Stung for a second time in their attempt to form an undergraduate gay/straight alliance at Yeshiva University, seven LGBTQ student activists and allies have filed a complaint charging discrimination with the New York City Commission on Human Rights, The Jewish Week has learned.
The move intensifies a long-simmering battle for gay recognition at Modern Orthodoxy’s flagship institution. It comes after student council presidents recently abstained from a vote that would have approved the club, called the YU Alliance. The decision to grant or ban the club now falls to the YU administration.
The complaint, filed last week, states that YU has “refused to allow an official LGBTQ student group” over the course of many years, and has “suppressed LGBTQ-themed events.” The complaint also stated that a senior vice president at the university “tried to pressure student council leaders to reject” the club’s second bid for approval in two consecutive years.
The complaint, say club leadership, is the first step toward exploring other avenues of legal action to fight what they see as unlawful discrimination against LGBTQ students on campus.
“When we pursued the club application this year, we thought suing the school could be on the horizon,” said Dov Alberstone, a YU senior and co-president of the (as-yet unofficial) club. Though Alberstone — himself an out, gay student — had “not previously been involved” in the longstanding fight for LGBTQ recognition on campus, he said the “blatant discrimination” he witnessed caused him to take action.
“I wasn’t the type to get involved in student life,” he said, describing himself as an “introvert.” “But if we have to take up a legal discrimination case against YU, I realized it would be helpful for someone out and LGBTQ to lead the club.”
Though it is easy to “feel like the underdogs,” Alberstone said, he is confident that the grassroots student club has the upper hand. “YU is a non-sectarian institution, with no legal basis for discriminating against LGBTQ students.”
Yeshiva University has not yet responded to requests for comment. In a September 2019 interview with student leaders, the university’s president, Ari Berman, said he had formed a commission of rabbis and educators, led by senior vice president Josh Joseph, “to address matters of inclusion on our undergraduate college campuses, which includes LGBTQ+” students.
The university has previously resisted an official gay representation on campus because gay sex is strictly prohibited under Orthodox Jewish law.
Last spring, the first application for a gay/straight alliance on campus was approved by student council leadership. However, it was subsequently denied by members of the YU administration. (The ability of administrators to deny a club’s approval is not outlined in either the Beren or Wilf campus student constitutions. The Beren Campus constitution includes a non-discrimination policy that prohibits decimation based upon race; ethnicity; nationality; sexual orientation; or gender identity, among others.)
Club members decided to file the complaint with the city’s Human Rights Commission and explore legal options beyond the university after the leaders of seven different student councils abstained from voting on whether or not to approve the LGBTQ club last week, an unprecedented move, according to student leaders.
Representatives from other student councils that abstained from the vote did not respond to requests for comment.
In a statement emailed to the student body last week explaining their decision, the presidents said that “our role is to express the student voice, our role is not to determine major ideological decisions for the institution.” The decision, they said, “has larger implications outside of Yeshiva University.”
“We, as the Student Council Presidents, are supportive that all students feel welcomed and included on campus,” added Zachary Greenberg, president of the Yeshiva Student Union. “We feel that by abstaining we are helping facilitate direct communication between the club applicants and the administration to work together to determine the best solution.”
The future of the group — which club members renamed the “YU Alliance,” instead of the “YU Pride Alliance,” out of deference to university sensitivities — is now once again in the hands of the administration, according to the group’s board members.
Molly Meisels, president of the as-yet unofficial LGBTQ club, said she was disappointed but “not surprised” by student leaders’ decision to abstain from the vote.
“There isn’t much that can surprise me anymore,” said Meisels, a Stern College senior who was instrumental in planning a march for LGBTQ student visibility last fall. “Student leaders told me they felt so much pressure from rabbinical authorities not to approve the club that they didn’t know what else to do. But practically, an abstention absolved them from the responsibility of taking a stand at a time when student leadership is absolutely critical.”
Edward Stein, a professor of law at Cardozo Law School whose scholarship focuses on legal issues related to sexual orientation and gender, said the university’s response to student bids for an LGBTQ club “raises concerns.”
“YU has a non-discrimination policy that applies to employment issues that involve sexual orientation and gender identity,” said Stein. A decision not to allow a student LGBTQ club seems “at odds” with the university’s “stated mission of inclusion.” Still, he remains “uncertain” of how the question of student clubs’ legal status “will play out.”
“My hunch is that it is probably unlawful discrimination under New York City laws, which are very protective of human rights,” said Stein, noting that the “intersection of religion and sexual orientation remains a tricky and evolving area of the law.”
Another YU LGBTQ student activist, who requested her name not be used for fear of university retribution, said the “saddest” part of ongoing fight for recognition is the way “administration and roshei yeshiva have framed us in such antagonistic ways.”
“We are not the enemy,” the student said, who said many students are wary to put their names to the cause for fear of backlash. “We care about this school, and the inclusion and representation of all undergraduate students.”
Alberstone agrees. “The worst part about this is how the leadership at YU has made a mountain out of a literal mole hill,” said the 23-year-old political science major. “We’re a couple of LGBTQ students who want to have a Chanukah party paid for by the school, and now there’s a possible lawsuit on the horizon. This all could have been avoided.”