Don’t ask, don’t tell at YU? Don’t ask.
Homosexuality panel draws hundreds; Rosh Yeshiva Rabbi Mayer Twersky sharply critical in Beis Medrash remarks
By Michael Orbach • The Jewish Star
As willing as the four panelists on the dais were to speak about their sexual orientation, it seemed clear they would have rather been in the audience.
“I’m gay, and nothing I’ve done can change that,” said Avi Kopstick, the president of Yeshiva University’s Tolerance Club and an openly gay student at the college. “I fought for six years, every Rosh Hashana, denying who I am. Every Yom Kippur, with tears streaming down my face, asking G-d to take it away. My test is not that Hashem made me gay and I have to become straight, but my test is to live with it.”
The panel, held in Belfer Commons on Yeshiva University’s Wilf Campus in Washington Heights on Dec. 22, was a first. Titled “Being Gay in the Modern Orthodox World,” it was run by the Wurzweiler School of Social Work, and the Yeshiva University Tolerance Club. Three alumni and a current YU student spoke about their homosexuality. Rabbi Yosef Blau, mashgiach ruchani of Yeshiva University, was the moderator. In his words, the panel was meant to address “the pain and the conflict that is caused by someone being gay in the Orthodox world.”
The gathering was far from a gay pride event but instead a sober acknowledgment. In a twist on the gay-pride slogan of the 1970s, it said: We’re here, we’re queer, and we’re sorry about it.
“The halacha, as expressed explicitly in the Torah and in the Chachamim, is clear to everyone here, and this is not what we’re here to discuss,” Rabbi Blau said, laying down ground rules for the evening. “If someone does try to discuss halacha, I will ask them to stop.”
Rabbi Blau cautioned that anyone who interrupted the panelists would be asked to leave, though he didn’t need to worry. The crowd of close to a thousand interrupted the presenters only with applause and laughter. At 8 p.m., the panel’s official start time, a line of hundreds snaked around the outside of Belfer Hall in the blistering cold. At 8:15, security guards were turning away dozens of students. Later, some students snuck into the building via tunnels that connect Belfer with other parts of the campus. The hall was standing room only, with students clustered together against the walls.
Most of the panelists recounted suffering from depression after realizing they were gay; each underwent some form of therapy to “cure” him of homosexuality; each dated women; and each stressed that his orientation was not caused by childhood sexual abuse.
“For the record, I’ve never been sexually molested,” said Kopstick. “I had a very positive childhood.”
Three of the men came out in their twenties, much to their own surprise.
“I’m a hardcore Miami Dolphins fan,” said Oliver, a past student president of Yeshiva University’s Sy Syms School of Business, who asked that his last name not be published. “I work in finance and vote Republican. How am I gay?”
During the 2008 election Oliver was also the YU student who brought candidate Mitt Romney, who is Mormon, to Yeshiva University.
The panel was open to lesbian students as well, though the organizer said there were no takers.
Aside from the large crowd, perhaps the most surprising aspect of the event was that when the panelists spoke about their own experiences, they described friends and family standing by them, albeit some with reservations.
“There are faces that I see in this crowd,” said Joshua, a YU alumni who also asked that his last name not be published. “They probably don’t know it — but they are definitely the reason that I am alive today.” Fellow YU students dealt with the fact of his homosexuality like “complete mentsches,” Kopstick said.
The event generated some negative reactions; posters that drew a connection between the event and bestiality were placed around the campus, according to one panelist. A fire alarm sounded midway through the second presentation but the panel continued.
A letter signed by a number of Roshei Yeshiva about the event was available on the Tolerance Club’s Facebook page.
“The Torah requires that we relate with sensitivity to discreet individuals who feel 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,’ the letter said. ‘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 reaffirmed.’
On Friday, YU President Richard Joel and Rabbi Yona Reiss, Menahel of Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary (RIETS), released a statement declaring that while the issue demanded sensitivity, it “cannot be allowed to erode the Torah’s unequivocal condemnation of such activity.”
On Monday afternoon, Rabbi Mayer Twersky, a rosh yeshiva, interrupted the regular schedule of Torah study in the Beis Medrash for an unusual session in which declared that the event the previous week had been a “chillul Hashem,” [desecration of G-d's name] and a “travesty.”
“What if someone will come and ask us for a forum for people such as himself and he’ll tell us that he has a tremendous lust for his neighbor’s wife?” Rabbi Twersky asked according to a recording provided to the Jewish Star.
“Appropriate sympathy is correct and warranted but it’s a travesty when that sympathy is cynically manipulated and exploited to create a legitimization, to create a new category of a Jew who should be able to come out of the closet and identify himself as oriented towards Toeva [an abomination],” Rabbi Twersky explained.
He said that the entire Yeshiva University was implicated because of the panel, which in his words was subtitled, “Being gay in YU.” He exhorted the students to repudiate the event.
“Everyone on every layer and every segment of our constituency has to work together to try and undo and repair that chilul Hashem,” Rabbi Twersky said.
Nava Billet, a Yeshiva University Presidential Fellow at the Wurzweiler School, opened the event with words of praise from her father, Rabbi Herschel Billet, of the Young Israel of Woodmere (Photo by Michael Orbach/The Jewish Star).
Nava Billet, a Yeshiva University Presidential Fellow at the Wurzweiler School, opened the event. She cited an e-mail she received from her father, Rabbi Herschel Billet of the Young Israel of Woodmere, about the program. Rabbi Billet congratulated Yeshiva University on having the panel. She said he had called it “courageous” and “the right thing,” to discuss what he called a “reality of life that we Orthodox must face.” He mentioned that he has counseled families who have children who are openly gay.
“[Those people in the community who are] blind must be led by those who can see,” she quoted her father as saying. [Ed. note: read an Op-Ed by Rabbi Herschel Billet here]
Articles about homosexuality in two student newspapers on the Wilf campus, Kol Hamevaser, and the Commentator, led to the panel discussion, according to Rabbi Blau.
“[It was] a call to be taken seriously and to be heard,” he said.
Joshua was the most powerful and charismatic speaker of the evening. Soft-spoken and calm, he drew laughter as he acknowledged dating many of the girls in the audience. He studied at YU and is also an alumnus of Yeshivat Gush Etzion. He couldn’t admit to himself that he was gay, until he realized he was in love with a male friend.
“I could envision nothing. No future. The whole future that we hope for — raising a family, [the future] of Jewish existence, all melted away,” he said when he realized he was gay. “Almost overnight, I had gone from being ‘us’ to being ‘them.’”
He remains frum, he said; coming to terms with his sexuality has helped him.
“I no longer feel like a conflicted self. I have benefited from reading articles in Tradition and online. I feel more comfortable putting on tefillin and tzitzis and davening three times a day, now that I’ve just accepted sometimes life will be full of contradictions. This is the part of the person that I am.”
During the Q and A that followed the speeches, Joshua elaborated.
“Gay men and women in general don’t have a monopoly on having issues withfrumkeit,” Joshua said.
Mordechai Levovitz, another speaker, is a descendant of the famed Rav Yeruchom Levovitz, mashgiach of the Mir Yeshiva in Poland until his death in 1936. He recalled being thrown out of Camp Munk as an adolescent.
Mordechai Levovitz, descendant of the famed Mir mashgiach, during a panel discussion called "Being Gay in the Modern Orthodox World" held at Yeshiva University (Photo by Michael Orbach/The Jewish Star).
“[Rabbi Munk] takes off a book from the shelf by a rabbi who happens to be my father’s great-uncle and he says, ‘There’s no natural desire for homosexuality. It must be that it’s only rebellion against G-d and it only happens after you’ve explored every other taivah [temptation].’ Then he looked at me. I was ten.”
Since graduating from Yeshiva University, Levovitz helped found JQYouth, which stands for Jewish Queer Youth. He described the group as an “agenda-less” support group of gay and lesbian Jews who come from religious backgrounds.
“Some are trying still to change, some who are gay and live with a gay lifestyle and some struggling still,” he said.
In a telephone interview on Thursday, Levovitz said he was happy with the outcome of the panel discussion.
“I feel less alone,” he said. “People not only wanted to hear the story but wanted to be given a venue to show their support. We opened up a safe space to discuss this issue.”
Dr. David Pelcovitz, a psychologist, was the final speaker. “We can’t judge until we stand in their shoes,” he said. “Validation and agreement are two different things.”
He also offered a distinction between the homosexual tendencies the speakers described having, and active homosexuality. “Feeling isn’t doing,” he said.
Afterward, Sarah Lazaros, a Stern student from the Boston area who attended Maimonides, recalled two gay students in that school.
“There was a lot of animosity and a lack of support for them,” she said. “Neither of them are religious now.” She added that she knew a “couple of lesbians at Stern who didn’t have the courage to come out” to the event.
Jonah Shulman, a YU graduate, said that the panel discussion had changed his perspective, but only to a limited degree.
“I really sympathize,” he said, then clarified: “Our hands are [tied]. We have barriers and I believe that.”
During a question and answer session that followed the panel discussion, Rabbi Blau declined to discuss his own rationale for participating. Anyone who wished to discuss the matter with him, he pointed out, would know where to find him the next morning in the yeshiva. Afterward though, in conversation with a reporter, Rabbi Blau explained.
“I don’t believe by denying an issue, it goes away.”
This is an update of an article that first appeared online on Dec. 24, 2009. This version of the report appears in the print edition for Jan 1, 2010.