Wilf family, whose name adorns Yeshiva U.’s main campus, criticizes school’s efforts to block LGBTQ club

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(New York Jewish Week) — A major donor to Yeshiva University has come out against Yeshiva University’s decision to not recognize an LGBTQ group as an official campus club. 

Its first public statement on the issue, released exclusively to the New York Jewish Week, the Wilf Family Foundations, for whom the Modern Orthodox university’s main campus in Washington Heights is named, weighed in on legal efforts by Y.U. to prevent the YU Pride Alliance from getting recognition and funding.  

“As foundations grounded in our Jewish faith and values, we steadfastly stand for tolerance, inclusion and justice, and reject discrimination of all kinds,” the foundation said in a statement. “We strongly disagree with Y.U.’s decision to not recognize the Pride Alliance and have expressed that disagreement to Y.U.’s leadership from the beginning.” 

The statement from the Wilf Family Foundations — whose benefactors are an extended New Jersey family that made its fortune in real estate, and whose members include the owners of the Minnesota Vikings — joins a growing chorus of disapproval from many with relationships to the Modern Orthodox flagship university. 

(70 Faces Media, the New York Jewish Week’s parent company, receives support from the Wilf Family Foundations.)

Among the dissenters are more than 1,000 alumni, faculty and students who have signed a widely circulated letter urging the administration to rethink its actions. The letter cites Talmud teachings to urge the university to “understand this segment of our community and its needs.” 

The Wilf Family Foundations statement comes as Yeshiva University and the YU Pride Alliance both assert their positions in court. A New York judge had ordered the university, which is officially chartered as a secular institution, to immediately recognize the club. When the U.S. Supreme Court essentially sustained that order and urged its resolution in lower courts, the university announced it would suspend all club activity rather than recognize the Pride Alliance. 

On Wednesday, the YU Pride Alliance said it would not press the issue outside of the courtroom for the time being, saying it did not want to see other clubs “punished” by the university.

In recent weeks, additional letters and statements expressing solidarity with LGBTQ students and disappointment in the university’s actions have been addressed to Yeshiva University President Ari Berman. The undergraduate faculty published a letter on Sept. 16 proclaiming their support for the university’s LGBTQ students.

Similar letters have been penned by the Y.U.’s affiliated graduate programs, including faculties at the Cardozo School of Law, the Wurzweiler School of Social Work and the Ferkauf Graduate School of Psychology, as well as a letter from the Board of Overseers at Cardozo, and from the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Montefiore Medical Center and Y.U.’s affiliated Albert Einstein College of Medicine

“What we’re seeing is that the community at large — Yeshiva’s graduate schools, Y.U. faculty, professional psychiatrists and psychologists at Einstein and Montefiore — are all coming together and saying ‘this is unacceptable,’” Tai Miller, a plaintiff in YU Pride Alliance’s case against the university, told the New York Jewish Week. “Yeshiva’s actions are harming students. It’s treating students like second-class citizens.”

For its part, Y.U. has maintained that it cares deeply for its LGBTQ students. President Berman has released multiple statements saying, in part, “our commitment to and love for our LGBTQ students are unshakeable,” and we welcome and care deeply for all our students, including our LGBTQ community.”

Berman has said that recognizing an LGBTQ club is “not consistent with [Y.U.’s] Torah values.” However, his statements also reflect efforts in many Modern Orthodox settings to accommodate LGBTQ community members, despite being unable to sanction homosexual behavior under their interpretation of Jewish law.  

The controversy also represents a tension between Y.U.’s official standing as a secular university that accepts public funding for its graduate and other programs, but also ordains Orthodox rabbis and whose undergraduate program is designed to be intensely religious. 

Supporters of Y.U.’s decision include alumni like Rabbi Rafi Eis, who in a recent issue of the campus newspaper The Commentator wrote that liberal values clash with Y.U.’s role as a religious institution. “Y.U. cannot maintain its religious standards and define itself as secular,” wrote Eis, who received his ordination from Y.U.’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, or RIETS. “Down the road, there will be further conflicts, like whether to accept transgender females into Stern College dormitories or transgender males into Yeshiva College.”

In another Commentator piece, Rabbi Rodney Elisha Weiss, an educator who is also an alum of Y.U. and received his ordination at RIETS, called demands to recognize an LGBTQ club an “attack on my home.”

“Y.U. has been such a special place of Torah. Why demand that we violate our precious Torah and validate this group’s agenda in our community?” he wrote. “Should we empathize with this group? Should we invite them to come to shul, the Bais Medrash [study hall], our smachot (the synagogue, the house of learning, our celebrations)? The answer is a resounding yes. But to ask Y.U. to take a position against the Torah is unfair.”

According to YU News, a publication of the university’s public affairs department, the Wilf family has been among the university’s “most generous philanthropists” for the last three decades. The family has established two major scholarship funds for undergraduates — one for need-based students and one for distinguished scholars. In 2002, Y.U. renamed its all-male undergraduate Washington Heights campus the Wilf Campus in honor of the family. The Wilfs have also established a cardiovascular research center on the university’s Albert Einstein College of Medicine campus.

“We continue to be actively engaged in discussions with the leadership of Yeshiva University to strongly encourage them to take immediate steps to grant YU Pride Alliance’s request for Club status,” their statement adds.

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