LGBTQ Student and Alumni Reflect on Experiences in the Orthodox World at YU-Sponsored Panel
Three LGBTQ Yeshiva University alumni and one student reflected on their experiences in the “Orthodox World” at a YU-sponsored panel on Sunday night, Dec. 20. Held over Zoom and attracting over 670 students, faculty members, administrators and alumni, among others, the program was the first of its kind since December 2009, when YU held a similar “gay panel,” as it was called, of students and alumni.
Moderated by Associate Professor of Psychology Dr. Jenny Isaacs, the event featured Rachael Fried (SCW ‘10), who is also the executive director at Jewish Queer Youth (JQY), Arye Foreman (YC ‘12), Dov Alberstone (YC ‘20) and Chana Weiss (SCW ‘21), who shared their experiences as LGBTQ students in the Orthodox community. The panelists spoke about struggling to accept their LGBTQ identities, facing discrimination and homophobia on campus, and their hopes for greater support and acceptance in the Orthodox community.
In emails promoting the event to students, Isaacs explained that the panel’s purpose was to provide students with an “opportunity to hear the experiences of current and former undergraduate YU students, develop a greater understanding of the issues they face, and to foster cultural competency, inclusion, and support.” She also emphasized, “This panel is not a discussion of Jewish law and it is not a lecture or debate regarding YU's view on LGBTQ+ students.”
The panel comes nearly four months after YU announced its new LGBTQ-inclusivity policies while denying the formation of an official LGBTQ club on campus. Since then, the university has hosted some LGBTQ-related events, such as a presentation by Dr. Sarah Gluck on “Mental Health and LGBTQ: What Helps and What Hurts” on Nov. 17.
The Dec. 20 panel began with a pre-recorded video of LGBTQ students and alumni talking about their times at YU, followed by introductory remarks by Isaacs. “We would also like to extend our gratitude to Yeshiva University for their offer of support,” Isaacs said. “We all recognize that an open discussion about sexuality and gender-identity at a religious institution is a complex issue that can be fraught with criticism.”
Fried followed Isaacs’ words by reflecting on her time at Stern College for Women (SCW) and involvement on campus. She discussed her difficulty accepting her sexuality as a gay woman and how that impacted her relationships with peers during her time at YU. “Before I even told a single person I was gay, I was so hyper-aware of every little thing I did,” she described.
“I saw myself in YU and in Orthodoxy, and that’s a big part of my identity,” Fried shared later in her speech. “And it troubles me that that doesn’t always feel mutual, that when Orthodox institutions talk about ‘we,’ they refer to ‘me’ as the other.” Fried ended her speech by speaking about her involvement at JQY and calling for more inclusion of LGBTQ Jews in the Orthodox community.
Foreman spoke next, describing his depression and suicide attempts from hiding his gay identity. After he came out to his family, Foreman became involved with Jews Offering New Alternatives to Homosexuality (JONAH), a Jewish conversion therapy organization that has since shut down. “They perpetuated the notion that gay people were sick, or disordered, or broken, and that gay people were likely to become alcoholics, abuse children and die of AIDS,” Foreman said. “I believed in all of it. I genuinely felt that I could do the work and heal, and become the super-straight person I was meant to be.”
Eventually, Foreman’s own research on JONAH and homosexuality led him to his own self-acceptance. While he didn’t “come out” during his undergraduate years, Foreman shared one experience speaking with a closeted student who expressed suicidal thoughts and guiding him to the Counseling Center.
Later on, Foreman mentioned, he met his current partner. He said, “It changed my perception that my life would be devoid of meaning and love. I can love and be loved, by him, my friends and my community, and understanding this saved my life.”
The third speaker, Alberstone, focused on the struggle reconciling his Orthodox faith with his gay identity. When he went to Yeshivat HaKotel in Jerusalem, Alberstone continued grappling with these questions, marking one of his early experiences coming out to his close friend. In his years after HaKotel, Alberstone came out to friends and family, “all of whom accepted me,” he said.
Once at YU, Alberstone struggled with his “feeling of alienation” from the YU community and surrounded himself with “caring and accepting friends.”
“At this time in my life, I’m no longer part of the Orthodox community,” Alberstone expressed nearing the end of his speech. “After what I and many others felt was repeated discrimination by the administration at this school, I realized that I didn’t reject Judaism and I didn’t reject the Orthodox community. They had rejected me.”
Weiss, who identifies as queer, was the last speaker for the event. From a young age, Weiss “suppressed [their] feelings toward girls” and denied their attraction to men and women until later admitting it in their journal. “I have come a long way in the five-and-a-half years since coming out to myself,” Weiss said.
At SCW, Weiss grew more comfortable with their identity as an LGBTQ individual, eventually joining the “YU LGBTQ+” WhatsApp group, which Weiss described as a milestone in the acceptance of their identity. Weiss also recounted experiences of homophobia from other students at YU. Reflecting on learning about the rejection of the proposed amendment to add an anti-discrimination policy into the Wilf Campus Constitution in May 2020, Weiss said, “I just went to my room, and I sat down, unable to move, unable to breathe, unable to comprehend that that had just happened ... that people are so threatened by me.”
The event closed with a Q&A presented by Isaacs, consisting of questions emailed by students before the panel began. Prompted by the questions, the panelists addressed topics including coming out and the need for LGBTQ representation.
In the days leading up to the program, Isaacs told The Commentator that getting YU to sponsor this panel “has not been easy. There are lots [of] individuals who are very uncomfortable with this sort of discussion. Fortunately, there are also individuals who put the needs of the students in the forefront and focus on their well-being. I am grateful to those individuals.”
LGBTQ-related issues became more relevant on campus when over 100 YU students, alumni and others marched for LGBTQ equality in September 2019. Among the demands was the official recognition by the university of a Gay-Straight Alliance club, which later became the YU Pride Alliance, an unofficial, student-run club that sought to “to foster an environment of acceptance on campus for the LGBTQ+ community and its allies,” according to its Facebook page.
In February 2020, under the new name “YU Alliance,” the club requested official club status — which would enable it to hold on-campus events and receive funding from YU’s Office of Student Life. Sent with a petition of over 50 signatures from student leaders, the request was eventually sent to the administration for a final decision after student council members from Beren and Wilf campuses abstained from voting.
The Jewish Week reported at the time that seven students later filed in the New York City Commission on Human Rights (NYCCHR) alleging discrimination from YU. When the YU Alliance petitioned the Beren Constitutional Council arguing that student council leaders discriminated through the abstention, the Constitutional Council declined to hear the case citing the pending NYCCHR claim. The coronavirus pandemic put these issues on hold until September 2020 when the YU administration officially announced its new policies.
The NYCCHR commented, “The investigation is still open and the Commission does not comment on the status of open investigations.”
“As an educational institution we strive to create an understanding, compassionate and respectful campus for all our faculty, students and staff,” Vice Provost for Student Affairs Dr. Chaim Nissel told The Commentator in the week before the panel. “There is more work to be done and we are continuing to design programs and convene conversations to deepen the respect and compassion that is the hallmark of Torah character and community.”
Dean of the Undergraduate Faculty of Arts and Sciences Karen Bacon felt similarly. “As was said in the fall, in accordance with our Torah values we have committed to taking concrete steps to ensure that our undergraduate campus environments continue to be supportive of all of our students, with the goal of fostering an inclusive community of belonging,” Bacon said about the event. “This is part of a larger campus-wide effort to identify educational opportunities and programs to further support all of those who feel marginalized.”
Some students who attended the event felt positively about the program. “Most YU events have a pretty mediocre turnout and it was really inspiring to look down and see how many participants were at this meeting and how much people care about an event like this,” said Alex Fischer (YC ‘22). “It’s important to listen to people’s stories and create a sense of unity within the student body. The attendance by both professors and students last night felt like a step in the right direction.”
Other students, who chose not to attend the panel for religious reasons, felt negatively about the program. “Everyone should feel comfortable at YU,” said one student under the condition of anonymity. “However, something that celebrates something antithetical to [T]orah values removes this comfort, particularly in a Yeshiva environment.”
Another student felt more strongly, saying, “100% these type[s] of forums should not be going on in a yeshiva. No other yeshiva would have such an event.”
According to Mashgiach Ruchani Rabbi Yosef Blau, the 2009 panel also had some “strong negative reactions that assumed the event was approving homosexual behavior.” He added that while the 2009 event was careful to avoid “Halakha and homosexual behavior,” had there been more discussions that clarified this with roshei yeshiva beforehand, the reactions may have been reduced.
Following the 2009 panel, a statement was posted outside the Glueck Beit Midrash on the Wilf Campus bearing the names of then-President Richard Joel and then-Dean of the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary Rabbi Yona Reiss. It said, “public gatherings addressing these [LGBTQ] issues, even when well-intentioned, could send the wrong message and obscure the Torah’s requirement of halakhic behavior and due modesty. Yeshiva has an obligation to ensure that its activities and events promote the primacy and sacredness of Torah in our lives and communities.” For over 10 years since — until Sunday’s panel — YU has not sponsored a similar LGBTQ event.
However, Rabbi Blau thought the 2009 panel had an overall positive effect on the community. “After the immediate controversy [in 2009],” Rabbi Blau reflected, “the lasting effect has been to change the nature of the dialogue and has probably saved lives.”
“What’s very clear to me is how much the student body has changed from the 2009 panel to now,” Fried told The Commentator after the event. “The support from YU for this panel was huge, but what I find to be the most impressive is how strong and brave the queer YU student community is and how that’s only getting stronger ... I’m really excited to see what the future holds for queer YU students as they continue to grow in strength and in numbers.”
Photo Caption: Over 670 students, faculty members, administrators and alumni, among others, watched the LGBTQ panel.
Photo Credit: Yeshiva University