Calling Yeshiva University to Rise Up and Fulfill Its Own Aspirational Values

I am Steve Greenberg, the founding director of Eshel, a support, education and advocacy organization for LGBTQ Orthodox Jews and their families. This march is historic. Eshel is proud to have helped Molly Meisels and her team at the nascent YU Pride Alliance to make this grassroots march happen.

Two hundred strong, we are an incredibly moving show of solidarity including students, alumni, faculty, allies, and friends who are marching from Bennet Park to the Wilf Campus in order to send a message to the professional and lay leadership of Yeshiva University.

As beneficiaries of Yeshiva’s undergraduate and/or graduate degree programs, many of us are grateful for the contribution the school has made to our lives. We are grateful……..and disappointed.

For many years now many of us have felt that the aspirational values championed by Yeshiva have far too often been underachieved or worse, wholly ignored. Disappointment, however, is not a mark of disrespect.  Martin Luther King in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail wrote, “There can be no disappointment where there is not deep love.”

So in the spirit of calling Yeshiva University to the better angels of its nature and challenging it to fulfill its own visionary ideals, I would like to share with you what YU itself describes as its animating values. Here they are:

Truth, Life, Humanity, Compassion, and Redemption. 

You can read the long version of these values on the YU website: All we are asking is the yeshiva fully embrace its own visionary ideals:

1. Emet-Truth

“We believe in truth, and humanity’s ability to discover it…and that the act of discovery, in philosophy, physics, economics and the study of the human mind…is sacred.”

So here’s a truth for you. For the past 40 years, psychological scholarship has been saying with increasing univocality that homosexuality is neither a disease nor a character deficiency but instead a normal (if minority) expression of human love and sexuality. So…in short…LGBTQ people exist!

It is way past time for YU to acknowledge the existence of its LGBTQ students and faculty members and to consider them a contributing part of the school community.

Rabbi Dr. Berman (President of YU), if Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, the Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom is not afraid to admit we exist, why are you? Last year Rabbi Mirvis published a 33-page Guide for the Wellbeing of LGBT+ Pupils in Orthodox Schools, a resource that was respectfully co-produced, as it says in clear letters on the cover, with LGBT+ Jews.

2. Chaim- Life

“We believe in applying our knowledge to impact the world around us.  Students are expected to apply what they learn to improve human LIFE….and to solve real-world problems.”

Rav Shechter, (Rosh Kollel of Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary) here’s a real-world problem that keeps me up at night. Perhaps it keeps you up at night too. Teen suicide is nearly three times higher among lesbian and gay youth than it is among straight youth and the statistics are even worse for trans kids. And while religiosity in most populations reduces the risk of suicide, for lesbian and gay people religiosity increases the risk.

Based on data from more than 21,000 US college students, researchers found just this, that the more religious feeling and engagement in a student’s life, the greater the risk of suicidal thoughts and actions…but only when those students are LGBTQ.

Rav Shechter, as a revered spiritual leader training a generation of students, are you doing enough to ensure that the religious education you are transmitting is not endangering some of your own talmidim (students), or even worse, endangering the hundreds if not thousands of children whom they will be teaching?

3. Adam-Humanity

“We believe in the infinite worth of each and every human being… Judaic tradition first introduced to the world the radical proposition that each individual is created in the divine image. We are all absolutely unique and of incalculable worth and value. The vast, expansive human diversity that results from this process is not a challenge, but a blessing.”

Rabonim of REITS, (Rabbis of YU’s Rabbinical School) one could not find a better articulation to urge you to stop treating LGBTQ Jews as an embarrassment, a burden, a social danger, a halakhic threat or an aberration to repress or silence.  Diversity is an opportunity for blessing. These are YOUR words!

4. Chesed-Compassion

“We believe in the responsibility to reach out to others in compassion.”

Now let me make this clear. There has been over the last few years a marvelous shift toward compassion in the Orthodox rabbinate. Eshel has surveyed 160 Orthodox rabbis and we found that compassion is remarkably high.  But we LGBTQ Jews have grown tired of articulations of compassion that are largely exculpatory and come with a claim of powerlessness.  What we need is compassion that troubles the soul and moves leaders toward responsible action.

I believe that it was this sort of compassion that moved Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky, a musmach (graduate) of REITS, a few years ago when he wrote that homosexuality is simply part of the human condition (see here). It’s just the way some of us are made. Consequently, it can no longer be acceptable to force homosexuals to pay a debilitating psychological, emotional or physical price for the Orthodox community’s theological comfort.

For many years we have suffered various sorts of abuse from disregard to humiliation to degradation because you have preferred our harm and suffering rather than risking your religious comfort.

We are not demanding immediate halakhic solutions. We are asking that you be open to the profundity of our questions.  Rabbi Kanefsky has designated the theological question of homosexuality as a contemporary “teyku” (undecided) that needs to be addressed. But meanwhile, not having an answer to the halakhic questions, “will not prevent us from seeing the human truths in front of our eyes.”

5. Zion (which if you read the accompanying text reads more like Geulah, Redemption).

“We believe that humanity’s purpose is to transform our world for the better and to move history forward.”

A university’s commitment to transform the world for the better is what motivates much of its philanthropic support.  Zahava and Moshael Strauss developed The Straus Center to nourish students with “the best of Jewish tradition exposing them to the richness of human knowledge and insight from across the ages, and confronting them with the great moral, philosophical, and theological questions of our age.”

What a wonderful vision: confronting students with the great theological questions of our age!  Not to avoid great questions but to engage them, not to silence dialogue but to invite it, not to threaten curiosity but to nourish it.

Mr. Strauss, no one is asking YU to disavow halakhic discourse or to reject our holy Torah.  We are asking you, Mr. Strauss, and the whole board of Yeshiva, its administration, its amazing faculty, its religious scholars, its talented undergrad, grad and rabbinical students to help YU rise up and fulfill its mission, to strive for these five ideals in order “to work together in the service of God to transform our world for the better and move history forward.”

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