By: Avi Hirsch  | 

Jewish Week Journalist Barred from Speaking at YU Shabbaton

Yeshiva University’s Office of Student Life (OSL) rejected a request to bring Jewish Week journalist Shira Hanau to speak at a joint YU Observer/Commentator club Shabbaton on Dec. 14. Senior Director of Student Life Rabbi Josh Weisberg explained the decision by referring to the fact that Hanau had reported on recent YU events.

“For this Shabbat experience that we are being super sensitive about,” wrote Weisberg in an email to the Student Council leaders organizing the Shabbaton, “I don’t think it makes sense to invite a speaker that has recently been reporting on YU current events.” Hanau was one of several options put forward by the student newspapers to be a guest speaker on the Shabbaton and was the only one denied.

After Hanau was rejected, Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA) Opinion Editor Laura Adkins was invited and spoke at the Shabbaton. She was not aware that a different journalist had been barred from speaking at the Shabbaton by the university.

Hanau, a staff writer at The New York Jewish Week, reports on politics, religion and the American Jewish community for the paper. She covered the “We, Too, Are YU” march for LGBTQ representation at YU in September, as well as the subsequent dissolution and reinstatement of the YU College Democrats club.

“Journalists provide a necessary voice in any community,” said Hanau. “I would welcome the opportunity to speak with Yeshiva University's student journalists about reporting on and being a part of a community.” Hanau was previously invited to give an interviewing workshop at Yeshiva University High School for Girls (Central) on Oct. 31, which was covered by YU News at the time.

Molly Meisels (SCW ‘21), editor-in-chief of the YU Observer, was frustrated by the OSL’s decision. “It is evident that Yeshiva University would rather avoid controversy amongst their rabbinic leadership and administrative body than provide students with diverse opportunities,” she said.

“Shira Hanau, an emerging leader in the world of Jewish journalism, has been on the forefront of issues impacting the Jewish community,” Meisels added. “For YU to reject her attendance at a student journalism Shabbat for reporting objectively on the YU Pride March back in September is shameful.”

At the time of publication, Weisberg did not respond to The Commentator’s request for comment.

The OSL is responsible for approving speakers and events at YU. Its decisions to approve or reject speakers and events are not spelled out in written policies, according to sources familiar with the matter. Students have occasionally expressed frustrations with the OSL’s vague speaker and event approval process.

In December 2017, a request by the YU Poetry Club to screen the film “Dead Poets Society” was rejected by the OSL. Their reason for rejecting this request was that the film contains “inappropriate material that is not in line with Yeshiva Universities halachik and moral standards,” according to an email from Weisberg to the president of the Poetry Club at the time. According to Common Sense Media, the film is recommended by parents for kids ages 14 and up, and it has a PG rating from the Motion Picture Association of America. A censored version of the film was allowed to be shown only the following semester, with one scene depicting the centerfold of a Playboy magazine — the “inappropriate material” Weisberg had referred to — removed.

This was not the only incident in which the OSL rejected a club event without any specific written policy or guideline as a basis. In February this year, Kol Hamevaser invited Rabbi Dr. Daniel Reifman, Rosh Kollel at Drisha Summer Kollel and faculty member at Drisha Institute in New York, to speak at YU on “Tza'ar Ba'alei Hayyim and Factory Farming: Understanding the Roles of Legal & Moral Considerations in Psak Halakhah.” After Rabbi Dr. Reifman was approved as a speaker following weeks of delays, a request form for the event was submitted a week before the event was scheduled to take place. According to Doniel Weinreich (YC ‘20), at the time an Event Coordinator for Kol Hamevaser, Weisberg finally informed the club two days before the event that “the proposed topic is not a good fit.” The event took place only after it was sponsored by YU’s Robert M. Beren Department of Jewish Studies, which is not required to run events by the OSL.

“It was ridiculously frustrating that after following all the proper procedures and attempting to work with them for months, we were hindered by OSL's incompetence and proclivity for censorship,” said Weinreich about the incident. “Unfortunately, this was not an exception, but was characteristic of nearly all my experiences with them.”

A YU spokesperson declined to comment on the OSL’s speaker and event approval policies.