshiva University,” Quart said. “I fully support the young people rallying for visibility and representation and I stand in admiration of the organizers fighting to build acceptance not only for themselves, but also for the students who follow.”
Jordyn Kaufman (SCW ‘17), a former staff member in YU’s Office of the President and Office of Communications who participated in the march, commented, “As a proud alumna of Yeshiva University and also as a proud LGBTQ ally, something that I struggled with as a student was the cognitive dissonance between the fact that I love the university but have always been a really strong ally. I feel Judaism backs me up on that, but the university didn’t. I’m really proud of the student body for finally coming together to create a more inclusive and comfortable environment for everyone.”
Not all students agreed with the march organizers’ tactics. “I agree that they deserve representation, and that they have every right to be able to be present on campus as a club,” said one YC student who commented on the condition of anonymity. “I definitely agree with the ideas behind the march, but I do not believe that attempting to bully the university is the best way to go about it; I don’t think it makes them look good, nor the university. They’re people and that’s what matters — that’s what YU should care about.”
Other students disagreed with some of the demands of the organizers. “I think that the demands of the organizers were too vague,” said a YC student who commented on the condition of anonymity. “For example, one of their demands was to have the administration allow events ‘involving LGBTQ+ issues and speakers.’ What does that entail? Would these events normalize a behavior that is anti-halakhic in nature or would they be for emotional support?”
Looking back on the events of Sunday morning, the march organizers were overwhelmed by the support they witnessed from their community. “I’m at a loss for words,” Meisels reflected. “The outpouring of support; the love; the allyship – the community. I felt an energy at YU today that I have never before felt. I felt a fire. I felt supported and loved and others felt the same. People came out to me, friends, family. We’ve started a movement and I could not be prouder.”
Featured Photo Caption: Marchers protesting on the 185th St. pedestrian plaza on YU's Wilf Campus.
Featured Photo Credit: Leo Skier