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Out of the Closet

Homosexual Student and Alumni Speak to Standing-Room-Only Crowd on Wilf Campus

By Michael Cinnamon


Published: Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Updated: Friday, December 25, 2009

On Tuesday, December 22, four gay men, one an undergraduate student at Yeshiva and the other three YU alumni, spoke to a packed crowd in the Wilf Campus’ Weissberg Commons.  For two hours, the four panelists presented their personal narratives dealing with being gay in Yeshiva and in the general Orthodox world.  The sponsors and participants intend this panel discussion to be the first venture of a continuing forum that will focus on these and similar issues within the Orthodox community.


The program was organized by the Wurzweiler School of Social Work and the Yeshiva University Tolerance Club.  A student-run club founded last year by Avi Kopstick (YC ’10), himself one of the panelists, YUTC describes its goal as “recognizing diversity and promoting tolerance within the YU community.”


The event began with opening remarks from Nava Billet (SCW ’08),  Presidential Fellow for Wurzweiler, who spoke in place of Wurzweiler Dean Sheldon R. Gelman.  After Ms. Billet, Rabbi Yosef Blau, Mashgiach Ruchani at YU, introduced the panel and his role as moderator. 


Following the personal narratives, the panelists answered numerous questions about their experiences, about homosexuality and Judaism, about possible future discussions, and about what steps the Orthodox community should now take.


Originally, the event was scheduled to take place in a somewhat smaller venue in Furst Hall, but due to the overwhelming public response and the number of online RSVP’s, the location was changed to the larger Weissberg Commons in Belfer Hall.   Even so, the room was considerably over capacity, with many in the audience sitting on the floor or standing towards the back and sides of the room.  Estimates of the crowd’s size put it at roughly 700 people, with at least 100 people denied entrance entirely due to overcrowding.


The audience was composed of students from YU as well as many other universities, including NYU, Columbia, Queens College, and the University of Pennsylvania, various members of both the Yeshiva faculty and administration, and others. 


The crowd largely supported the panelists, with many bursts of applause interrupting the speakers, and numerous audience members writing messages of support on the index cards given out to the audience for the purpose of submitting anonymous questions.


However, the response to the event has not been entirely positive.  In the days before the event, after the posters advertising the event began popping up on campus, numerous copies of a detailed, satirical sign with the byline “Being Bestial in the Jewish Community,” a clear takeoff on the actual event poster, which was entitled “Being Gay in the Orthodox World,” appeared in close proximity. 


Additionally, a few hours before the event itself, someone posted a letter bearing the signatures of between 5 and 7 Roshei Yeshiva (depending on the copy at hand) in various locations around the Wilf Campus.  The letter read as follows:


The Torah requires that we relate with sensitivity to a discreet individual who feels that he/she has a homosexual orientation, but abstains from any and all homosexual activity.  Such sensitivity, however, cannot be allowed to erode the Torah’s unequivocal condemnation of homosexual activity.  The Torah’s mitzvos and judgments are eternally true and binding.  Homosexual activity constitutes an abomination.  As such, publicizing or seeking legitimization even for the homosexual orientation one feels runs contrary to Torah.  In any forum or on any occasion when appropriate sympathy for such discreet individuals is being discussed, these basic truths regarding homosexual feelings and activity must be emphatically re-affirmed.


Although the identity of the letter’s author has not yet been determined, and although some have called into question the authenticity of the letter, sources close to Rabbi Hershel Schachter, a Rosh Yeshiva at YU, confirmed that the letter and his signature are legitimate.


About twenty minutes after the panel began, an alarm went off in Belfer Hall.  Jeffrey Rosengarten, vice president of Administrative Services, announced that an inoperative fan in one of the building’s elevators had triggered the alarm.


The full impact of the event remains to be seen, and many issues are yet unresolved.  Still, Mordechai Levovitz, one of the panelists, termed the event “more successful and more positive than I could ever imagine.”  He is also hopeful that the YU community will see more such events in the future.  “It’s amazing how the miracle of discussion and learning can elevate an issue from the depth of depression to the height of inspiration.  We must continue.”


**Update, 12/25/09**


Earlier today, a letter was posted outside the Glueck Center Beit Midrash on official RIETS (Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary) stationery, and bearing the names of Yeshiva University President Richard M. Joel and RIETS Dean Rabbi Yona Reiss.  The text of the letter follows:


Message from the President and Menahel of RIETS


In light of recent events, we want to reiterate the absolute prohibition of homosexual relationships according to Jewish law.  Of course, as was indicated in a message issued by our Roshei Yeshiva [see above], those struggling with this issue require due sensitivity, although such sensitivity cannot be allowed to erode the Torah’s unequivocal condemnation of such activity.  Sadly, as we have discovered, public gatherings addressing these issues, even when well-intentioned, could send he wrong message and obscure the Torah’s requirement of halakhic behavior and due modesty.  Yeshiva has an obligation to ensure that its activities and events promote the primacy and sacredness of Torah in our lives and communities.  We are committed to providing halakhic guidance and sensitivity with respect to all challenges confronted by individuals within our broader community, including homosexual inclinations, in a discreet, dignified and appropriate fashion.


President Richard M. Joel                   Menahel Rabbi Yona Reiss


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Tue Dec 29 2009 16:41
[They cut me off right near the end, a not-uncommon situation for me]. If such discussions make it easier for these men to live, grow up, and lead an Orthodox life with one exception, I don't see how someone--even Orthodox--could object to that. They are not trying to make other students gay. That must be understood. They just want to be less ill at ease in shul on Saturday mornings. Is that too much to ask?
I am sure I wrote something way too long and I'm sorry; it just came out that way.
Allen Roth '72
Tue Dec 29 2009 16:34
Since I'm sure we don't want to get involved in an endless repetitious exchange, I'm going to limit myself to this one last reply. If you wish to respond, I will give you the last word. To reply to your comment: (1) You write,"Such a forum is not presenting a point of view but rather trying to get people to agree that there is such a thing as orthodox gay life." Well, that sounds like a point of view to me. You can disagree, and I'm certain that you have many supporters on the campus. But don't try to say that they are not presenting a point of view. (2) The letter signed by Pres. Joel is an expression of a personal opinion, which he has every right to have. But, from what I know, there are at present a significant number of undergraduates who do not wear kippot to class, and are not Orthodox in various other ways. YC has changed a great deal since we were there. I do not deny that Yeshiva was originally founded as an Orthodox institution, and I have no problem with such an institution. The Constitution afterall, guarantees the Right to Assemble. All I was saying is that today, both legally and in fact, YC is no longer strictly characterizable as an Orthodox Institution.(3) With regard to the Pres. of Iran, I happen to know that Pres. Bollinger was very much against the speech, but he not only permitted it, but he was the one who introduced Ahmadinejad in fromt of the audience. That is the custom with visiting Heads of State (he did nevertheless, indicate his scorn for Ahmad's Holocaust Denial in his introduction). My point is again, that Columbia does not support the speaker's views (and in this case, much more so than Yeshiva, there is no question but that the speaker represented a point of view clearly at odds with many principles of Columbia's Charter. But because they let him speak does not mean they endorse his views. You say that Ahma. presented a point of Vview , which the gay students at YC did not. I'll let the readers decide that one for themselves.(4) How many of the crowd were "curiosity seekers?" Neither of us know. But you seem to think that curiosity seekers don't have an equal right to hearing the speaker on campus as non "curiosity seekers." I contend that--regardless of how many curiosity seekers there were, it was clear that a huge number of students wanted to hear these people speak. I do think that the number of listeners weas the largest of any public event in Yeshiva's history, with the exception of ceremonial events, like Graduations, Inaugurations of the Pres., Dedications of Buildings, etc. I think that says something about the current student body.(5) I save my main point for last. If you were to hear of a member of an Orthodox synagogue who was observant in every way, but was carrying on an affair with another member's wife, would you say that he is not Orthodox, or that he is Orthodox person commiting a sin? I think, despite the gravamen of his offense, we would still consider him Orthodox. I think the same is true of an Orthodox man who is gay, even if he is actually participating in a fully sexual relationship. The prohibition on homosexual behavior does not possess, as far as I know, a special degree of significance in Orthodox tradition. There are far greater sins: Violating the Sabbath, Worshipping other gods, or committing a sexual act with a prohibited partner (Eruyot). The use of word "toevah" refers to ritual homosexual prostitution, which scholarship now knows to have been common in Ancient Israel, having been adopted from the Canaanite tribes. From the Prophets we know that it was extraordinarily difficult to eliminate this offense, which is understandable when it comes to sexual sins of almost any kind. Ironically, I am not Orthodox, and have not been so for many years (that had nothing to do with being gay and, leaving the Orthodox world was much more difficult than telling my family that I was gay), yet here I find myself in the position of defending an Orthodox man's right to speak at my Alma Mater, which despite my earlier arguments, is, in certain ways, still arguably "Orthodox." But I still recall my years at school, when I was in the same position as the anonymous writer of "The Gay Question," in agony over how I was going to deal with my family, etc (.At least I was relieved of the perceived Orthodox conflict). If 8 to 10 percent of the Yeshiva Student Body is gay (which I would suggest), these men need all the support they can get just in order to survive in a psychologically undamaged state. It is not inconceivable that a student might commit suicide one day over his torment. I don't think it is too much to ask to permit such speakers to appear on Campus, when no one is compelled to listen to them, to agree with them, to support their point of view. It can be considered an issue of "pikuah nefesh," to use an argument of the type commonly appearing in Yeshiva dialogue. If such discussions make it easier for these men to live, grow up, and lead an Orthodox...
Lawrence Wise
Tue Dec 29 2009 09:53
This is in response to Mr. Roth's comments. I must disagree with your point that YU is not an Orthodox institution. The letter signed by Rabbi Reiss and President Joel gives a different impression. I would hardly compare the talk by the vicious president of Iran to a forum on gay life. Such a forum is not presenting a point of view but rather trying to get people to agree that there is such a thing and orthodox gay life. It is probably more accurate to call such people orthoprac, they practice elements of halacha but live a life that the Torah calls an abomination. I still contend that the forum was intended to present moral equivalency.

As for your argument that the attendance was large due to people not agreeing with my point of view I humbly disagree. I wonder how many of the crowd were curiosity seekers, seeking information for writing topics, or accumulating points to contend. Large crowds do not prove agreement or acceptance. I agree that in a federally funded institution such meetings cannot be prevented. If in fact YU was completely open to all then why are undergraduates required to be enrolled in a religious division, why are there religious services that are a major part of campus life, why do eating facilties have to comply with kashrut? All this leads to my original contention that such a meeting is intended to accept through understanding orthodox gay life. And yes I am still angered that such an event took place both as an alumnus and Orthodox Jew .

Lawrence Wise YC '71

Allen Roth
Mon Dec 28 2009 21:46
P.S. Didn't sign my previous note:
Allen Roth '72
Allen Roth
Mon Dec 28 2009 21:42
This comment is in response to Mr. Wise's comment. You write that "we are not mounting a persecution campaign," which arguably may be true. But no one compelled any student or faculty member to attend that forum. If asnyone--like you--were to feel against it, you could always opt to refrain from attending. Even better: You ncould attend and, during a question and answer period, you could voice your objections; no one would mount a "persecution campaign" against you either. I will not address the many inaccurate statements in your not, such as: Yeshiva University is an "Orthodox Institution." Ever since we were students, YU severed its connection to RIETS legally, in order to be able to receive State Funds. And I know that YU and YC receive many Federal Funds as well. I believe it would have been illegal for the University to attempt to prevent such a speaking engagement from taking place. It seems, finally, that many of the current students disagree with you; attendance at the meeting was huge, with many turned away. I myself would have gone, even though I don't have any connection to Yeshiva. But I never knew about it. Why wasn't it included in the e-mail I receive about the weekly events at the Campus? I wonder....... In any case, you and those who agree with your point of view were not harmed or endangered by that meeting; Why are you so angry or offended by it? The whole purpose of guest speakers and fora such as this is to be able to present a different point of view, to expose those members of the campus community to areas of interest, but no one is compelled to attend. Pres. Ahmadinejad of Iran spoke at Columbia last year, and I'm certain the majority of students, faculty and administration were against his appearance. But no one is forced to attend and, for those who are interested in a public figure at the center of some of the world's most significant controversies, they could elect to hear him. And once again, it would probably be illegal for any University that receives either Federal Funds or State Funds to silence speakers like this, or like the gay student(s) and alumni that spoke. Similarly, if a student would want to start a gay club on campus, or a gay-straight club, the University would not be able to prevent them, would be required to provide them with equivalent facilities (space to hold meetings etc) and funding. Yeshiva could have elected to remain a private institution, but even then, under the laws in the State of New York, they would still be prevented from discriminating in any way against students who are gay (sexual orientation), not Orthodox (religion), non-white (race), or even someone 60 years old who wants to finish his college degree (age). Like Apartment Co-op boards in NYC, who clearly do not receive any Government funding. Let them speak. Let them express themselves. As some of my straight friends say, "Why should I care?" Yes, Why should you? I repeat what I wrote in an earlier comment: as an alumnus, I have never been as proud of my Alma Mater as when I read about this event on Campus.
Lawrence Wise
Mon Dec 28 2009 15:45
It seems that this forum was another form of moral equivalency. Yeshiva University is an Orthodox institution which adheres to Torah and halacha. What is the point of the forum? If it wants us to accept through understanding we as halachic adherents cannot accept that lifestyle. One cannot compare the challenges of an Orthodox Jew in society with a gay "orthodox" Jew. As Americans who enjoy freedom of expression these people have rights and the civil union method has addressed that. If people choose to live a gay lifestyle and we are not mounting a persecution campaign I see no reason for such a forum. I am angered and disappointed in Yeshiva University for having such an event as both and alumnus and Orthodox Jew.

Lawrence Wise YC'71

Aaron Steinberg
Mon Dec 28 2009 10:32
I just want to say the significance of this event was in the number of people who were interested in attending the event because they were sincerely interested and/or compassionate in the experiences of the four panelists. I personally was outside at 8:15 behind a line of 50+ people hoping to get in to the event that had filled one of the largest rooms on the campus.

If anyone is wondering why such an event should take place, or what the point of the event was, need only watch the videos or read the transcript. Each of the panelists mentioned that there were times they considered taking their own lives because of the loneliness and isolation they felt by not being welcomed and accepted in the community. While I believe a lot more was accomplished at the event, at least there are now other closeted Orthodox homosexuals at YU and other places who will have this event as a reminder that they aren't alone, and don't need to resort to suicide.

It's important for us to remember that the choice here isn't whether these men will be gay or not. They are gay. The question is whether or not they will live lives that are devoted to being Jewish, and are influenced by the Torah. Any comparison people make between homosexuals and people who commit sins such as adultery, murder and fraud is inherently flawed. It is a reality that these men are gay, and that is not a choice they are making. What people are doing in their personal lives is of no concern for the rest of the community, and there should be no significant distinction between homosexual and heterosexual members of the Orthodox community.

Being Orthodox is an 'opt-in' phenomenon. It is commendable for anyone to strive to live their lives by the strict measures of the Torah. Any of us would be deeply insulted by someone else criticizing our attempt at living that lifestyle, and these men should be no different.

The panel was designed to open peoples eyes that this is something in the Orthodox community, and to recognize that we can have a more unified and welcoming Orthodox community if we take some simple steps to include people that have previously been ignored.

jay fein
Sun Dec 27 2009 17:03
The Torah calls homosexual activity "toaivah" (abomination). Why would someone feel comfortable standing up in front of a large crowd and announcing "I have disgusting impulses"? The only conclusion possible is that the truth of the Torah is being questioned.
Baruch Abromowitz
Sun Dec 27 2009 04:00
As a former orthodox homosexual student at YU, I found that when I was in the dorm many students were homosexual as well. Some would repress these feelings, but some were quite open and practicing. When I was a student it was helpful for me to be able to relate to other homosexual orthodox males that I met.

Hopefully this event will allow others to "come out of the closet" and relieve the pain both physically and emotionally. I'm certain that after this event more gay students will come forward and be out in the open. This will lead to happier couples, more gay friends, and more of a gay community on YU campus. I think with a gay community within the YU campus more tolerance and progressiveness will be established and will be brought upon this school just like other universities in the country such as the U of Vermont, NYU, Columbia, and Berkely etc.... YU is on the path to becoming a mainstream University, maybe they will even consider dropping the "Yeshiva" from the name.

Baruch Abromowitz
YC 86'

Yosef Gottesman
Sat Dec 26 2009 19:57
Forgive me, as I don't understand the point of all this. What is to be gained by having people stand up and proclaim their preference? As both the original letter of the Roshei Yeshiva and the letter from R' Reiss and Pres. Joel says, why can't it be done discreetly and anonymously to have awareness sessions held? We don't need to have the people themselves stand up and gain people's sympathy or justification--just have psychologists and therapists give these types of forums and raise the awareness necessary for people to have the sensitivity for the issue. Seemingly, the only reason why one would want to stand up is to justify it, and I think this is really the problem.
Sat Dec 26 2009 14:14
To the Editor:
I can hardly believe, and I am very gratified to read about the opening of a dialogue on being gay in the Orthodox world. I entered YC in 1968, and I could barely imagine such an event. Needless to say, I had to conceal my sexuality from everyone for four years. The Stonewall riots occurred during my Sophomore year but, as far as my life was concerned, they might as well have happened on the moon. I know how much courage was needed for these men to discuss and publicly reveal their orientation. They must feel a sense of freedom that cannot be described.
I would like to comment, however, on some of the anti-gay comments by the Rabbi quoted. He claims that the Torah contains an "unequivocal condemnation of homosexual activity." This is not so. As most of you should know, the text in Leviticus prohibits "mishkav zachar." "You shall not sleep with a man as with a woman." What this means is quite complicated and problematic, for both religious Jews and Christians. One Talmudic opinion interprets the passage as prohibiting intercourse only, but not other sexual activity. For anyone interested in a superb discussion of this passage, I highly recommend John Boswell's "Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality" (Univ. of Chicago Press).
I read the Commentator from time to time, and this is one of the first instances when I can take a great deal of pride in my Alma Mater.
Allen Roth
YH '68
YC '72
Univ. of Pittsburgh '75
Univ. of California '81
David Jacobs
Thu Dec 24 2009 13:08
I am in humble gratitude to the organizers of this wonderful event. For people to see the faces of Orthodox men and women struggling with this issue is a critical element to properly dealing with homosexuality's challenges. My deepest thanks go to each member of the panel, and especially to Rabbi Blau for courageously endorsing this event which was geared towards improving the way the Orthodox world relates to its own suffering members.

With regards to the letter of the Roshei Yeshiva, I don't know exactly how to respond. I continue to have deep respect and awe of the Rebbeim in Yeshiva University (my Rebbeim) but I honestly can not understand their approach. Is there truly a halachic problem in allowing gay individuals to be open about their challenges while encouraging them to live 100% halachic lives? Especially when it could lead to three positive results:
1. An alleviation of much personal suffering for homosexual individuals.
2. An alleviation of the suffering of families who need to deal with the issue.
3. An incentive to stay on the derech of Orthodox observance- something so frequently abandoned by Orthodox individuals who feel they have no place to turn in dealing with their homosexuality.

In any case, I once again express my heartfelt thanks that the doors to sensitive discussion have been swung open so widely. Yashar Koach to all who participated.

The Author of "The Gay Question."

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