For a candid conversation about homosexuality to take place at a New York City university might be commonplace. Certainly, it would be expected at any one of the liberal campuses around town.
But at Yeshiva University, a school considerably more conservative than its neighbors?
Thrust into the thick of a debate over homosexuality and Orthodox Judaism in recent weeks, the school did just that on Tuesday night. Pushed to do so after an anonymous gay student wrote an article in the school paper, organizers sought to address the painful conflict of being gay in the religious world.
At the outset, Rabbi Yosef Blau, spiritual adviser at YU, stressed that the discussion was not meant to be a debate about halacha. His words were echoed by a gay student who addressed a packed audience.
"You don't have to legitimize or accept me," he said, asking instead that fellow students share the struggle of a vexing and confusing issue. "I just can't carry it alone any longer."
Organized by the YU Tolerance Club and Wurzweiler School of Social Work, the event attracted hundreds of students, graduates and faculty members. Indeed, dozens were turned away and fire officials were on hand at one point when security guards said the building had reached capacity.
Mordechai Levovitz, a graduate of YU, described the agony of keeping silent for fear of embarrassing his parents.
"I may have been a kid, but I wasn't stupid," he said.
At age 10, he confessed to a camp counselor that he liked boys and was promptly kicked out. Over the next few years, he would be kicked out of yeshiva in Israel and seek help from therapists. He was called "evil" by one of his rabbis.
But nothing is as painful as ignoring the issue, Levovitz said.
"It's not the people who yell 'faggot,'" he said. "It's the silencing."
Today, he participates in a group called JQ Youth, a 300-member group of gay youth who grew up in the yeshiva world.
"We're not alone," he said. "Nobody has to be alone."
Dr. David Pelcovitz, a professor of education and psychology at YU who took part in the panel, said Tuesday night, "It's incredibly important for all of you here to understand that this was not an easy path for anyone we just heard."
But not everyone felt that way. There were rumors Tuesday night that some fliers for the event were defaced. On Facebook, where the event was publicized, some published critical comments of those who would ignore the religious prohibition of homosexuality.
Indeed, during a question and answer session, audience members sought to understand how the gay men maintained their level of observance.
"I still daven three times a day," one young man said. "Gay men and women don't have a monopoly on having issues with their frumkeit."
Why enroll at YU, given the challenges? While one alumnus admitted he consciously chose an environment that would prevent him from coming out, another said: "Being gay is not a deciding factor in every decision."
In many ways, the event signaled a change in the way YU has dealt with the issue of homosexuality facing the Orthodox Jewish world, as it finds itself in the middle of a renewed conversation on the topic.
Last year, an anonymous gay student wrote an article in Kol HaMevaser, the university's student magazine on Jewish thought, setting off spirited discussions.
Last month's anonymous essay in the newspaper, The Commentator, articulated the anguish of one closeted student.
"Our halachic worldview is imbued with true morality… However, one pressing issue facing the modern world, one which has applied uncomfortable pressure to the Orthodox world, has been shamefully swept under rug," the student wrote.
"The thought of telling my family that I am gay… is one that douses me with waves of paralyzing fear."
YU itself has a rocky history when it comes to dealing with homosexuality on its campuses. In the 1990s, the university grappled with whether to allow gay and lesbian clubs at its law school. In the past, the school has been accused of denying housing to gay couples at its medical school.
Last year, the founding of a Tolerance Club, which welcomed gay members, was simultaneously praised by some and decried as blasphemous by others.
"There is a huge difference between homosexual nature and homosexual activity," which is a clear-cut violation, Pelcovitz told the Commentator in the paper's prolific response to the anonymous gay student's essay.
While on the one hand urging students to accept any peers who are homosexual, he said to the paper, "It would be helpful if the roshei yeshiva would address the pain of those experiencing the struggle - that would help alleviate some of the silent pain of those individuals."
Indeed, a recent graduate on Tuesday night told the audience that he was completely closeted while at YU, where he was a leader in the student government.
"Can you blame me? Have you been to YU? Being closeted was survival," he said.
After graduation, he sought guidance from another religious gay man, who was still deeply closeted in his 30s.
"I didn't want to be that man," he recalled, and subsequently told his parents and friends that he is gay.
"My mom went ballistic," he said.
Every day for a month, she asked if he had been molested as a child. "I had the best childhood," he repeatedly told her.
He said some find his homosexuality perplexing: He is an avid Miami Dolphins fan, works in finance and votes Republican.
"How am I gay?" he asked. But he is.
Two years ago, not yet out of the closet, he would not have believed the forum was taking place. He earnestly thanked the audience.
"This means everything," he said.