More than 100 people marched through the streets of Washington Heights to the Yeshiva University campus Sunday afternoon to advocate for LGBT students at the Orthodox institution. Demanding resources for LGBT students, inclusivity trainings for resident advisers and staff, and to be allowed to form a Gay/Straight Alliance club, the student-led group marched from Bennett Park to the school’s men’s campus on 185th Street where they chanted, “We, too, are YU,” in front of the school’s library while waving rainbow flags.
“I have been asked why we need to march,” Molly Meisels, a senior at Yeshiva University’s Stern College and an organizer of Sunday’s march, told the crowd before the march. “I march because I value human life. I march because I have a stake in the outcome.”
To uproarious applause on Fort Washington Avenue, Meisels told the crowd why this cause was personal for her. “I’m not doing this as an ally, I’m doing this as a bisexual ally of the community that I advocate for,” said Meisels. “I march because I didn’t feel comfortable coming out until right now.”
The march showcased a community of Orthodox LGBT Jews who have become increasingly vocal in demanding change within the Orthodox world, which sees homosexuality as inconsistent with Jewish law. After years of asking for acceptance and tolerance, calls for greater integration into the Orthodox community, or even halachic change that would break down the Jewish legal barriers to living normative Orthodox lives, have grown louder in recent years.
Rabbi Steven Greenberg, founding director of Eshel, an organization advocating for greater LGBT acceptance in the Orthodox world, gave voice to some of that frustration. “We LGBT Jews have grown tired of compassionate statements. What we need is compassion that stirs to action,” he said. “It is no longer acceptable to force LGBT Jews to pay an enormous psychological price for the Orthodox community’s theological comfort.”
“Modern Orthodoxy, do you want this to be your legacy,” asked Justin Spiro, an LGBT advocate and social worker. “What halacha prohibits support groups and safe spaces from forming on campus? This is Torah? No, just the opposite.”
The march also comes 10 years after a panel event at the university — in which gay Orthodox men spoke about being gay and Orthodox, in what was seen as a historic event — pushed Y.U. to confront what had long been a taboo issue. Sunday’s march, organized by two students at Stern College, constituted a step towards visibility for Orthodox LGBT Jews, and not only gay men, while acknowledging that not enough had changed in the decade since the panel event
Rachael Fried, a graduate of Stern College and current executive director of Jewish Queer Youth, an organization that provides support for LGBT teens in the Orthodox community, said, “Ten years ago I was the president of the Stern College for Women student council, I was in the closet afraid of rejection of my own school. I went to the panel and I realized the power of visibility and representation,” said Fried. “It gets better because we make it better.”
Speaking before the crowd at Bennett Park and punctuating her speech with the repeated phrase, “This is why I march,” Courtney Marks, a junior at Stern and a march organizer, spoke about homophobic comments she had heard from classmates and teachers at Stern. “We are not the punch line of your joke. We are human beings who deserve basic human decency,” she said.
“I don’t know what will come of this march,” said Spiro, addressing the students at the march. “Know that we see you, we validate you, we will be with you, and you are never alone.”