By: Shlomit Ebbin  | 

YU Launches Event Series on Race in America, Affirms Solidarity with Black Community

In response to the national conversation about racism, Yeshiva University has held a number of online events and organized programming focusing on race in America and within the Jewish community. Additionally, prominent members of YU’s administration have released statements standing in solidarity with the Black community and victims of injustice.

In an effort to take action, Jewish History Professors Ronnie Perelis, Steven Fine and Jess Olson have spearheaded a series of discussions titled “Crisis and Hope: YU Voices.” Two panels — one featuring YU Professor of Jewish Studies Rabbi Saul Berman on “Lessons from Selma 1965, For American Jews 2020” and the other showcasing Zion80 bandleader Jon Madof on “Race and Culture in Contemporary Music” — were held over Zoom on June 11 and June 25, respectively, with plans to continue the series into the fall.

“This series and other forms of outreach and social action is the natural thing for YU to do. We are a community rooted in Torah and mitzvoth,” Perelis told The Commentator. “We are shaped by our millennial history of exile and persecution which has taught us to care for the downtrodden and the marginalized and we are a school in the heart of the most diverse and most global city in the world — New York.”

On June 17, the Office of Student Life held its own discussion on race with Yaffy Newman, a Black, Modern Orthodox woman who penned the viral article “My Black Father’s Legacy.” Speaking with Wilf Campus Director of University Housing and Residence Life Jonathan Schwab, Newman told the over 50 students watching that she believes introspection is the smartest way to combat racism within their own communities: “If people are able to educate themselves, look within, and then take action, the ripples of that are unimaginable. To me, that is the most important thing that the frum community can do.” 

The experiences shared at the event strongly resonated with some students. “I thought Yaffy brought a perspective and a voice that so many YU students need to hear,” said Avigail Winokur (SCW ‘22). “Her story is reflective of how our community needs to do so much better and be more inclusive and accepting of all types of Jews, not just the ones we’re used to seeing.”

These initiatives emerged following a June 5 email from YU President Ari Berman in response to the May 25 murder of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers. With the subject line “Standing in Solidarity,” the email expressed the importance of joining in “the national outcry for justice and reforms.” Citing Breonna Taylor and Ahmed Arbery as other victims of police brutality, Berman added that “Racial violence by any member of society is horrific. It is especially horrific when those perpetuating it are the very same people who took an oath to serve and protect our communities.”

Echoing these actions, YU’s official social media channels posted a statement from Provost and Vice President of Academic Affairs Dr. Selma Botman. “The murder of George Floyd is a tragic reminder that the sacred American commitment to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness is maddeningly out of reach for our fellow citizens of color,” said Botman. “Let us mourn the injustices enabled by racism across our nation while we commit ourselves to the righteous struggle for social justice, grounded in an abiding respect for difference and a humbling recognition that this effort remains as yet unattainable for all Americans.”

On Juneteenth, a holiday celebrating the emancipation of slaves in America in 1865, the university again took to Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to “honor the many sacrifices and contributions made by African Americans in the United States,” and “join in solidarity against racism, injustice, and inequality.”

Ben Atwood (RIETS ‘23), a graduate of Yeshiva College and current semikhah student, was happy to see YU’s efforts but hopes there will be more down the line. “As a university student, much appreciation must be directed towards Rabbi Berman for unequivocally standing in solidarity with George Floyd and the larger Black community, but I would love to see practical steps the university will be taking to address the issues,” he said. 

Atwood added, “Will the university make an effort to increase accessibility for Black Jewish students? Will it bring in more Black professors, considering, as far as I know, we currently have almost zero, if any, Black professors uptown? As almost completely white schools, will RIETS or Yeshiva College create opportunities to build relationships with members of the Black community, perhaps especially its religious members?”

Still, many undergraduates expressed satisfaction with YU’s programming and commitments to combating racism. Kate Weinberg (SSSB ‘22) said, “I think YU is taking the appropriate steps to stand with the Black community, as well as making strides to educate their students to further develop their understanding of the issues present.”

Photo Caption: A few of the YU event posters and statements regarding race.
Photo Credit: Yeshiva University