Yeshiva University’s legal fight against recognition of an LGBTQ club on campus took a new twist on October 24 when the school announced it was launching a new queer club that would be an “approved traditional Orthodox alternative,” drawing criticism from queer students.
The new group, Kol Yisrael Areivim Club, roughly translates to “all responsible for each other.”
The YU Pride Alliance, the unofficial queer student group that has sought recognition by the university for more than a decade, called the university’s new LGBTQ club a “desperate stunt” and a “sham” right after the university issued the announcement.
“This is a desperate stunt by Yeshiva University to distract from the growing calls from its donors, alumni, faculty, policymakers, and the business community, who have stood alongside the YU Pride Alliance, as we continue to fight for our rights,” the Alliance said in a statement sent to the media. “The YU sham is not a club as it was not formed by students, is not led by students, and does not have members; rather, it is a feeble attempt by YU to continue denying LGBTQ students equal treatment as full members of the YU student community.”
The university and alliance have been embroiled in a closely-watched legal battle since 2021. The university stated the new club was established by a coalition of administrators, faculty, the school’s lay leaders, and current and former LGBTQ students. It is “grounded in Halacha (Jewish law) and Torah values to support its LGBTQ undergraduates,” the school said in its announcement.
The university’s president, Rabbi Dr. Ari Berman, expressed hope that the new club would provide support for undergraduate LGBTQ and all the school’s students “to lead authentic Torah lives.”
“We love all of our students, including those who identify as LGBTQ,” he said. “We remain eager to support and facilitate their religious growth and personal life journeys.”
The university insists the club will provide students with space to grow in their personal journeys and navigate the formidable challenges that they face in living a fully committed and authentic halachic life within Orthodox communities.
The university reiterated in the announcement that it offered LGBTQ sensitivity training for faculty and staff; specialized consultations through the counseling center; strict anti-harassment, anti-bullying, and anti-discrimination policies; an ongoing LGBTQ support group; and educational sessions for incoming students during orientation.
However, former queer students described an inhospitable and unsupportive atmosphere on the university’s campus, according to Jewish Currents.
An unidentified undergraduate professor told the outlet the climate on campus this fall “worsened,” as the legal battle heated up.
“The past month has been whiplash with the overt homophobia that’s been unleashed,” the professor told the Jewish publication.
The university’s move has only added fuel to the outrage felt by Alliance members and some of the university’s prominent queer graduates.
University alumna Rachael Fried, who is now executive director of Jewish Queer Youth, an LGBTQ Jewish youth organization, which has supported the alliance for years, blasted her alma mater. She told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that she and the Alliance were sideswiped by the university. None of them knew about the new club until it was announced.
“While Yeshiva University hails the Kol Yisrael Areivim Club for LGBTQ+ students as a student club, its creation involved no collaboration with queer students,” she said in a statement to Gay City News standing by the alliance. “The club ‘was approved by the administration, in partnership with lay leadership, and endorsed by senior Roshei Yeshiva [head rabbis].’”
“This process violates one of our core queer Jewish values of ‘nothing about us without us,’” Fried continued. “It would be problematic, and even potentially dangerous, for non-Jews to make policies and decisions about Jews without any Jewish involvement. Similarly, decisions made without LGBTQ+ individuals and queer voices at the table are concerning and can even be harmful to the very people it aims to support.”
Eshel executive director Miryam Kabakov told Gay City News in September that the university, founded in 1886, “sets the standard in a lot of modern Orthodox spaces.”
The university estimates more than 7,400 undergraduate and graduate students study at its New York City campuses.
Molly Meisels, a non-binary bisexual graduate of the university and member of the Alliance, wrote in an op-ed in the New York Times in 2021 that they were attracted to the university because it “seemed to promise an Orthodox Judaism that offers the best of both worlds.” They cited the school’s de facto motto of the Modern Orthodox movement, Torah Umadda (Torah and general knowledge), writing which “asserts that Jewishness and Jewish faith can exist alongside, and even be enhanced by secular concerns.”
They noted that elsewhere in the Modern Orthodox world, attitudes toward LGBTQ Orthodox Jews in recent years have started to shift in a positive way, writing, “Queer Jews are as old as the Torah itself.”
Meisels pointed to only two anti-LGBTQ passages and many more positive examples in the Torah.
The alliance filed the lawsuit, Yeshiva University v. YU Pride Alliance, under the New York City Human Rights Law in April 2021 after more than a decade of being denied formal recognition by the university. The university’s reasons for not officially recognizing the group are that it would be “inconsistent with the school’s Torah values and the religious environment it seeks to maintain.”
In June, the New York County Supreme Court ruled the university had to recognize the Alliance. In September, the United States Supreme Court temporarily blocked the lower court’s order then days later reversed course in response to an appeal filed by the university in August. The university responded by suspending all student clubs ahead of the Jewish holidays. In a fact sheet published by the university about the case and the controversy, the school denied halting all student clubs. Days later the alliance offered a compromise to the university while their case moves through the courts. It was the Alliance’s attempt to allow their fellow students to resume club activities on campus.
It’s not the first time the university has acted against a student club for supporting LGBTQ rights on campus. Gay City News reported university officials revoked the school’s Democratic Club’s official status days after the We Too Are YU march and rally in 2019 for supporting the unauthorized student event.
Katie Rosenfeld, an attorney from New York law firm Emery Celli Brinckerhoff Abady Ward & Maazel LLP, representing the Alliance, scolded the university’s actions and likened it to white people who resisted desegregation.
Rosenfeld expressed confidence in her statement that the students will “continue to overcome the administration’s aggressive litigation strategies against its own LGBTQ+ students.” She said the students attend the university because “they are committed to the school’s mission.”
The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a Washington, DC-based Christian litigation group, is representing the university. The fund is a key player in the national fight to expand religious exemptions to anti-discrimination laws, successfully arguing cases before the Supreme Court in recent years, Jewish Currents reported.
Oral arguments before the New York Appellate Division will take place sometime in November, according to the fund’s case page.