Out, Proud, and Kinda Loud at Yeshiva University
Students are challenging the Modern Orthodox school’s traditional stance on LGBT issues
Dasha Sominski rushed into the Shabbat service reeking of smoke and perfume, her curly blue bangs covering her right eye. She had skipped all the prayers and rituals.
It was a Friday night last fall in Manhattan’s Washington Heights neighborhood. Sominski, 21, had been chosen by Eshel, an LGBT Orthodox Jewish organization based in New York City, to speak to a room full of observant Orthodox Jews about what it’s like to be openly queer at Yeshiva University, the flagship Modern Orthodox school.
The attendees had gathered in a makeshift prayer room to kick off a Shabbaton, a Friday-night and Saturday program of activities and services organized by Eshel and aimed at affirming the possibility of living a devout Jewish life while identifying as queer. The small group of attendees was a mix of older individuals, some of whom were from out of town, a few Y.U. alums, and several young professionals. At one point during the service, a young male congregant had delivered a homily about “Lekha Dodi,” the liturgical song in which the Sabbath is personified as a bride. He spoke of the need to reinterpret this song because several people in attendance would not be privy to such a holy union—between God and his bride, between man and woman.
Sometimes Sominski prays before eating, a reflex from 19 years of Orthodox living. On this day, she prayed out of courtesy. When Sominski gave her speech, she didn’t look at her notes once. She had delivered a similar message before, once simply with a piece of chalk on a classroom blackboard. Following that speech and this one, she faced questions.
One congregant asked how her family back in St. Petersburg, Russia, reacted to her coming out. Sominski had told her mother over the phone in the winter of 2013.
“Maybe they’ll stone me if I say this, but I get it,” her mother had said over the phone. “What do you want me to say?”
“If I married a girl would you come to the wedding?” Sominski asked.
“We’ll see how much the tickets are.”
Yeshiva University is conservative by nature. Yet over the past few years an undercurrent of progressivism has challenged Y.U.’s traditionalism. In 2008, Stern College, Y.U.’s women’s college, accepted the return of English professor Joy Ladin, following her transition from male to female. In November, for the first time in her career as an instructor at Y.U., Ladin was invited to speak to a student group about being transgender. Male students from Y.U.’s uptown campus schlepped to Stern College in Midtown East for the talk. Stern students came up to her afterward to tell her that though they themselves did not identify as queer, they were supportive of friends who did. “Nobody had ever said that to me aloud,” Ladin told me this February in a follow-up interview. “By the time you get around to telling a professor, something must have been happening for a while.”
In 2009, the School of Social Work and members of the Tolerance Club on campus organized a panel of students and alumni titled “Being Gay in the Modern Orthodox World.” Some of the roshei yeshiva, the elite professors responsible for the school’s spiritual guidance, hung posters around campus calling for a boycott. Benjy Abramowitz, 25, was a student then. Gay and Orthodox, he recalls that, at the time, he felt the talk gave queer issues legitimacy, but, he said, “having to hear what the roshei yeshiva were saying was as disheartening as the original discourse was encouraging.”
Miryam Kabakov, co-executive director of Eshel, met her first girlfriend as an undergraduate at Stern in the 1980s. She kept it secret for fear of retribution and out of fear for what it meant for her life. “We didn’t use the word ‘LGBTQ,’ ” she said. “It was clear that we couldn’t have told anybody at Stern or talked about it to anyone.” Now, on Facebook, students can join the Yeshiva University LGBTQ+ Allies/Student Chapter, a public online group created in December 2011.
Students seeking advice or knowledge regarding queer issues have, more than a few times, asked Sominski whether there is a secret gay underground at Y.U., which often made her wonder, “Oh shit, maybe there is an underground, and I’m not part of it.” In her final year at Stern, Sominski is bringing the gay underground to the surface through a campaign called Merchav Batuach, or Safe Space. With operational support from Eshel (where she was recently named campus organizer, a volunteer position), Sominski is conducting leadership and sensitivity training seminars for Y.U. students in the hope of creating a community of “allies,” individuals willing to support their peers through the process of sexuality questioning.
This movement is going up against an administration that prefers to keep such discussions in the closet. Under Sominski’s leadership, the Merchav Batuach campaign signifies a new chapter in the recurring tensions between an administration that is tethered to traditional values it must uphold and a student body that wants to reconcile religious practice with contemporary mores.
After Sominski’s speech at the Shabbat service, she had a few shots of whiskey and gin with the younger guests. She left before the next round of prayers began.
Sominski used to be “an excellent religious girl,” the third of 14 children in a Chabad home in St. Petersburg. But as she got older, she began questioning the roles her mother and other women played in their community. They did the laundry and the grocery shopping and cleaned and served dinner and put the young ones to sleep. She hated sorting her brothers’ socks: They were all black, but each pair had a slightly different texture or design. The boys left for synagogue early. The boys got to say and analyze the d’var Torah during Shabbat dinner. Sominski had to be aydel, sweet. She couldn’t imagine a life like her mother’s for herself: “It was paralyzing to think about.”
Faced with more questions about her religion, Sominski decided to move to the United States to attend a seminary in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, in February 2010. During a class discussion in which someone spoke about experiencing God, she raised her hand and admitted to her class that she had, in fact, never experienced God. “Does he speak to everybody?” she asked.
On another day at the seminary, a teacher approached Sominski, put her hands on her shoulders, and told her that her neckline was too low. “Don’t take the easy way out,” the teacher said. In response, Sominski put her hands on the teacher’s shoulders and said, “I wish this was the easy way out.” She wished losing faith in her religion did not feel like a colossal loss. Her collarbone was not her struggle.
Letters to a rabbinic mentor in her early days at the seminary and later at Stern were peppered with Baruch Hashems, excited updates on her studies, and reflections on how to alleviate anxiety over disappointing grades: “Well, as they say in here a lot, ‘Whatever.’ ”
In the spring of 2012 the letters took on a different tone: “I must tell you, I am panicking … I don’t want to have all of these questions. They make me anxious and miserable. And resented by others. But I feel that I am being unfair with myself, that I lack integrity if I try to convince myself they aren’t there.”
In the fall of 2013, Sominski unintentionally became a leader on matters of sex and freedom of speech at Y.U. During a bout of writer’s block while working on a class assignment, she posted a survey about sexual relations on Facebook; she said she was trying to understand attitudes on sex at Stern College as a gateway to understanding sexual relations in the wider Modern Orthodox community. She asked Stern students to anonymously volunteer answers to questions like, “What do you think is ‘worse’ in terms of promiscuity—if somebody has casual vaginal sex or casual anal/oral sex?” and “Were you shomer/et negiah [a person who does not touch someone of the opposite sex] when you came to Y.U.? Did you stop being shomer/et negiah after some time?”
Looking back, Sominski admits that her survey was “not [her] greatest scientific work.” But she got over 100 responses. She jokingly became known among students as the “butt-sex scandal” girl. Sominski had to write an apology to Stern College Dean Karen Bacon, who had told her via email that her actions had dishonored Stern. The student body rallied around her, sending messages of support to her and posting messages of outrage on Facebook.
“I think when students post something on Facebook they’re entitled to do so as private students,” Bacon told me on the telephone. ”They should not and it is inappropriate to use the university’s name. Using the university’s name without permission is really an infringement on the university’s property. That’s what we tell all students. If [students] use the university’s name, they have to get permission.”
Sominski’s public questioning continued to cause a stir. When she first started at Y.U., she said, she had the “religious look.” She wore skirts below the knee, covering the calf, and two shirts, one layered over the other. For the moment that would catapult Sominski to the status of queer prophet among Y.U. students, she wore khaki pants and a black-and-white plaid shirt. She was wearing this “dykey outfit,” as she called it, for a presentation in her speechwriting class in the spring of 2014.
She approached the front of the class and took a piece of chalk. It crumbled in her hand as she wrote “GAY” on the board, trying to cover it completely. And then she came out. Her voice was “trembulous” with emotion, she said. During her speech (which was later published in the campus newspaper), she only looked to the middle and the left side of the classroom, avoiding eye contact with a group of more conservative students seated to her right. She asked the students whether the word on the board made them uncomfortable. She spoke of falling in love with her best friend back home and about feeling confused. She called for safe spaces for queer students at Y.U.
On Dec. 12, 2014, Sominski could not feel her fingers. They go numb when she’s nervous. That morning she was leading her first Merchav Batuach seminar.
Officially, the seminar was a non-Y.U. event, open to students from any university. Unofficially, Sominski said she knew she would have difficulty dealing with the administration. The seminar was instead held in a conference room downtown. Eshel provided the snacks and had helped her prepare the program. According to Sominski, 24 students attended, the majority, but not all, women from Stern. The campaign’s anchor is safe-space training. Sominski is creating a community of Y.U. students who, despite their commitment to Orthodox Judaism, want to become allies and support their queer peers.
Sominski does not want the focus of her efforts to be on reconciling what it means to be an Orthodox Jew and identify as queer. She said she “doesn’t have the tools for that.” She is aware of her status on campus as the open-minded one whom anyone can talk to, whom everyone tags on Facebook when something about homosexuality at Y.U. comes up. But she knew she wasn’t the only one like that, and she wanted students to know that they were surrounded by people who would listen to them.
Abramowitz, who graduated from Y.U. in 2012, gave the opening speech. He said it didn’t feel monumental to discuss his experience as a gay, Orthodox Jew at Y.U. He says Y.U. students are as open-minded as anyone, anywhere. “The administration and roshei yeshiva don’t represent what Y.U. has,” he said. “What the roshei yeshiva say, or other people in the Y.U. administration say, looms large in your conscience, but most essentially I always felt comfortable. I knew that my Y.U. was working for me.”
Abramowitz emphasized that change at Y.U. could only go one way—from the students to the administration. “Is it tempting to try to enlighten our roshei yeshiva on this matter? Of course. But because I don’t think that’s ever going to happen, I don’t think that’s your job,” he said. “Your responsibility is to be there for your peers, your friends, your fellow Jews, no matter what anyone else says.”
Sominski framed the seminar around the concept and practice of empathy. Following Abramowitz’s speech, she led a discussion on “micro-aggressions,” seemingly innocuous comments or acts that cause trauma. Participants came up with examples, like “you’re too pretty to be a lesbian,” or “you must be the guy in the relationship.” Sominski and Miryam Kabakov, as well as two male participants, did improv sketches to illustrate the dos and don’ts of responding to someone coming out. Comments such as, “Well, when you went out with Moishe you seemed into him,” are don’ts. On one of the presentation slides that Sominski had prepared for a discussion on bullying and heterosexism, she showed a picture of a tweet from Morgan Freeman that read, “I hate the word homophobia. It’s not a phobia. You are not scared. You are an asshole.”
Rivka Hia, 20, one of the Stern College students who attended the seminar, has been a queer activist since high school. She identifies as an ally. “For me, the biggest takeaway was seeing so many allies and friends in a room at the same time,” she said. “It feels at times here being an ally is under wraps. It’s a secret, and seeing so many allies from Yeshiva in the same room was inspiring and gave me hope that the community of allies will only grow.”
Sominski handed out stickers that said “This is a safe space” with the Merchav Batuach logo, a miniature tenement building with blue, red, orange, yellow, and green windows and a purple door. Five Y.U. students came out to her in the days following the seminar. The stickers she handed out with her now adorn laptops and dorm-room doors. One is on the door of Stern’s Art Department. Another is on the door of a resident assistant in the Stern dorms. Sominski is now planning a follow-up seminar to delve more deeply into issues of queer and gender identity in Judaism. She is also planning another introductory session for interested students who missed the first one.
Although students from Y.U.’s men’s college in Washington Heights attended the first seminar, change will likely migrate slowly from Stern to the uptown campus. A 21-year-old male student whom I spoke with on campus, and who asked to remain anonymous, said that he has a few friends who are active in the Safe Space movement, but that the male campus is less open than its sister school. “Acceptance is a tricky word here,” he said. “You accept the person, not the sin.”
In a January 2015 op-ed in the Y.U. Commentator, student Daniel Atwood affirmed Sominski’s call for safe spaces on campus, writing, “An LGBT student at Y.U. presumably has significantly more struggles than an LGBT student at some other colleges. Therefore we invest an extra effort to make sure that all of our friends and community members know that we support them, no matter which issues they face.”
This cultural shift is coming at an inopportune moment for Yeshiva University. The school is facing financial difficulties. In March 2014, Moody’s downgraded Y.U.’s credit rating, citing “extremely thin and unrestricted liquidity” in the face of deep deficits. So, the school needs money. And “the odds of them promoting a more tolerant community when they are trying to raise money in the Orthodox community is next to none,” as Ladin, the Stern professor, puts it.
In response to my requests to interview the roshei yeshiva, Rabbi Kenneth Brander, Y.U.’s vice president for university and community life, provided the following statement via email: “While homosexual relations are forbidden by Jewish law, bullying, intolerance, and discrimination have no place in our community. Everyone deserves to be treated with respect.” Roshei yeshiva did not return phone calls or emails and declined to be interviewed when approached in person in their offices. Rabbi Menachem Penner, dean of the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, part of Y.U., also declined to offer comment when approached in his office, citing the sensitive nature of the issue. In response to my requests for comment, Chaim Nissel, university dean of students, referred me to Rabbi Brander’s statement.
In the Stern College basement cafeteria on a winter afternoon, Sominski was the only woman not wearing a skirt or a long-sleeved shirt and the only one showing a bit of cleavage. Her gray T-shirt revealed a tattoo on the underside of her left arm. It’s the Hebrew word ayekah, which means “Where are you?” and is a reference to the moment in Genesis when Adam eats the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden and hides from God. God asks, “Where are you?”
This passage is one of Sominski’s favorites from the Torah. It is the first text she remembers wanting to analyze and read rabbinic responses to independently of her schoolwork. If God is all-knowing, why does he need to ask where Adam is?
During her conversion from religious to secular life, Sominski was often warned that if she left religion, she would lose a sense of community, a sense of meaning. Instead she feared “losing the inquisitive approach to life” that had always been part of her religious experience. “I asked myself where I was,” she said. “I liked living a life where I questioned myself every day.”
[Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Daniel Atwood as a Merchav Batuach participant.]