NEW YORK — After several attempts at gaining official student club status from their university, a group of students and alumni Monday filed a lawsuit in New York County Supreme Court against Yeshiva University, claiming that the school violated the city’s human rights law by denying them the right to form a recognized LGBTQ student club.
The lawsuit against the New York City-based school of about 3,000 students is expected to surface tensions over LGBT issues at the Modern Orthodox Jewish university, which aims to keep one foot in the Orthodox tradition of Judaism and another in modern American education.
Molly Meisels, a recent graduate who came out as bisexual at a rally in September 2019, said that having an officially recognized LGBTQ club at Yeshiva University is important in a tightknit, small campus, especially where the Jewish community emphasizes connection. Meisels said she started a feminist club during her second semester on campus, and while it was initially ridiculed, she said, now it is simply accepted as a club.
“What a queer club provides is community, especially where community is so vital,” said Meisels, who is one of the alumni represented in the lawsuit.
While non-Orthodox denominations of Judaism embrace LGBT members, most Orthodox Jews are hesitant to do so based on their reading of the Torah. What makes Yeshiva University, seen by many as the preeminent educational Modern Orthodox institution, unique from some other religious institutions is that it registers as a nonsectarian corporation.
In a statement regarding the lawsuit, Yeshiva University noted its commitment to the Torah.
“At the heart of our Jewish values is love — love for God and love for each of His children,” the statement said. “Our LGBTQ+ students are our sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, family and friends. Our policies on harassment and discrimination against students on the basis of protected classifications including LGBTQ+ are strong and vigorously enforced. Our Torah-guided decision about this club in no way minimizes the care and sensitivity that we have for each of our students, nor the numerous steps the university has already taken.”
Katie Rosenfeld, an attorney with Emery Celli Brinckerhoff Abady Ward & Maazel LLP who is representing a group of three students and three alumni named in the lawsuit, said she believes that the university is bound by the New York City Human Rights Law, just like any other university in the city, because it has received government and state funding such as tax-incentivized bond issuances because of its designation as a secular institution.
Religious institutions are often granted exemptions from nondiscrimination laws because of their religious views. A group of 33 current and past students at several federally funded Christian colleges and universities filed a class-action federal lawsuit in March against the U.S. Department of Education, saying the religious exemption allowing them to have discriminatory policies is unconstitutional because they receive government funding.
But Rosenfeld said Yeshiva University’s case is unique because it has had secular status since 1969 and should be treated like any other institution that would not be allowed to discriminate against a group of LGBT students.
“Yeshiva is an outlier in trying to have its cake and eat it, too, in terms of its legal organization by failing to follow what’s required of them under the law,” she said. Rosenfeld is part of a law firm that specializes in cases on civil rights.
Yeshiva University students and alumni have made previous efforts to get an LGBTQ club called YU Pride Alliance formally recognized, but the school officially denied the group club status in the fall. The university also announced policies it said were intended to make LGBT students feel more included.
Without formal recognition from the university, the LGBT students cannot use campus facilities for meetings, receive funding and advertise on campus platforms. During the coronavirus pandemic, the university provided all recognized student groups with access to premium Zoom so that students could virtually meet without the time and streaming limitations of free Zoom accounts. The LGBT club had to borrow an account from a sympathetic nonprofit group.
The lawsuit seeks an injunction from the court that would require the university to recognize the club for the fall semester.
The three current students, who are not named in the lawsuit, declined to comment, fearing that their association with the lawsuit could have negative consequences.
According to a 1995 university memo obtained by one of the alumni and mentioned in the lawsuit, Yeshiva University received advice from a law firm that it was required to allow LGBTQ students to form a recognized student organization under the city’s human rights law, but it has not complied with that legal advice.
Students were told in 2019 that a club around LGBT issues could be formed as long as it was not called “Gay Straight Alliance” and did not include the terms “LGBT,” “queer,” or “gay” in the title, according to the lawsuit. They were told that while a club addressing general student tolerance on campus would be allowed, a club specifically addressing LGBTQ inclusion would not, the lawsuit states.
Students have attempted to take the matter to administrators several times. In 2019, after the school denied students a permit to hold a pride march on campus, about 100 people marched near the school.
Meisels, who now lives in California, said in an affidavit as part of the lawsuit that she faced a hostile environment at the university where “people were terrified of others discovering their queerness, lest they be ostracized.”
“We were vilified as people trying to ruin the university,” Meisels wrote in the affidavit. “In reality, we were students, trying to succeed academically and maintain our mental health, and stand up for what we believed was right.”
On Tuesday, 48 faculty members of Yeshiva University’s Cardozo School of Law wrote a letter to President Rabbi Ari Berman calling the administration’s refusal to recognize the student club as “wrong and unlawful.”
Joy Ladin, an English professor at Yeshiva University who came out publicly as transgender in 2008, said that any conversations around LGBT issues at the school are tricky. She said that after she sent a letter coming out to her dean in 2007, she was told the school would pay her for the rest of her professional life but that she couldn’t set foot on campus. But after a year of leave, she came back on campus and has participated with student activism when they ask her to be involved.
“There are more and more students who identify as LGBTQ or as allies, but the culture is still extremely uncomfortable with queer people,” Ladin said.
Yeshiva University, Ladin said, doesn’t map neatly onto America’s political landscape since it tends to be more socially conservative but has been active in social justice advocacy such as Black Lives Matter. Like many universities, it cares deeply about what donors and parents think, Ladin said.
“Yeshiva reflects the fact that there’s been enormous change in the Orthodox world in terms of awareness and parents saying, ‘Hey, my children are queer and they need a space here,’ ” Ladin said.
Another faculty member at the university, Rabbi Menachem Penner, dean of the theological seminary, spoke on a podcast recently about reconciling his son’s gay sexual orientation with their family’s religious tradition, a conversation that has caused a stir in the community. Penner did not return a request for comment, and his son, an alumnus of the university, declined to comment.
Benjy Abramowitz, who graduated in 2012 and wrote for the student newspaper about a panel on LGBT issues in 2009 that was considered a major moment for the university on LGBT issues, said that few gay students were out when he was a student there. Abramowitz, who has come out as gay since he graduated, said there have been small changes such as how more students are willing to be publicly gay.
Abramowitz said he considers Modern Orthodoxy to be more tolerant than other Orthodox communities because generally members don’t disown their gay children and people who are LGBT are not excommunicated. Still, he said, he does not want to offer Yeshiva University a pat on the back.
“At a certain point, you get really tired of congratulating people for not being the worst that there is,” he said.
The school can be very attractive because it offers rigorous secular classes as well as Judaic studies, Abramowitz said, but it also creates a major tension around LGBT issues because of how rabbinical leadership interprets the Torah.
“What we have here is that sometimes that tension does hurt people, and it hurts them at their core,” he said.
A club, he said, would not change some of the underlying teachings at the university, but it could be important for closeted LGBT students.
“The fact that it exists, ‘Oh my God, there’s a gay club here,’ it normalizes it for people, and that normalization is everything,” he said.
And even if the university doesn’t recognize the students, Abramowitz said, LGBTQ students and alumni tend to find each other anyway.
“Gays will find a way to make a club,” he said.
This story has been updated to include a statement from the university.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated Molly Meisels said she started a feminist club during her second year on campus. It was her second semester. This version has been updated.