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YU’s ‘Kol Yisrael Areivim’ Club

This past week, YU announced the establishment of the Kol Yisrael Areivim Club, an undergraduate student club for LGBTQ students “striving to live authentic Torah lives.”  According to the YU Commentator, not only did Rav Hershel Schachter give his blessing to this club, but Rav Mordechai Willig and Rav Michael Rosensweig were also involved in the club’s formation.

This fact clarifies something that was under dispute in some circles.  Some people argued that this whole dispute is part of a culture war led by politically right-wing elements and allies of Yeshiva University.  In reality, this past week’s announcement clarified that senior YU Roshei Yeshiva were trying to find a way to thread the needle and craft the contours of a club for the LGBTQ community that is based on Torah values as they understand them.

I’ve read some critiques of this offering as being a “sham” or a “media ploy” because it was not formed by students or negotiated with the Pride Alliance.  I’ve also read reactions that expressed concern that this type of club, being endorsed by the Roshei Yeshiva, may advocate that members of the LGBTQ community should try conversion therapy or that they should marry someone from the opposite gender.

The formation of this club is indeed unusual as it was not created by students but it is an offering by the YU administration.  It seems that the Roshei Yeshiva are not comfortable with the term “pride” in the title and they may feel more comfortable dealing directly with their students rather than an organization that may or may not share their values and/or an organization with whom they are litigating.  I don’t see how this is a sham just because of the parameters by which the Roshei Yeshiva have endorsed this club.

The letter that was signed by 1,600 students, alumni and faculty of YU to endorse a club for LBTQ students cited the Torah value of “Kol Yisrael areivim zeh bazeh,” that every Jew is responsible for each other, as a reason to allow a club.  YU is in agreement with this philosophy in its title of the new club.  The letter by the students, alumni and faculty of YU endorsing a club also stated that:

“These students wanted a forum where they could offer each other strength and support, where they could talk about shared experiences without shame or fear. But even more than that, they wanted a space where they could feel safe expressing the fullness of their identities, as Jews, as Orthodox Jews, and as LGBTQ+ Jews. All they were asking for was to be allowed to tell us who they are.”

The club that the YU administration and senior Roshei Yeshiva have endorsed seems to address this concern.  A letter explaining the purpose of this club explicitly stated that this club was for LGBTQ students to “gather, share experiences, host events and support one another while benefiting from the full resources of the Yeshiva University community – all within the framework of halacha – as all other student clubs.”

What is the definition of the “framework of halacha?”  What types of events will this club be allowed to run?  What types of speakers will this club be allowed to host?  These are all great questions, but these questions would have existed regardless of the name of the club and whether the Pride Alliance would have negotiated the details of the club with the YU administration.

Would it have been better had this club been offered before the litigation with the Pride Alliance?  Of course.  I don’t know the ins and outs of the negotiations between the YU administration and the Pride Alliance, but obviously it would have been better had this offering from the YU administration been made earlier.  We could spend time allocating blame for the stalemate, but what we have here is a solution which seems to address, at least on the surface, much of what the students requested and what was requested in the letter by the students, faculty and alumni to the leadership of Yeshiva University.

The process to get to this point could have been smoother, but perfect is the enemy of the good. Additionally, change takes time in the orthodox world, especially with respect to LGBTQ issues, and maybe some of what happened had to play out before YU rolled out its club proposal.  This is not a question of whether YU is acting in good faith or bad faith.  The YU leadership, including the Roshei Yeshiva, have been engaged in a serious struggle with conflicting values that perhaps many in the modern world don’t see as a struggle. They have finally come to terms with a good proposal to move forward, and we shouldn’t harp on the timing of this proposal as a reason to reject it.

We have two broad options on how to respond to the offer of a club for the LGBTQ community by Yeshiva University.  We either can respond with suspicion and cynicism and say that the offer has been made in bad faith, is not legitimate, won’t be real, and will not really give LGBTQ students at YU a voice.  Alternatively, we can respond with optimism and a desire to give this solution a chance, to give the Rebbeim and YU leadership the benefit of the doubt in coming up with this solution.  Hopefully, we can encourage LGBTQ students at YU to take advantage of this new initiative to help them and to begin to help our community heal from the trauma that has been caused by this lawsuit.

About the Author
Jonathan Muskat is the Rabbi of the Young Israel of Oceanside.
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