A Call from the Heart of the YU Community

Note: This letter was originally published on September 15, 2022, following the United States Supreme Court decision not to grant a stay to Yeshiva University to prevent the formation of the YU Pride Alliance.

To the Leadership of Yeshiva University:

These last few weeks have been difficult for all of us. As students, alumni, and faculty of YU, we were pained to see our beloved school take a stand against its own students in public. As Jews, we were distressed to see Torah values deployed to deny fellow Jews safety and support within our community. LGBTQ+ Jews are our family members, friends, neighbors, rabbis, teachers, and students. Some of us are LGBTQ+ Jews ourselves. And all of us are saddened and disheartened by the positions our Yeshiva University has recently taken.

This is not the YU we know and love. It is not the YU where we deepened our ahavat Yisrael, our love for every Jew, by meeting other students from all Jewish backgrounds and walks of life. It is not the YU where we refined our midot of rachmanut and nosei ba’ol im chaveiro–our values of compassion and sharing the burden of one’s fellow Jew–by emulating the examples of our teachers. It is not the YU where we learned to apply the best of both Torah U’Madda–Torah and secular knowledge–to confront the most difficult questions in Jewish life and law. 

This YU is unfamiliar to us. It has aligned itself with religious communities and interests outside our own, instead of looking inward. It has made an opponent of fellow Jews, instead of bringing them closer. It has deployed our sacred Torah values in service of goals our Torah does not sanction. And now, as this bitter conflict widens across the reshut ha-rabim–the public domain–we fear what comes next. Torah, mah tehei aleha? What will become of our holy Torah?

Our Sages teach “Kol Yisrael areivim zeh bazeh all Jewish people are guarantors for one another” (Shevuot 39a). As the Gemara there elaborates, this means that every Jew is responsible for the Torah observance of every other Jew. Let us be clear: as fellow Jews, we support and will continue to support the well-being of LGBTQ+ Jews whether they identify as Torah-observant or not. We know of many LGBTQ+ Jews who have lost their lives for lack of that support; this is a matter of pikuach nefesh, of preserving human life. But as fellow Jews, we also believe that we are responsible to do everything within our power to help our LGBTQ+ siblings live their lives in deep commitment to Torah observance. How can we claim to speak for Torah values, when members of our community are crying out for support in their attempts to remain shomrei Torah U’Mitzvot and we do not listen? As family members, friends, rabbis, and members of the Jewish community, the bare minimum of our responsibility is making sure LGBTQ+ Jews feel safe and welcome. This responsibility does not require any changes to Halakha, nor any impingement on Torah values. And we believe Yeshiva University–if only in their capacity as fellow Jews–bears the same responsibility to its LGBTQ+ students.

Our teachers: we know you love your LGBTQ+ students. You have told us this numerous times. We know you are compassionate educators, parents, and human beings. We know you believe God’s unconditional love extends to all Jews, whoever they are. But you know as well as we do that love is only worth as much as it is felt. And LGBTQ+ students at YU have made clear, time and time again, what they need in order to feel that love from you. It’s not state-mandated anti-discrimination trainings. It’s not referrals to the counseling center or covert support groups that stigmatize their identities. It’s not closed-door meetings that make them feel like they need to hide who they are. It’s simply a space of their own, in their own beloved school, where they can be their full selves openly.

These students wanted a forum where they could offer each other strength and support, where they could talk about shared experiences without shame or fear. But even more than that, they wanted a space where they could feel safe expressing the fullness of their identities, as Jews, as Orthodox Jews, and as LGBTQ+ Jews. All they were asking for was to be allowed to tell us who they are. YU’s refusal to sanction the club insinuated that such a simple statement of identity would contravene Torah values. It needlessly sexualized the identities of queer Jews, whose experiences of love, desire, and emotional intimacy are no less complex, no less deeply human, and no less Divinely ordained than those of any other Jew or human being. It implied that no authoritative interpretation of Torah values can allow for even the most basic inclusion of openly LGBTQ+ people in Torah-observant communities. Whether or not this was what the administration intended, this was the message that students heard. And to their credit, this was a message they refused to accept. 

We wish things didn’t turn out this way. We wish there could have been open dialogue from the beginning, instead of deferrals and delays and misunderstandings. Perhaps then a compromise would have been reached. Had YU leadership made it a higher priority to understand this segment of our community and its needs, perhaps this situation would have been resolved differently. Unfortunately, that did not happen. Instead, YU’s LGBTQ+ students felt defeated. They felt they had no choice but to turn elsewhere for help, for their own sake and for the sake of the future LGBTQ+ students of YU.

We are concerned that if this conflict continues, the message these students sought to dispel will only be reaffirmed. We worry that our LGBTQ+ siblings will continue to be stigmatized as born sinners, when in reality sin is a fact of life that every Jew struggles with. We are distressed by the prospect of intolerant and harmful rhetoric towards LGBTQ+ Jews on YU campuses. And most gravely, we fear that LGBTQ+ Jews will come to believe that their only choices are to suffer in silence, or leave our communities altogether.

But now, as the Yamim Noraim approach, we have been gifted with an opportunity to prove otherwise. An opportunity to start anew, to do teshuvah for past mistakes and misunderstandings. An opportunity to return this conflict to the fruitful conversation it could have been. An opportunity to prevent the further pain to LGBTQ+ Jews and further ruptures within our communities that continuing legal escalation will inevitably bring. We know it won’t be easy for anyone involved. But teshuvah is not supposed to be.

“Lo alecha ha-melacha ligmor, ve-lo atah ben chorin li-batel mimenah – The work is not upon you to complete, nor are you free to absolve yourself of its responsibility” (Pirkei Avot 2:16). The moment before us is one of great import for our community. We are confronted by the wrenching challenge of those members of our community who fear that an innate, essential part of themselves appears to be incongruent with the very Torah they love and revere. It is a dilemma of colossal proportions, with colossal implications for Jewish law, Jewish life, and Jewish theology. We do not ask you to solve it on your own. We do not even ask you to solve it at all. We simply ask you to include the people whom it affects the most–your LGBTQ+ students–in your efforts to find solutions.

It is not too late to heal our community. When better than this season of teshuvah to set to work on returning the hearts of teachers to their students, and the hearts of students to their teachers? We are ready to begin this work. We invite you, our teachers and leaders, to join us. Together, we can fulfill the tefillah we will say in just a few short days:

ויעשו כלם אגדה אחת, לעשות רצונך בלבב שלם.

Ve-yeiasu chulam agudah achat, la’asot retzoncha b’leivav shalem.

May they all gather in unity, to do Your Will with a whole heart.