No one within earshot glanced at the insult. I was at a festive Shabbat dinner with other undergraduates at Yeshiva University a few months after starting my freshman year at Stern College for Women. “He’s a queer,” I heard a student in a fancy suit say to the woman sitting next to him.
A year earlier, when I was in the final year of a girls-only Hasidic high school in Brooklyn in 2016, I looked forward to being surrounded by open-minded and religiously engaged Jews at the famous Modern Orthodox University of New York. But then my fantasies collapsed. As the insult echoed in my mind, the glasses clinked, the joyful conversations continued, and the only concern visible in the room was mine. This was my first encounter with the occasional bigotry in Yeshiva, but not the last.
Over the next four years, I would face ridicule and intimidation as a bisexual, non-binary person defending the queer community of Yeshiva. Discrimination was not just from fellow students: the administrators denied us the right to form a recognized LGBTQ student group and failed to significantly address discrimination from rabbis, students, and others. teachers in the school, actions that effectively encouraged gay students to stay in the closet or leave college. (In response to a request for comment on these and other allegations, a representative from Yeshiva said there were “factual inaccuracies,” but declined to say what they were and did not do any further. declaration.)
I graduated in January 2021 and in April I was among a group of alumni and current students who filed a lawsuit against Yeshiva in the New York County Supreme Court. We believe YU violated New York City human rights law by denying us the right to form an official LGBTQ student group.
I was born and raised in an ultra-Orthodox community in Borough Park, Brooklyn, which adheres to the traditions of pre-Holocaust European Jews. Although I couldn’t find the courage to come to terms with my bisexuality until college, the feeling of difference was pervasive, even as a young teenage girl. I thought I had to choose: I could be Jewish or different, Jewish or feminist, Jewish or happy.
Yeshiva, considered by many to be the first modern Orthodox educational institution, seemed to promise Orthodox Judaism that offers the best of both worlds. The guiding principle of the university, as well as the de facto motto of the modern Orthodox movement, is Torah Umadda, loosely translates “Torah and General Knowledge,” which asserts that Jewishness and Jewish faith can coexist and even be reinforced by secular concerns.
When I first came to Yeshiva, I knew that by coming out I would see myself as an outlier. There were only a handful of queer people on campus. There was little visible queer community and no designated space for us to come together. It didn’t take long for me to feel it was by design.
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For years, undergraduate student advocates have called on the school administration to approve a club for gay people and their allies. YU repeatedly stalled, covered and refused. In 2020, the university issued a statement noting that the “Torah’s message on this issue” of LGBTQ identity is “nuanced” and that the formation of an LGBTQ club “under the auspices of YU will obscure this nuanced message. “.
It is true that large swathes of the modern Orthodox world, which adheres to many traditional interpretations of Jewish law, have repudiated the LGBTQ community. But the world is changing. Being queer is increasingly recognized as a fundamental, enduring, and integral part of who many people are, including religious Jews.
All over the Orthodox world there have been signs that this recognition is starting to sink. In 2010, the Eshel organization was founded with the aim of creating community and acceptance for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Jews and their families in Orthodox communities. In 2019, Daniel Atwood became the first openly gay Orthodox rabbi.
I came to understand that homosexuality and Judaism are do not antithetical to each other. Gay Jews are as old as the Torah itself. There are only two anti-queer passages in Leviticus, and there are many more passages in the Hebrew Bible and the Talmud that revolve positively or neutrally around homosexuality, including what some read as history. love between David and Jonathan, and the recognition description of intersex people in the Talmud.
And despite what the religious rights of Judaism may claim, our communities have always evolved and adapted to the times, which is why Yeshiva proudly educates women in Torah scholarship, even though traditional religious sources are divided on the legality of it.
I hope our trial is successful, but whatever the outcome, it will not be the end of the fight for acceptance of LGBTQ people into Yeshiva or Modern Orthodoxy. If the university administration finds the courage to live up to its own ideals, the rest of the community will follow suit.