By: Doniel Weinreich  | 

History Revisited: Controversy Over LGBT Clubs at YU Graduate Schools

Much controversy and fanfare has been raised this year over demands for an LGBT club at Yeshiva University’s undergraduate colleges. Students attempted to officially form such a club last year, but they were rejected by the administration. This year a march and rally was organized in support of LGBT students at YU and in protest of the administration’s complacency. The rally and its aftermath led to media coverage outside of YU and a renewed discussion in the Modern Orthodox community about LGBT issues. Earlier this year, President Ari Berman announced a new team led by Senior Vice President Josh Joseph to “work on formulating a series of educational platforms and initiatives that will generate awareness and sensitivity.”

The developments of the past few years, however, are not the first time controversy has been ignited over LGBT groups at YU. Several of YU’s graduate schools have had LGBT clubs since the ‘80s, and in the mid-‘90s controversy erupted over those as well, in one case garnering national media attention.

One of the first such controversies occurred in 1993 over a meeting of an LGBT group in the Wurzweiler School of Social Work (WSSW). Wurzweiler was founded in 1957 and in its early years was located in midtown Manhattan. However, in 1982, Wurzweiler left midtown and relocated to Belfer Hall on YU’s Washington Heights campus. Its new location on the same campus as the yeshiva would exacerbate future tensions. On Nov. 21, 1993, a group of Wurzweiler students began advertising an event to discuss LGBT issues, placing signs on the floors of Belfer frequented by Wurzweiler students. At the time, The Commentator reported that the flyers were torn down, and many Yeshiva College (YC) students voiced concern about such an event taking place on the same campus as the yeshiva. One student remarked that while such a meeting doesn’t belong in any Orthodox institution, “their audacity to have it on this campus where the Beit Midrash is located is even more troubling.” In response, YU released an official statement saying, “We understand that a small group of WSSW students plan to meet Sunday to discuss what they have called gay and lesbian issues. Our legal counsel advises us that we are required to permit the meeting to proceed. We will do what the law requires and nothing more.” The meeting proceeded on Dec. 5, 1993.

The controversy over the Wurzweiler meeting happened within a general context of a recent focus on LGBT issues and increased debate about the place of the yeshiva and the university at YU. That same month, controversy ensued over the Yeshiva College Dramatics Society (YCDS) production of “Lips Together, Teeth Apart,” which some students and rabbis felt was too approving of “the homosexual lifestyle.” The Commentator reported that their flyers were also torn and were defaced with epithets such as “fag play.” In response to the controversy, the YU administration formed a new committee the following semester to approve scripts for YCDS productions and recommend revisions.

The previous year, there had been controversy over the participation of Congregation Beit Simchat Torah (CBST) — an LGBT synagogue — in the Salute to Israel Parade. In response to their prospective inclusion, many yeshiva high schools withdrew from the parade. As late as two weeks before the parade, it was still unclear whether YU would participate. A compromise was thought to be reached wherein CBST would march in the parade under the same banner as the Association of Reform Zionists of America but would not be explicitly identified as an LGBT group. This, however, was still unacceptable to many Orthodox parties. Some YU rabbis expressed the opinion that marching in the parade violated precepts against condoning sinners, and one said it was even yehareg v’al ya’avor (one should be killed rather than transgress). Participation of Orthodox groups was only secured three days before the parade, when CBST was expelled by the parade organizers, who claimed that a feature on CBST in the New York Times violated their agreement.

Also during the same semester as the Wurzweiler event, there was a major controversy over the censorship of YU’s undergraduate literary journal for what some felt was vulgar language and sexually explicit content. This led to vigorous discussion of the relationship between the yeshiva and the university. In response to the debacle, Dr. Will Lee — then an English professor and faculty advisor to the literary journal  — penned a lengthy op-ed in The Commentator, outlining his vision of Yeshiva University and objecting to the censorship, which he deemed antithetical to the values of a university. Rabbi Aharon Kahn — a Rosh Yeshiva at the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary (RIETS) — then wrote an equally lengthy op-ed in which he defended the censorship and criticized Dr. Lee’s conception of Yeshiva University. In his essay, Rabbi Kahn laid out a vision of YU in the spirit of Volozhin and contended that YU cannot abide by standards contrary to Torah or halacha, even if it would cost the institution its accreditation or government funding. “Ossur is ossur,” he wrote, even if it has financial costs. Kahn then explicitly addressed the contemporaneous controversy over the gay groups in the graduate schools, remarking, “If gay groups are abhorrent to us as Torah Jews, we have to be willing to sacrifice everything to reject them and refuse them a forum in our midst.”

This tension between “the yeshiva” and “the university” would set the stage for many more controversies in the coming years.

Later that year, President Norman Lamm addressed the issue of homosexuality in a forum with students. Rabbi Lamm distinguished between “being gay and doing gay” and between people “born that way” and those “who seek to legitimize their choice [of lifestyle] in public.” Lamm also emphasized that what people do in private is no one’s business and condemned “gay bashing.” Lamm confessed that he did not know what he would do if confronted with a gay professor.

At this same time, there was a focus at Cardozo School of Law on diversity of the student body and faculty. On March 3, 1994, the president of the Student Bar Association — Cardozo’s student government — published a column in the Cardozo Law Forum decrying the lack of diversity at Cardozo. In the column he mentioned that “certain homophobic individuals whisper about running the Gay and Lesbian Student Alliance off campus.”

Another student, Moshe Schwartz, penned a response to this column. Schwartz objected to classifying those who object to the presence of a gay organization on campus as “homophobic.” “Labeling someone homophobic is a personal smear aimed at squelching opposition to the homosexual lifestyle,” he declared. Schwartz claimed his opposition to the organization stemmed from the Bible and his understanding of YU as an Orthodox institution based in “Torah values.” Schwartz asked several YU rabbis their opinion, and they agreed that the presence of a gay group on campus was antithetical to what YU stood for. Schwartz was clear that he didn’t object to the presence of gay students at Cardozo, but rather only to “administrative policies that foster their activities.”

The controversy over the LGBT group at Cardozo reached a peak the following year, catalyzed by a comment at the 1994 Cardozo commencement. At the ceremony, one of the student speakers, Michael John Kay, exclaimed “Michael Joseph, I love you,” in reference to his same-sex partner with whom he had exchanged rings and vows during the previous summer.

LGBT groups had existed at Cardozo and the Albert Einstein College of Medicine since at least 1987, but Kay’s graduation speech ignited a mass movement to ban them, with particular focus on Cardozo. The Forward reported that in the aftermath of the speech, President Lamm’s office was “blitzed with phone calls and faxes.” Many were upset at Rabbi Lamm’s initial silence regarding the incident. Moshe Schwartz told The Forward that he had a petition to form a “family-values club” which would invite speakers and distribute literature “criticizing the gay lifestyle.” (The petition was never submitted, and Schwartz later claimed that it was never meant to be.)

To many, the heart of the controversy was the religious status of YU itself. In order to continue to qualify for government funding, YU revised its charter in 1970, legally becoming a non-sectarian institution and separating its yeshiva — RIETS — into an independently incorporated sectarian institution. According to the New York City Human Rights Commission, YU would lose its tax-exempt status if it were to ban the gay group. The American Bar Association also said that it ordinarily would revoke the accreditation of a non-religious institution that refuses to sanction gay groups.

Rabbi Lamm told The Forward, “To deny gay clubs the right to function would be to deny Yeshiva University its right to exist. We have no intention of closing our doors over this ... It is more important [to keep the clubs so] our school stays open.” The Dean of Students pointed to a recent case involving Georgetown University — a Catholic institution — where the District of Columbia Court of Appeal ruled that the university must provide its gay student organization with the same services as any other student group.

Some rabbis were undeterred by the possible consequences, saying YU should “take the high road” anyway. Several board members agreed that a gay club was incompatible with YU’s mission.

A small group of students kept the issue alive and attempted to prompt the university into taking action. Jeff Stier, a vocal student and editor-in-chief of the Cardozo Law Forum, took a stand against the club, claiming that Lamm was allowing “the politically unpopular position of banning gay social groups and letting Torah principles central to the University’s essence fall by the wayside.” Stier agreed with the rebbeim who argued that government money was not a good reason to compromise on Torah values. Moshe Schwartz wrote another column in which he disputed the illegality of banning the gay club, warned that accepting a gay club would run afoul of Torah Umadda and condemned those “smear”ing him with accusations of bigotry and homophobia. Schwartz pointed to the presence of mezuzahs, exclusively kosher food, and the library closing on Shabbat as clear evidence that Cardozo was an Orthodox institution.

Many objectors to the presence of gay clubs pointed to an article by Rabbi Lamm in the 1974 Encyclopaedia Judaica Yearbook. In the 12-page article, Rabbi Lamm attempted to engage in a full legal and philosophical analysis of homosexuality, laying out several possible Jewish approaches to the issue. His conclusions noted that “certainly, there must be no acceptance of separate Jewish homosexual societies,” and “under no circumstances can Judaism suffer homosexuality to become respectable.”

Other students rejected these arguments, claiming that unlike YU’s undergraduate colleges, Cardozo was merely a law school and was not specifically dedicated to “Torah values.” After all, most students at Cardozo were not religious; they went to Cardozo only because it was considered a good law school. Some students claimed the non-sectarian status of Cardozo was specifically emphasized and reassured in recruitment. Had Cardozo been unequivocally committed to Orthodoxy and “Torah values,” these students claimed they would not have enrolled. Students involved in the gay club were perplexed as to why there was a controversy at all.

Schwartz’s columns provoked many negative responses. One letter in the Cardozo Law Forum alleged that the selective focus on homosexuality as opposed to anything else counter to Torah is “based on bigotry and should be rejected as mere homophobic rationalization.” Another objected to Schwartz’s comparisons equating homosexuality with bestiality and satanic worship.

Some students worried that banning the gay club would have a deleterious effect on Cardozo’s reputation and standing in the legal community. One gay Cardozo professor wrote that even if the detractors were legally correct, if YU was to ban the gay group, “Cardozo School of Law would then publicly stand for discrimination.” Several YU faculty members and rabbis likewise voiced concern that banning the club would jeopardize YU’s ability to attract professors, students and donors.

Karen Marcus, the president of the Cardozo Lesbian and Gay Student Alliance, also weighed in on the controversy. In a letter to the Cardozo Law Forum, Marcus emphasized the unique function of the alliance as a medium for support in a hostile environment. Marcus described the events at Cardozo as a “microcosmic example of the pain and oppression lesbian and gay people must face every day in the larger world.” She further discussed how the club had had its bulletin boards vandalized, as well as some of the double standards it had been subject to when advertising their events. The previous year, the alliance hosted a student-alumni networking event, which they advertised as a “mixer.” The administration, however, requested that they instead brand the event as a “reception” so as not to offend any students. According to Marcus, it was clear that this request would not have been made of a heterosexual group.

“[The controversy] was very upsetting to the gay students at the time, but they got support from many professors at Cardozo,” Marcus recalls now. “It was viewed as an affront to basic equality and civil rights. People were outraged by it.” According to Marcus, there was never a chance that the dissenters would be successful in getting Cardozo to cut the funding to the club.

The controversy reverberated in the undergraduate colleges. The Commentator covered the controversy extensively, and several undergraduate students wrote letters against the club — all invoking the biblical word to’eivah (abomination).

The YU administration did not budge in their refusal to take action against the club. The Cardozo Law Forum wrote on Nov. 7 that both the Dean of Cardozo and the YU Dean of Students affirmed that “there is no controversy.” Multiple YU administrators said that taking action against the club would be illegal discrimination and would compromise YU’s government funding. Based on Georgetown’s experience, The Dean of Students voiced concern that waging a legal battle would lead to “gay-rights groups staging rallies on the Yeshiva College campus, and an enraged faculty at the graduate schools.”

The issue began to garner significant outside media attention. In addition to The Forward’s coverage, an article appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education in November, and in January, articles appeared in Ma’ariv and The Jerusalem Post. In response to the Ma’ariv article, the roshei yeshiva of RIETS published a quarter-page advertisement in a subsequent issue, denouncing the gay clubs and disavowing any affiliation between them and the yeshiva. They lamented the decline of morality in America, that the law forced them to recognize these groups and that they even had to write a letter regarding what they thought should be obvious. “We express our deep distress and protest with all our might over this painful and disgraceful situation which is to the disapproval of our Torah tradition,” they wrote.

In The Jerusalem Post, Rabbi Lamm publicly commented for the first time since the September article in The Forward, stating, “As a rabbi I cannot and do not condone homosexual behavior, which is expressly prohibited by Jewish Law. But as president of a nondenominational institution that must accommodate people who reflect a wide range of backgrounds and beliefs, it is my duty to [ensure] that the policies and procedures of Yeshiva University conform to the applicable provisions of secular law, even in the rare instances in which these may offend my own religious beliefs and personal convictions.”

The Haredi world got wind of the controversy, and the ultra-Orthodox began using the presence of a gay club in their critiques of YU and their efforts to delegitimize its philosophy of Torah Umadda. Rabbi Elazar Shach — one of the most prominent ultra-Orthodox rabbis in Israel — issued a cherem (formal ban) against YU over the presence of gay clubs. Another leading ultra-Orthodox rabbi, Mordechai Gifter (Talmudical Academy ’33), remarked, “Have Lamm and his rabbis no shame or scruples?”

This “public relations nightmare” and the onslaught from the right was felt by undergraduates at YU. The media attention was covered in The Commentator, which printed an editorial lamenting the publicity. The editorial denounced those using the small club at a graduate school in their efforts to delegitimize YU’s entire institutional philosophy, and it accused the outsider critics of not understanding the details and nuances of the situation. The Commentator commended Rabbi Lamm’s “tactful” handling of the issue, even though they would also prefer it legally and financially possible to take action against the club.

One undergraduate wrote a lengthy article in Hamevaser — a publication by the Jewish studies division of YU — attempting to take a nuanced stance. While not in favor of the gay club, describing it as “an organization where the members involved endorse and support a lifestyle which completely opposes halakhic norms,” the author distinguished between homosexual activity and gay people and noted that “to find a specific halakhic infraction incurred by Yeshiva University’s handling of the situation would be difficult.” According to the article, the dominant issue was not one of a formal proscription, but rather of chillul hashem. In order to minimize chillul hashem, the author said someone “sensitive to Torah standards” should refrain from reacting in lieu of publicly condemning the club. He warned that “challenging gay organizations would provoke protest on campus,” which would result in an even bigger chillul hashem.

On Feb. 24, 1995, YU organized a meeting between student journalists and YU’s lawyers from the firm Weil, Gotshal & Manges LLP. The two attorneys present — including current YU Board of Trustees member Philip Rosen — explained that New York law requires educational institutions to provide protected groups with equal access to facilities. A religious exemption is only possible if the institution defines itself as religious. YU had legally separated from RIETS and became a non-sectarian institution 25 years earlier. During that period, YU had filed for government aid numerous times, specifically declaring itself a non-religious institution. According to the attorneys, arguing for a religious exemption would be “an impossible task,” and might compromise tens of millions of dollars that YU receives from the government.

The meeting, however, did little to quell the dissidents. Stier, who was at the meeting, wrote a letter to The Commentator disputing the attorneys’ opinions and claiming that the religious exemption was much broader. Similar opinions were advanced by RIETS Rosh Yeshiva and Cardozo professor J. David Bleich, as well as former Assistant to the Solicitor General Nathan Lewin (YC ’57).

The controversy might have died down, but for a new wave of media coverage — this time by national newspapers. The Washington Times ran an article in April, followed by The New York Times in May and the New York Post in July. Stier remained adamant that “the second you allow gay clubs at Yeshiva University you are degrading the Torah U’Madda symbol.” He made several statements to the media criticizing YU for choosing “political correctness” over “Torah values.” YU also began to come under attack from an organization called the Family Defense Council.

Today, Stier emphasizes that his primary grievance was with Yeshiva University’s unwillingness to engage with the issue and define what it stood for. The club that existed at Cardozo at the time was totally secular in nature and gave no consideration to halakha. Stier wanted YU to pick a side and reconcile its institutional schizophrenia. “I think the university missed an opportunity to include various stakeholders in an open and respectful dialogue, and doing so would have led to a better outcome for Yeshiva. I hope they don’t make the same mistake today,” he reflects. “It’s important today — more so than at the law school — that the university have an open and welcoming environment for all students, and to struggle with the challenge of doing it in a way that remains true to Torah U’Madda.”

The Haredi world continued to criticize YU over this issue. During the summer of 1995, Rabbi Chaim Dov Keller — Rosh Yeshiva of Telshe in Chicago and a prominent critic of Modern Orthodoxy — published a letter to Rabbi Lamm in The Jewish Observer criticizing him for his previous statements on the topic and for not trying to fight the legality. “When the very life principle of a reputable educational institution is threatened, it does not hire counsel to justify its compliance with the threatening legislation, but to fight for its principles,” he wrote. Keller accused Lamm of dispensing with the Torah part of his Torah Umadda philosophy.

Rabbi Keller also warned, “Are your undergraduate schools, Yeshiva College and Stern College, not under the same nondenominational charter? Sooner or later you will have to face the problem of gay clubs in these schools. How will you avoid the problem there?”

On June 30, nearly all of the RIETS roshei yeshiva signed an open letter to Rabbi Lamm, published in The Jewish Press and the Algemeiner Journal. The 24 rabbis wrote that the controversy has “besmirched the name of our yeshiva” and that they “regard [gay organizations’] very existence as distinct groups an offense against all that we and the institution stand for.” The roshei yeshiva endorsed the content of Rabbi Lamm’s 1974 article, and while acknowledging the legal hurdles, urged him to “explore every possible avenue to obviate this blemish.” “What Judaism tells us is an abomination should find no welcome in our institution,” they declared.

According to The Forward, Stier interpreted the letter as a reason to withhold donations from YU and publicly called on “Yeshiva University supporters to send their money to ‘real Yeshivas’” instead.

Rumors spread that the letter was actually written at the behest of Rabbi Lamm and in conjunction with him, in an effort to help preserve the yeshiva’s reputation. Such was reported as fact by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA) and the Algemeiner Journal, based on “a high-level YU administration official” and “highly reliable sources.”

One of the signatories of the letter, Rabbi Yosef Blau, today emphasizes that a lot has changed in 25 years. “At that point everybody assumed that being gay was a choice. No one thought of it in terms of nature,” he recalls. According to Rabbi Blau, gay pride was seen as a celebration of that choice, which is what was perceived as a problem by the roshei yeshiva. Rabbi Blau confirmed that today he would not stand by the content or rhetoric of the letter.

Exacerbating the controversy that summer was a syndicated article by JTA, which reported that Yeshiva College undergraduates were now also trying to start a gay club. According to an anonymous student, this was actually an attempt to force the administration to “take a stand against the club.” The Commentator, however, reported that no such petition was submitted, and the student council president claimed students only entertained the possibility as a joke.

At the start of the school year in 1995, YU’s Director of the Department of Public Relations circulated a 4-page fact sheet to answer some common questions and deflect some of the criticism they had been receiving. In the sheet, he reiterated that the undergraduate colleges were unaffected by the clubs in the graduate schools, and that YU does not endorse homosexual activity. He explained that the human rights ordinance of the City of New York prevented YU from taking any action against the clubs and that their lawyers concluded that YU would not be eligible for a religious exemption given its non-sectarian status. They further concluded that even if YU was a religious institution, they would still likely be unable to ban the clubs given the conclusion in the Georgetown case that allowing clubs to exist and receive money from student activity fees does not legally constitute an endorsement or support by the university.

As the school year began, the controversy and publicity seemed to die down. Some of the chief agitators at Cardozo had graduated, and the ire of the traditionalist undergraduates turned to the newly established Alpha Epsilon Pi fraternity chapter at Yeshiva College.

When asked about the relevance of the Cardozo controversy to the current situation in YU’s undergraduate colleges and the legality of disallowing undergraduate LGBT clubs, Senior Vice President Josh Joseph replied, “Our team is currently meeting with students, groups and a range of people involved, focusing on ways to make our campus culture more inclusive. We are looking into the areas implied by your questions but at this point we are still in the middle of our discussions.”

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) was more definitive. After reviewing the case, Erin Harrist, Senior Staff Attorney at the New York Civil Liberties Union, concluded, “The university — including the undergraduate schools — is not incorporated as a religious entity, so it should need to comply with the New York City Human Rights Law, in which case, it would be discrimination for the university to not permit a gay club ... I would say with fair confidence that they need to let the club exist.”

Photo Caption: The Cardozo Lesbian and Gay Alliance in the 1988 yearbook
Photo Credit: Lillian & Rebecca Chutick Scholarly Repository & Institutional Archives