Friday, December 2, 2022

‘Alternative’ or ‘Sham’? Yeshiva U. Created a New LGBTQ Club — but Won’t Recognize the One That Sued

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Yeshiva University on Monday announced the creation of a new undergraduate student club “for LGBTQ students striving to live authentic Torah lives.” Yeshiva’s move is the latest in an escalating legal battle between former students and the Modern Orthodox Jewish university, which reached the U.S. Supreme Court last month.

Members of the YU Pride Alliance took the university to court in April 2021 over its refusal to recognize the LGBTQ student group as a club. Last month, the U.S. Supreme Court ordered the university to recognize the Pride Alliance while it appeals a June ruling by a New York court against Yeshiva in the case.

Then the university temporarily suspended all student activities, and the Pride Alliance agreed not to seek official recognition until the legal battle has concluded.

The university said in a statement on Monday that it would not recognize the Pride Alliance because of its association with other chapters nationally, and that forming a new, unassociated club was the only path the university would accept. The new club is positioned as “an Orthodox alternative” that upholds an uncompromising approach to Halakha, or traditional Jewish law.

“Pride Alliance is a recognized movement in colleges throughout the country that not only fights anti-LGBTQ discrimination, a cause which we fully support, but also promotes activities that conflict with Torah laws and values,” the university’s statement reads.

The university did not respond to The Chronicle‘s questions about those conflicts. According to the Human Rights Campaign, an advocacy group for

Filing a lawsuit was truly our last resort.

LGBTQ+ rights, some Orthodox Jewish readings of the Torah and later rabbinic writings prohibit sexual relationships between individuals of the same sex and base gender roles on birth biology.

Yeshiva’s FAQ page about the new club says that it was created through conversations with “rabbis, educators, and current and past undergraduate LGBTQ students.” The YU Pride Alliance, which was founded and led by Yeshiva students, disputes that claim.

In a statement, the alliance asserted that the new club is a “desperate stunt” and “sham” that has no student leadership or members. “It is a feeble attempt by YU to continue denying LGBTQ students equal treatment as full members of the YU student community,” the statement said.

Other Yeshiva students reached by The Chronicle said they had not heard about the club until Monday, through the Pride Alliance’s statement.

Yeshiva University did not respond to questions about student involvement or membership in the new club.

In the announcement of the new club, Yeshiva also said it would enhance on-campus support services for its LGBTQ students and pointed to some ongoing programs: sensitivity training for faculty and staff, counseling-center consultations, anti-discrimination policies, a support group, and educational sessions during new-student orientation. Yeshiva did not respond to The Chronicle‘s request to view the training materials, or to questions about how these programs will be improved.

Yeshiva said its newly formed student organization, Kol Yisrael Areivim Club, will provide students with space to gather, share their experiences, host events, and support one another, and it will receive the same benefits as other student clubs.

A Lengthy Battle

The LGBTQ student-led struggle to gain acceptance and build community within Yeshiva University has been a long one. By some accounts, momentum was building in 2008 and 2009 with the formation of the YU Tolerance Club and a popular panel discussion on what it was like to be gay in the Orthodox world. The event was attended by hundreds, with many turned away at the door.

Over the next decade, the movement to accept LGBTQ Orthodox Jews grew increasingly mainstream in the U.S. Then, in 2018, the YU Pride Alliance initially asked for permission to form, but it was denied, according to Amitai Miller, a former Yeshiva University student who is one of the plaintiffs in the alliance’s lawsuit. Another plaintiff, Molly Meisels, helped organize a pride parade at the university, with recognition of the pride alliance among its goals. Little changed.

“Filing a lawsuit was truly our last resort,” Miller told The Chronicle last month. “The lawsuit was a culmination of years of advocacy and years of closed-door, off-the-record meetings in which students were just asking to have access to university resources and the right to build community. We did our best in the mechanisms provided by the school to advocate for a club and to ask for clear guidelines regarding what that club could even look like. But even that was denied.”

Pride Alliance “promotes activities that conflict with Torah laws and values.”

The former students’ lawsuit hinges on whether Yeshiva University should be classified as an educational institution or a religious corporation. Such corporations, unlike educational institutions, are exempt from the New York City Human Rights Law, which prohibits discrimination in employment, housing, and public accommodations. Under the law, sexual orientation is a protected class.

Justice Lynn R. Kotler of the New York Supreme Court ruled in June that the university is not a religious corporation and ordered the institution and its president, Rabbi Ari Berman, to immediately grant the alliance “the full and equal accommodations, advantages, facilities, and privileges afforded to all other student groups at Yeshiva University.”

Justice Kotler cited the university’s own charter, adopted in 1967, which explicitly says the university was organized “exclusively for educational purposes.”

The university then attempted to obtain an emergency stay of Kotler’s ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court, which Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor initially granted on an interim basis. But days later, the court, including Sotomayor, denied the stay, saying the university had other avenues to pursue first, on the state level.

Yeshiva also said in Monday’s FAQ that its decision to suspend student activities following the U.S. Supreme Court order was “deeply mischaracterized,” and club activities were merely deferred until after the break for the Jewish High Holy Days — despite the fact that the lawsuit was explicitly mentioned in the emailed announcement.

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