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Yeshiva University announces ‘Torah based’ LGBTQ club amid Pride legal battle

Flagship Modern Orthodox university in New York says it will continue court fight against Pride Alliance, which brands new initiative as a ‘desperate stunt’

Luke Tress is an editor and a reporter in New York for The Times of Israel.

Illustrative: A Yeshiva University building in New York City, January 13, 2022. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)
Illustrative: A Yeshiva University building in New York City, January 13, 2022. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)

NEW YORK — Yeshiva University in New York City said Monday that it had approved a religious club for LGBTQ students, while in the throes of an acrimonious legal battle over the school’s refusal to recognize an undergraduate Pride group.

The Yeshiva University Pride Alliance blasted the university’s announcement as a “desperate stunt.”

The university said it will continue to wage its legal battle against the Pride Alliance. A New York court has ruled that the flagship Modern Orthodox university must recognize the Pride group, but Yeshiva University is fighting that decision in court.

The university said it had endorsed “a new student club that presents an approved traditional Orthodox alternative to YU Pride Alliance.”

The flagship Modern Orthodox university said the new initiative was grounded in halacha, or Jewish religious law, and “Torah values to support its LGBTQ undergraduates.”

The new club, called “Kol Yisrael Areivim,” was approved by the administration, lay leadership, and senior rabbis, Yeshiva University said.

“The club will provide students with space to grow in their personal journeys, navigating the formidable challenges that they face in living a fully committed, uncompromisingly authentic halachic life within Orthodox communities,” the university said in a statement.

“Students may gather, share their experiences, host events, and support one another while benefiting from the full resources of the Yeshiva community — all within the framework of Halacha — as all other student clubs,” the statement said.

University head Rabbi Dr. Ari Berman said, “We hope that this Torah-based initiative with a new student club tailored to Yeshiva’s undergraduate LGBTQ students will provide them with meaningful support.”

“I add my blessing to this initiative and new student club, which we hope deepens our students’ commitment to the Torah and leads to harmony in our Yeshiva University community,” said Rabbi Hershel Schachter, one of the university’s roshei yeshiva, or head rabbis.

The university also announced more on-campus support services for LGBTQ students.

It was not clear how the new club would differ from the Pride group, or how it would conform to religious law.

In a separate statement, Yeshiva University said the Pride Alliance is a recognized movement that “not only fights anti-LGBTQ discrimination, a cause which [YU] fully supports, but also “promotes activities that conflict with Torah laws and values.”

“While an adoption of this national brand is inherently unacceptable in the context of Yeshiva, we also realize the need to find additional ways to be supportive of our students that are consistent with halacha and inspired by our values,” the statement said. The university noted that other faith-based institutions have similarly established independent school-hosted clubs, rather than hosting Pride Alliances.

The university did not respond to a request for further comment.

A poster advertises an LGBTQ event at Yeshiva University, December 15, 2020. (Courtesy of Yeshiva University student organizers)

“This is a desperate stunt by Yeshiva University to distract from the growing calls from its donors, alumni, faculty, policymakers, and the business community, who have stood alongside the YU Pride Alliance, as we continue to fight for our rights,” the YU Pride Alliance said.

“The YU sham is not a club as it was not formed by students, is not led by students, and does not have members; rather, it is a feeble attempt by YU to continue denying LGBTQ students equal treatment as full members of the YU student community,” the group said.

Jewish Queer Youth, an advocacy group that backs the Pride Alliance, said the new club “involved no collaboration with queer students.”

“This process violates one of our core queer Jewish values of ‘nothing about us without us,'” Rachael Fried, Jewish Queer Youth’s director, said in a statement to The Times of Israel. “Decisions made without LGBTQ+ individuals and queer voices at the table is concerning and can even be harmful to the very people it aims to support.”

The university has sought to tread a line between rhetorically welcoming LGBTQ students and refusing to recognize the Pride Alliance “to protect the university’s religious autonomy.”

Recognition would grant the Pride club funding and other benefits that are distributed to other student clubs.

Hundreds of students, faculty, and alumni have signed an open letter in support of the Pride club.

The university also said Monday that it “will continue to defend itself in the lawsuit that was brought against it by the YU Pride Alliance based on the claim that Yeshiva is not a religious institution.”

The legal battle between the university and the Pride group began in 2020, when LGBTQ student activists accused the university of discrimination in a complaint to the city’s Commission on Human Rights, and then sued the university last year.

The legal dispute revolves around whether the university is a secular institution that must adhere to non-discrimination laws, or a religious one covered by the First Amendment’s protection for the free expression of beliefs.

Yeshiva University, New York. (Wikimedia Commons)

The university says recognizing the club infringes on its religious beliefs. Gay sex and same-sex marriage are generally forbidden in Orthodox Judaism.

In June, a New York judge said the university needed to recognize the club under a city human rights law barring discrimination based on sexual orientation.

The university appealed to the US Supreme Court, asking it to overturn the New York court’s decision. The court dismissed the case last month, meaning the university needed to recognize the club, at least temporarily.

The Supreme Court said the university needed to exhaust other appeals before it would hear the case. The decision was made on procedural grounds, not the larger religious issues.

The dissenting justices said the university could appeal to the Supreme Court again down the road and would “likely win” in such a scenario. Yeshiva University President Rabbi Ari Berman said the school would “follow their instructions.”

The following day, after the Supreme Court dismissal, the university said it was suspending all student clubs, apparently in order to avoid recognizing the Pride club. The Pride Alliance agreed to pause its battle for recognition a week later for the benefit of other students.

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