By: Dov Pfeiffer  | 

With Dishonesty On Their Lips: YU’s “Love” For Queer Students

A feeling I often have as someone affiliated with the queer community in YU can be expressed concisely in the following words: YU treats its LGBTQ+ students with an approach reminiscent of the abusive “I’m only doing this because I love you.” The support they claim is a misrepresentation of reality that could only work on those unfamiliar or those unconcerned.

YU claims to be guided by its religious leaders, especially their senior roshei yeshiva. YU also claims to love its queer students. It seems reasonable that these two claims should be examined side by side. 

Currently, the senior rosh yeshiva who has spoken most about LGBTQ+ topics in public spaces is Rabbi Mayer Twersky. In his lectures he expressly views the LGBTQ+ community as a sign of America's moral decline, sees the normalization of homosexuality as fundamentally problematic, views people who request they/them pronouns as anti-truth, and seems to essentially see homosexuality or transness as a veil over one’s true self that should be removed. Broadly speaking, there also seems to be a general indifference in the form of unawareness to the struggles queer Orthodox Jews go through, struggles which some of his attitudes would almost certainly reinforce. [As I have presented the positions Rav Twersky articulates in brief, I strongly encourage the reader to go through the shiurim in question before making any sort of judgment.] 

In addition to this, I have heard other roshei yeshiva make claims about conversion therapy as a generally effective procedure and insinuate that the COVID-19 pandemic was caused, in part, by the existence of LGBTQ+ government officials. I have rarely felt that any YU rosh yeshiva speaking about the topic — not in regards to narrow halakha but in regards to queerness as an identity — have first-person experiences with queer people to understand what people mean by their identities. And yet, it is just these rabbis whom YU says provide the framework for their “love.”

These examples are not given because I seek to start up with the roshei yeshiva. I respect these rabbis to the best of my ability and appreciate their general consistency even while disagreeing with many of their broad claims. But these rabbis do not claim to love us in the manner that YU claims to. Indeed, Rav Twersky states his belief quite clearly in one of his lectures — he believes the expression of true care is precisely in pushing away from queer identity, which he sees as harmful. Indeed, he argues that solutions should be sought, and the Jewish community should encourage and support mental health professionals seeking to legally help “sincerely struggling individuals who have been and are victimized by the societally driven sexual confusion and anomaly.” This form of love can be perhaps described as parental or authoritarian. I imagine Rav Twersky could analogize this belief in pushing queer individuals from queer identity to a doctor giving a child a vaccine or the like. Despite the fact that, to many of us, this expression of love feels abusive, conjuring images of gay youth forced to conversion therapy camps, there is a broad consistency of position and action. Rav Twersky’s platform and love are dogmatic and prescribed, not seeking to create the veneer of working and meeting with students or any other semblance of a relationship between equals.

YU depicts a different sort of love in their statements, a love that invokes supporting LGBTQ+ students embarking upon journeys of discovery. We all must figure out how to balance our “otherness” and our observance. In finding our futures, some of us will no doubt traverse trails many in YU and the Orthodox Jewish community oppose. YU claims to pursue a balance, to offer resources to find a way amid rocky roads without appearing to validate those whose choices veer away from approved paths. (Now, I confess here that I cannot condemn, hence the abstractness of my wording. I cannot see two individuals finding each other in a lonely world and feel disgust.) The view YU espouses, should it be reflected in practice, would be a productive one for us as we chart our own religious lives. 

Looking side by side, there seems to be an unbridgeable chasm in claiming to love the LGBTQ+ community in the manner YU does with the above figure as a major spokesman and policy setter. Meanwhile, we have been forced to deal with meeting after meeting for the most incremental change only to meet misrepresentation and denial. Especially with the recent departure of Rabbi Penner who openly worked to help keep families with LGBTQ+ children together, there is no figure in the rabbinic administration who has the trust that the love they claim will be expressed in anything but denial and obfuscation. It is not hard to notice that reference to love for LGBTQ+ people only comes when justifying discrimination. Without speculating on why, the support YU purports to offer has often not materialized, and so we frequently feel isolated, unsafe and unwanted on the campuses we frequent. 

And yet YU has the gall to claim, most recently on their “Middle States Self-Study” (p. 58) but also in past statements, that they love their LGBTQ+ students. It is even insinuated in the initial draft for Middle States that the Pride Alliance suing YU for discrimination would have justified YU should they have desired to discriminate against the queer community as a whole. It is further worth noting that the lawsuit itself results from abject discrimination; YU does not deny it but argues it was entitled to do so. They present the Kol Yisrael Areivim “club” which has never run an event and was launched without any demonstrable student input or plan to function over a year and a half ago. They claim steps that have often been taken after hours of tense and difficult meetings as their well-meaning innovation. Meanwhile, accommodations that would be standard in most colleges, such as educational signs about LGBTQ+ life, are foreign at YU. Traversing the school is a minefield with danger at every corner. In short, don’t punch me and call it love.

Too often I see complacency and acceptance of the status quo. For students who sit on the sidelines, satisfied with how YU treats queer students, the current situation is not serviceable. Despite claims of training and anti-harassment policies, many of my peers report being made to feel uncomfortable in class and by fellow students. Being in the news as a topic of discussion, it is not uncommon to feel a target on our backs. I am not asking you to attack the school, but understand that many of your queer friends and classmates are often struggling in a school that ‘invokes them with their lips yet it is far from their heart.’ How will you lend support? How will we know we can turn to you when we’re struggling? 

You should also be bothered. Look at this contradictory mess and ask “What does this mean?” Confront the cognitive dissonance and try to grapple with it. This school proclaims belief in truth—where is that truth? Is the Judaism you want a Judaism in which your peers are left on the margins? A Judaism in which your peers will feel forced to have a second life they desperately struggle to both hide and embrace? Or perhaps you feel that any recognition of queer Jews is fundamentally dangerous? Though I have a clear opinion, I cannot coerce belief, as the process of developing a worldview is a privilege granted to each individual. Even so, when considering LGBTQ+-related topics, I implore you to understand what queer students go through at YU and what we actually want. Surely, this act of understanding is the bare minimum that love implies. Ask yourself, challenge yourself and be honest with yourself. But please don’t fall for the facile absurdity of YU’s claims. Understand what is happening and start from there. Strive for truth and believe something real.


Photo caption: Students protesting

Photo credit: YU Pride Alliance