Hope Blecher
Member, Hadassah Lower New York State Chapter

After the Gavel: LGBTQ+ and Yeshiva University

Photo courtesy of Hadassah.
Photo courtesy of Hadassah.

I write this blog post, prompted by the NYT article regarding YU and the LGBTQ Pride Alliance on campus, while sitting in a Ford truck, wearing a bright green sweatshirt and jeans. I write this while my husband is attending a meeting of his men’s club, and it’s not a synagogue-affiliated men’s club. I write this while sitting in a black top parking lot at 12:30 p.m. in the lower Catskills region of New York. I write this because my husband brought an article to my attention, yesterday.

Why do I share this background information? It is because you may want to know more about me as the author, it’s because as an educator, building background knowledge helps in one’s comprehension about a story. I come to this column as a senior citizen, a person who was born in Minnesota and was moved to New Jersey, along with my parents and older brother. That move was the result of my dad’s employment. I attended and completed my high school and college degree programs while being a resident of the Garden State. Yes, it’s also home to Bruce Springsteen, Jon Bon Jovi and Judy Blume, however that’s for another column for another time.

I come to this as the child of first-generation college attendees, as the grandchild of immigrants who escaped the pogroms. Yes, I am Jewish, and I am Caucasian. Yes, I am a divorcee, and I am a wife, a mother and many more roles.

So, what does all of this have to do with the article about Yeshiva University in New York City? According to this week’s article in the New York Times, the decision makers at YU, have chosen not to officially recognize the school’s LGBTQ+ student club. Is it a new club in 2022? No, it is not. The Pride Alliance was formed in 2009. That’s 13 years; the number of years for a Jewish child to have a B’nai Mitzvah.

As reported in the June 16, 2022, NYT article by Liam Stack, a state judge ruled that YU is not exempt from the New York City Human Rights Law. I noticed that religious corporations are a category that is exempt under the NYC Human Rights Law. I’ll put it out here, why is any organization exempt from a human rights law, a law that is meant to prohibit discrimination?

Have I faced discrimination? Yes. As a member of the Girl Scouts, I was harassed because I was a minority in my troop. I was Jewish. A few years ago, I was terminated from a job. I believe one of the factors was my religion. Again, I was a minority. At the time I was advised not to press charges; occasionally to this day, I do wonder if that was the correct choice.

More, I face ageism and I face the glass ceiling. A Caucasian, Jewish senior citizen, divorcee, remarried, stepmom to a child who died of an overdose, an educator. Do I know what it’s like to be involved in decisions around the LGBTQ+ topic? Yes, I do.

This topic has been in my life for 40 years. At that time, a dear friend told me she was gay. Okay, and now let’s get on with our dinner. It was a blip, a comment and our endearing friendship has continued. She’s a person, and we view her as a member of the immediate family. To prove my point, she was a pall bearer at my dad’s funeral (BDE).

Have I been exposed to this topic in the yeshiva world? Yes, I have, as a teacher and as an administrator. An elementary aged child expressed the identity of their birth opposite assignment. The family was supportive of their child. The peers were ambivalent; a classmate is a classmate, a kid on the playground and in the next seat. Comments from adults ranged from “That child isn’t coming over to my home for sleepovers.” to “It’s an interruption in the classroom.”  to my perspective which was, “Let’s be at the forefront and embrace this child who’s been here for a few years. Let’s be supportive and learn together.”

The outcome was for the family to be counseled out of the school. The rabbinic leader did not want to take on this challenge. To me, it remains a missed opportunity for the community. Their goal was to make the problem go away, and they did.

The child was seen as a problem. Think about that.

Have I felt the progress as a congregant? Yes, and here I pause to applaud Rabbi Pitkowsky and the board of Congregation Beth Shalom in Teaneck, NJ and Cantor Kenneth Feibush, who is in the process of relocating to a pulpit at a congregation in Texas.

To return to the Yeshiva University case that prompted me to write this blog, what is the problem? Is it that the people are philosophically opposed to other people who are humans identifying as LGBTQ+? Is it that they lost the case and that’s humiliating? Is it that they want to be seen as a champion of the religious exemption category? Is it to become or remain a silo for a specific sect out of a sense of fear or a sense of obligation?

The answers may not be simple. However, the lines have been drawn. Those lines are now public, in print.

Personally, I applaud the adult-aged students who formed this group 13 years ago. I admire their guts to file a lawsuit against a nationally and internationally recognized entity. I hope that it does not take a student dying by suicide to lead to a change. I hope it does not take harassment, intimidation or bullying to open the dialogue of progress. As an educator and a parent, as a person, that is not the outcome I’d like to see for this case.

As I wrote in a previous blog post, the word Hadassah is connected to the word myrtle. The myrtle is known for its leaves which release their fragrance only when they are crushed….As Queen of the Persian Empire, Esther was forced to keep her Jewish heritage a secret. In 2022, are people who want to or who attend Yeshiva University supposed to wait to until they are close to being crushed before they can release their identities?

In 2016, Hadassah issued a statement regarding LGBTQ+ equality. In part it states,

Hadassah strongly opposes all efforts—whether through legislation, referendum or constitutional amendment—that would selectively limit or deny civil rights to LGBTQ Americans. To further ensure equality for LGBTQ Americans, Hadassah also calls upon federal, state, and municipal governments to enact new public accommodation and non-discrimination measures—especially in the areas of employment, education, housing, and health.”

Since 2016, in the past six years, we’ve had three presidents: President Obama, President Trump and President Biden. In six years, we have experienced a shift from two Caucasian men to a multi-racial woman serving as Vice President of the USA. We have our first Second Gentleman, a term recently added to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary. We have our first Jewish Second Gentleman.

Given how Hadassah was formed by Henrietta Szold from her work with new immigrants who were underserved and underrepresented, given the words held by Lady Liberty, written by Emma Lazarus, and given the lost lives, lost words, and tireless efforts of centuries of people, when will it be time for Never Again and Never Forget to be more than a date on a calendar and a once-a-year photo op? Now is that time and I hope the decision by this judge and the opportunities to learn from the efforts of these adults will not be overturned.

Let’s save overturning for soil and tilling. Let’s save overturning for latkes and tossing for salad.

Let’s not toss or overturn this ruling.

About the Author
Dr. Hope Blecher has been working in the field of education for 37 years. Currently, she serves as an English as a Second Language teacher for an adult education program in NJ. Recently, she became the founder of Previously, Hope served in capacities from being the first Middle School Curriculum Coordinator and Humanities teacher for a yeshiva in Teaneck, NJ, to serving in public schools as the Director of Curriculum and Instruction, and the Supervisor of English Literacy, Social Studies and Media Services. Dr. Hope Blecher holds multiple standard NJDOE issued certifications that she has used by serving as an adjunct professor, a teacher of high school students with special needs, English Language Learners K-adult, and those in the elementary age level classrooms. Along with friends and colleagues, Hope co-authored educational books and articles. She earned a BA in Sociology, an MA in Early Childhood Education, and an Ed.D. in Teacher Leadership. She has been a member of Hadassah for over a decade, first in the Southern NJ chapter and currently in the Lower New York State chapter.
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