By: Dov Pfeiffer  | 

Speaking Out the Silence: Revisiting the Klein@9

When I came to YU, I quickly discovered the difficulty of finding a well-paced Shabbat morning minyan. The silent spells between sections of davening in Glueck sapped my concentration and Morg felt like a mad dash until mussaf’s end. From my MTA days, I had vague memories of a minyan in Klein Beis Midrash. In searching for this lost minyan, I brought back old memories of “The Klein@9 Controversy” — the time when a woman gave a dvar Torah from the bimah — and it is that tale, the story of one of few major controversies President Berman’s administration has seen to conclusion, which I seek to retell.

Toward this end, I reached out to three Klein@9 organizers: board member and Student Organization of Yeshiva (SOY) IBC representative Samuel Gelman (YC ‘19), board member and SOY Vice President Noah Marlowe (YC ‘19) and co-founder and SOY President Dovid Simpser (SSSB ‘18). Anything they are quoted as saying comes from this correspondence unless explicitly stated as originating in an article from the time.

The Klein@9 service launched in the 2016-17 academic year as a student-led “community run” minyan. Marlowe, who joined the board in its second year, shared that the minyan’s pillars were “(a) student empowerment/leadership, (b) meaningful tefilla and (c) community.” He also shared some examples of how this was achieved: “[W]e created opportunities for students to take more active roles — giving a dvar Torah after davening, leading a chabura following kiddush, being involved in the logistics of the minyan, etc.” The weekly pre-kiddush announcement, “the minhag ha-makom is to introduce yourself to someone you don’t know,” exemplified community building. The Klein@9 also planned non-prayer communal activities, such as a musical seuda shelishit.

Included in the Klein@9 regulars were some female participants. As part of determining how they could lend their voice to the minyan, a policy dictated “women can’t speak at the bimah, but they can definitely give the chabura.” 

The origin and reasoning for this policy is unclear. The article first mentioning the policy explained that men who felt uncomfortable wouldn’t have had enough time to leave the minyan before the speech started. However, when I corresponded with Gelman, he implicitly disputed the accuracy of this claim, saying there was enough time “to give anyone uncomfortable with the idea plenty of time to exit.” In communication, Simpser believed that Rabbi Penner had expressed modesty concerns regarding women speaking from the bimah at the original meetings to get the minyan off the ground, though he noted that his memory could be faulty. 

Nonetheless, several members of the minyan’s board believed the policy was only temporary. “I was aware that there was an agreement, and we (the minyan leadership) wanted to revisit it with the administration,” Marlowe shared. Gelman described thinking that “while it would not be allowed at the start of the minyan’s tenure, women would eventually be allowed to give divrei Torah at the minyan.” 

From those murky rules, the controversy unfolded quite organically. One week, Marlowe asked Lilly Gelman (SCW ‘19), Sam’s sister, to speak. While Marlowe had intended to inform the administration, who were not aware of the forthcoming policy change, he had not done so yet. Though in the end she didn’t speak that week, based on Marlowe’s request, Sam assumed there was no longer any issue. Thus, one sparsely attended Shabbat Chanukah, when both Marlowe and Simpser were absent, it happened: a woman’s voice was heard from the bimah

“When I asked my sister to give the dvar Torah on that particular Shabbat … no men had agreed to give it … I was under the impression that we were at the point where it was now allowed,” Gelman said. In sum, it was a miscommunication.

According to Marlowe, “the majority of students [in the Klein @9] were in favor of women giving divrei Torah. It seemed that even from the students who weren’t in favor, it didn’t bother them so much.” Nonetheless, complaints, their origin unclear, were voiced to Rabbi Penner. By the next week, the school policy solidified: women’s voices were banned from the bimah

On Feb. 18, 2018, Lilly Gelman published her account of the situation and its broader implications in her article “The Speech that Led to Silence.” This was followed by a month of administrative silence, silence sharply criticized in Miriam Pearl Klahr’s (SCW ‘17) March 2018 Observer article, which argued that YU’s policy contradicted OU guidelines which allowed women to teach and give shiurim when deemed by local leadership as appropriate. She also noted hypocrisy in YU’s promoting itself as empowering female leaders to serve in their communities, while silencing them in the Klein@9.

Five days later, then-Dean of Students Chaim Nissel sent a statement to both student newspapers. In flat contradiction to Klein@9 being student-run, Nissel claimed “Klein@9 has been conceptualized as one of the yeshiva minyanim.” In its place, Nissel promised a new community minyan where women could speak. The Klein@9 board wasn’t informed of the planning, and was only made aware of the planned new minyan the morning of the announcement. Responses came quickly. The Klein@9 board and Wilf student government presidents put out a statement critiquing the administrative response, noting, “We billed ourselves as a ‘Student-run, Undergrad, Community minyan,’” and asserted that students must have final say in determining what the minyan would look like. 

Gelman and Marlowe expressed disappointment in the statement and the administrative radio silence leading up to it. “The announcement of a new student minyan — essentially identical to Klein@9 but allowing women to give divrei Torah — was a surprise to the minyan leadership,” Marlowe shared. “We had hoped that the administration would have approached us to discuss the situation.” Gelman added, “The way it was presented to me by Simpser and Marlowe was that Klein@9 was supposed to be the student-run minyan, which made the university announcement and Rabbi Penner's interference very confusing and upsetting.”

Ultimately, this new minyan never panned out. As Marlowe explained, “Klein@9 had momentum, a sense of community and great branding; it didn’t make sense to form a new minyan.” It seems strange the administration never offered to formally recognize Klein@9 as student-run, but that is how this story ends, with the storm slowly stalling into silence.

Although this controversy did not kill the Klein@9, which only shut down with COVID, there was a major shift in the aftermath. Gelman shared that the awareness of YU management fundamentally changed the minyan’s feel: “Rabbi Penner's decision definitely changed the tone of the minyan, as the oversight was now clearly established. It removed the power and agency from the term ‘student-run’ and put into question which community this ‘community-oriented’ minyan was really serving.” 

And so, I arrive back at my situation in the present day. While I have since found Shenk Shul provides a mid-paced minyan to my satisfaction, the hole left by the absence of a student-run community minyan like the Klein@9 remains. Although for most, if it summons anything, mention of the Klein@9 primarily reminds of the controversy it’s known for, for me, it also brings to mind a particular image, one I sometimes see when I pace about the ground floor of Muss Hall. I see a couple of tables next to each other, a blue tablecloth on top, decked with iced coffee and pastries. I see a large group of people, and I hear voices talking and laughing. In the corner, crouched under the cover of a great red door, I see myself, younger and more naïve, enthralled by the scene. And then it all crashes down, fading into the sound of silence.

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Photo Caption: The Klein@9 minyan was a source of community and later controversy.

Photo Credit: Dov Pfeiffer