NEW YORK — Hundreds of Yeshiva University students with rainbow flags and stars of David protested on campus Sunday, demanding better representation of LGBTQ students at the school.
“No more silence, no more fear! You are loved if you are queer!” they chanted in unison outside the university’s Mendel Gottesman Library on 185th Street and Amsterdam Avenue. They held colorful signs and wore custom T-shirts with the slogan “We too, are YU.”
The Yeshiva University College Democrats who organized the rally said that “for far too long, LGBTQ+ students have been forced into the closet by the administration,” and are blocked from hosting events and activities touching on LGBTQ issues.
Some added they have endured homophobic remarks by teachers and rabbis during lectures.
LGBTQ students “are hidden away, with YU leadership pretending they don't exist,” the organizers wrote on the event's Facebook page. “We are marching to prove that LGBTQ+ students belong at Yeshiva University. Not only do they attend YU, but they ARE YU.”
The idea for the rally began after senior student Molly Meisels, who is pursuing a double major in political science and art history, requested permission to organize an event with an elected lesbian official on campus.
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“We requested the event very neutrally, and then I was called into the Office of Student Life and told we can’t advertise it as an LGBT event and that I can’t ask any LGBT-oriented questions to her,” Meisels told Haaretz. “My heart fell.”
Before the rally began, participants gathered outside adjacent Bennett Park to listen to speakers. “I’m not doing this as an ally, I’m doing this as a bisexual member of the community I am advocating for,” Meisels — who grew up Hasidic — told the crowd as she came out publicly for the first time.
Some of the goals the protesters hope to achieve include a condemnation of homophobic rhetoric on campus from the university president, Rabbi Ari Berman; the ability to organize events involving LGBTQ people and LGBTQ issues; a specialized team dedicated to promoting diversity on campus; a session on tolerance and acceptance of LGBTQ people during orientation; and a Gay-Straight alliance on campus.
As Yeshiva student Courtney Marks spoke, her legs and hands shook, and the paper her speech was written on fluttered. Marks is one of the university's only openly gay students.
“In my first few weeks at school, I was in class where the rabbi said that sexual relationships such as incest, bestiality and homosexuality are all sins punishable by death in the Torah,” Marks said, tears in her eyes. “He spoke as if people like me are evil and as if our lives do not matter,” she added.
As Marks and Meisels led the group from the park to the university library, they looked back at the wave of rainbow colors following them. It was the first time the two had ever organized a protest.
“When we started out, we thought just our friends would show up,” Marks told Haaretz. “They all are our friends now. This is the beginning,” she said.
As an openly gay student at Yeshiva University, Marks is constantly faced with “dirty looks” and fear, she said.
“It feels like my own school hates me,” she added.
“I never want another student to feel the way that I feel or to be told their life is worthless in class or hear other students say demeaning and derogatory things,” she said. “People ask me, ‘Why don't you just leave?’ And I don't leave because I can’t just leave the problems our community has behind; I need to stay here and need to fix them,” Marks said.
Both Meisels and Marks say that until representation is achieved on campus and the rights of LGBTQ students like them are recognized, they will come back to the university to protest, even after graduating. For now, they plan on holding biweekly meetings to push the issue forward with the administration.
“The most important thing is for the school to recognize that we exist and officially allow for the YU Pride Alliance to be an official club on campus,” Marks said.
Among those who came to show their support on Sunday were representatives of LGBTQ Jewish organizations such as the nonprofits Eshel and Jewish Queer Youth. Rabbis Sharon Kleinbaum and Mike Moskowitz of the LGBTQ Congregation Beit Simchat Torah also attended the event.
Rabbi Steven Greenberg, the founding director of Eshel, which provides support for LGBTQ Orthodox Jews, said it was important for the organization to “help LGBTQ Orthodox Jews find their voice” and “help institutions do better in regard to people they already care about.”
He continued: “If YU will offer a kind of honest engagement, it will permit Orthodox schools across the country to do the same. What we are trying to do, in a way, is put rabbis’ feet to the fire and say ‘Do you really want to cause this much damage? And if you don’t, you really need to figure out how you can respond more thoughtfully and deeply to the challenge.’”
Greenberg said he was moved to see Marks and Meisels speak out. “These young people are realizing that when they actually take a stand and do something, behind them is a bigger wave,” he said.
Berman said in a statement that the school “strives to be a nurturing and inclusive environment for all our students, ensuring that every individual is treated with respect and dignity.”
The university president added that he has asked Senior Vice President Dr. Josh Joseph to lead a team of rabbis and educators to address matters of inclusion on Yeshiva's undergraduate college campuses, which includes LGBTQ students.
“Over the course of the next number of months, they will be meeting with students, faculty, educators, Roshei Yeshiva [the head of the yeshiva] and other faith-based institutions of higher education,” Berman said. “They will work on formulating a series of educational platforms and initiatives that will generate awareness and sensitivity and help our students develop a thoughtful, halakhic, value-driven approach to their interactions with the wide spectrum of people who are members of our community,” he added.
Students who participated in Sunday’s rally however told Haaretz that they were dissatisfied with the initiative taken prior to the march, as no one on the inclusion team for planned dialogue identifies as LGBTQ. “Nothing about us without us!” the students chanted.
Berman added that “the university is committed to ensuring that no member of our administration, faculty or student body harasses or discriminates against any student or employee.
“Anyone who feels harassed or discriminated against are urged to file a complaint with us under our nondiscrimination and anti-harassment policy and we will investigate and respond immediately,” he concluded.