“Nothing About us Without Us” – YU and LGBTQ Representation on Campus

We, Too, Are YU’: Students March for LGBTQ Rights at Yeshiva University

Nearly 200 people attended the We, Too, Are YU March for LGBTQ Representation this past Sunday in New York City. Marchers wore “We, Too, Are YU” t-shirts and pride flag pins and carried signs and pride flags with the Star of David as they marched from nearby Bennett Park to the Yeshiva University campus.

Yeshiva University, an institution affiliated with Modern Orthodox Judaism, has struggled to reconcile biblical prohibitions of homosexuality with its increasingly diverse student body. Within Orthodox Judaism, some rabbinic opinions condemn homosexuality while others attempt to offer acceptance and tolerance to religious LGBTQ individuals. Past events at Yeshiva University have reflected both approaches, underscoring the institution’s struggle to resolve the issue of LGBTQ representation on campus.

Although organized by the College Democrats, an official Yeshiva University club, the event was not approved by the university’s Office of Student Life. Two local Jewish LGBTQ organizations, Eshel and Jewish Queer Youth, helped sponsor and organize the event. The College Democrats are demanding permission for a Pride Alliance club and LGBTQ events, a statement from Yeshiva University President Rabbi Dr. Ari Berman condemning homophobic rhetoric, the appointment of an administrator whose role it is to promote diversity on campus, and sessions about tolerance and acceptance of LGBTQ students at orientations.

In a recent statement, Berman wrote that “Yeshiva University strives to be a nurturing and inclusive environment for all our students, ensuring that every individual is treated with respect and dignity.” Berman has put together a committee of rabbis and educators “to address matters of inclusion on our undergraduate college campuses, which includes LGBTQ+.” The committee, he says, will “work on formulating a series of educational platforms and initiatives that will generate awareness and sensitivity and help our students develop a thoughtful, halakhic, value-driven approach to their interactions with the wide spectrum of people who are members of our community.” The statement links to Yeshiva University’s non-discrimination and anti-harassment policy, and says that “the University is committed to ensuring that no member of our administration, faculty, or student body harasses or discriminates against any student or employee.”

Mordechai Levovitz, founder and clinical director of Jewish Queer Youth, noted this statement in his speech at the march. He and other members of the LGBTQ community have criticized Berman for not including any LGBTQ individuals on his committee. During the rally, Levovitz led chants of “nothing about us without us” to protest Berman’s decision.

In the hours before the march, Yeshiva University students, alumni, and staff, as well as representatives from Eshel and Jewish Queer Youth, spoke to a crowd of supporters. Molly Meisels, president of the College Democrats and lead organizer of the march, came out as LGBTQ during the opening speech. “I’m not doing this as an ally, I’m doing this as a bisexual member of the community I am advocating for. I march because I didn’t feel comfortable coming out at YU until right now,” she said, prompting applause from the crowd.

A major frustration within the LGBTQ community is the offensive rhetoric often used by students and professors in classes, particularly those relating to Jewish law. “In my first few weeks at school, I was in a class where the rabbi said that sexual relationships such as incest, bestiality and homosexuality are all sins punishable by death in the Torah,” said Courtney Marks, a march organizer and a student at Yeshiva University’s Stern College, in a speech before the march. “He spoke as if people like me are evil and as if our lives do not matter. This is why I march!” she added, holding back tears.

Molly Meisels (left) and Courtney Marks (right) at the pre-march speeches in Bennett Park. (Credit: Leo Skier)

“I get paid to go to YU,” Joy Ladin, an openly transgender professor at Stern College, told the crowd in her speech. “But queer students are paying to be trashed in classes, to have humanity denied, to have halacha warped around values of homophobia and xenophobia and transphobia, rather than values that recognize that every kind of human being is created in the image of God.”

Ezra Felder, now studying at Columbia University, transferred out of Yeshiva University because of the intolerance he felt as an LGBTQ individual. “It became too much for me to stay in YU as a queer Jew,” he told Moment. “It was really difficult to be in a place where my queerness wasn’t able to be explored.”

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Yeshiva University – its The Gay Straight Alliance Refusal, and a Protest

Yeshiva University – The Gay Straight Alliance Acceptance Refusal and a Protest!

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Today I am proud to be participating in a student organized protest at @yeshiva_university The students, former students and their allies are protesting because the administration has refused to give permission for Gay Straight Alliance (!!!???) and has refused to host queer events. Their demands are as follows.

1. That President Rabbi Berman condemn homophobic rhetoric from faculty (!!??) and students.
2. Events involving LGBTQIA+ issues cannot be denied by the Office of Student Life or anyone else on the basis of them being gay (!!!!!!???)
3. An administrator whose job it is to promote diversity inclusion on campus just as YU’s Cardozzo’s School of Law has.
4. Orientation include sessions about LGBTQIA+ acceptance and inclusion.
5. YU students should be allowed to have a GSA.
_______________________
To any educator (person?) with a shred of dignity or concern for their students this would have happened years ago. On that note I want to say two things about todays protest. (1) The protest has nothing to do with the person harassed me on Sunday (2) I have made person decision to not do LGBQTIA+ activism within the orthodox Jewish space. This is because of my own trauma and I won’t answer any questions about it right now. I made an exception for today because one of the students reached out to me and if we are not supporting queer student organizers then LITERALLY what is the point.

ADDITIONAL READING.

It Feels Like My Own School Hates Me’: Yeshiva University Students Protest for LGBTQ Representation

NEW YORK — Hundreds of Yeshiva University students with rainbow flags and stars of David protested on campus Sunday, demanding better representation of LGBTQ students at the school.

“No more silence, no more fear! You are loved if you are queer!” they chanted in unison outside the university’s Mendel Gottesman Library on 185th Street and Amsterdam Avenue. They held colorful signs and wore custom T-shirts with the slogan “We too, are YU.”

The Yeshiva University College Democrats who organized the rally said that “for far too long, LGBTQ+ students have been forced into the closet by the administration,” and are blocked from hosting events and activities touching on LGBTQ issues.

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Students, Allies and Activists March for LGBTQ Equality

A group of more than 100 YU students, alumni, LGBTQ allies and activists converged on Washington Heights on Sunday morning, Sept. 15 to march for LGBTQ equality and representation at YU. Organizers demanded a statement from President Berman condemning homophobia on campus, approval of LGBTQ-related events on campus, the creation of a Gay-Straight Alliance Club at YU, the appointment of an administrator to ensure LGBTQ equality and an orientation session about inclusion and tolerance.

The march, which was organized by the YU College Democrats Club in conjunction with Eshel and Jewish Queer Youth (JQY) — two noted Jewish LGBTQ advocacy groups — began at Bennett Park with remarks from organizers and advocates. The group then marched to the 185th St. Pedestrian Plaza on YU’s Wilf Campus, where they gathered to chant and sing outside YU’s Mendel Gottesman Library. Following the event, marchers had a pizza lunch at Lake Como sponsored by JQY.

“JQY is proud to support the courageous students at YU who are standing up for dignity, safety, and representation,” said Mordechai Levovitz, a former YU student who serves as JQY’s co-founder and clinical director. “On the ten year anniversary of the historic YU Gay Panel — which JQY was honored to organize — this march is indicative of the amazing progress that has taken place among the student body. We wish the same could be said about the administration, which seems to have regressed to censorship, excluding queer voices from conversations about LGBTQ+ issues, and ignoring students’ requests for meetings.”

Though the event was organized by the YU College Democrats, the university itself did not sanction the march. “Yeshiva University strives to be a nurturing and inclusive environment for all our students, ensuring that every individual is treated with respect and dignity,” President Ari Berman said in a statement, noting the university’s pre-existing anti-harassment policy. Berman noted that prior to the march, he convened a team of rabbis and educators, led by Senior Vice President Josh Joseph, and tasked the panel with fostering initiatives to address matters of inclusion with respect to the YU community, including LGBTQ-related issues.

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The Child Victims Act Means Suits Against MTA (Yeshiva) Can Move Forward – It’s Time for Victims to Get Justice…

New Law in NY Allows Abuse Case Against MTA to Move Forward

In 2013, 34 former students of Yeshiva University’s high school for boys, Marsha Stern Talmudical Academy (MTA), sued the yeshiva alleging they were sexually abused over three decades by two rabbis and other school staff. In 2014, the case was dismissed by a New York District Court judge who cited an expired statute of limitations.

In February, 2019, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo signed into law the Child Victims Act (CVA), which changed the statute of limitations on criminal charges and civil lawsuits involving children. It opened a one-year window, which began on August 14, for new lawsuits to be filed on old cases, allowing adult survivors of child sex abuse to seek restitution. The CVA gave these alumni the opportunity to have their case heard, and they filed suit once again, joined by several other men, totalling 38 current plaintiffs.

The lawsuit alleges the plaintiffs were victims of child sex abuse perpetrated by Rabbis George Finkelstein and Macy Gordon, and three unnamed individuals at MTA, over a 30-year period from the 1950s to the ’80s. Rabbi Gordon is now deceased and Rabbi Finkelstein lives in Israel.

Jay Goldberg, a 53-year-old software developer who lives in West Orange, has joined the lawsuit alleging that he was a victim of abuse at the hands of Rabbi Finkelstein while a student at MTA in the early 1980s. Goldberg’s goal, he said in an interview with The Jewish Link, is “to help the people who aren’t ready to get help, who have been abused and are stuck in a situation where they feel they can’t do anything.”

“If anything comes out of this, I would like it to be if only one, 10, 100 victims who wouldn’t have felt comfortable getting help, will get help. It is not about rehashing the facts, it’s about helping others in similar situations get the help they need.”

He stated emphatically that he does not want to be suing Yeshiva University. “I am not out to destroy YU,” he added.

According to Goldberg, it is not the facts of the case that are in question. “The only issue in question is ‘Are they responsible for what happened 30 years ago?’” he noted. The current law in New York seems to answer that question in the affirmative.

Goldberg’s hope is that this lawsuit will help to end the stigma of child sex abuse for survivors. He feels that most people do not know how to deal with abuse victims.

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Political Ambitions, Mesira, Lack of Education – a Culture of Sexual Abuse in Orthodox Judaism- How Many Victims?

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Secrets and Lies

Sexual abuse in the world of Orthodox Judaism

In 1973, when Barry Singer was a fifteen-year-old student at New York’s Yeshiva University High School for Boys, the vice principal, Rabbi George Finkelstein, stopped him in a stairwell. Claiming he wanted to check his tzitzit—the strings attached to Singer’s prayer shawl—Finkelstein, Singer says, pushed the boy over the third-floor banister, in full view of his classmates, and reached down his pants. “If he’s not wearing tzitzit,” Finkelstein told the surrounding children, “he’s going over the stairs!”

“He played it as a joke, but I was completely at his mercy,” Singer recalled. For the rest of his time at Yeshiva, Singer would often wear his tzitzit on the outside of his shirt—though this was regarded as rebellious—for fear that Finkelstein might find an excuse to assault him again.

Jay Goldberg, who attended Yeshiva from 1980 to 1984, says that he endured years of sexual, emotional, and physical abuse from Finkelstein. The rabbi, he said, forced him and others to wrestle with him while he became sexually aroused, and demanded that they hit him repeatedly. Neither Goldberg nor Singer ever reported Finkelstein’s behavior to the school; when one student, identified in a future lawsuit as John Doe 14, finally did, in 1986, Finkelstein allegedly pulled him out of class in a rage, shoved him against a wall, punched him, and threatened him with expulsion. The school took no action during those years other than removing Finkelstein’s office door. In 1991, he was promoted to principal.

During those same decades, another Yeshiva rabbi, Macy Gordon, was also reportedly sexually abusing students. One accuser, identified in the lawsuit as John Doe 2, claims that Gordon sodomized him in his dorm room in 1980. The rabbi “said he was going to punish me for missing class,” the accuser told me. “He laid me across his lap and took my toothbrush and plowed it in and out of my rectum, and it burned. I remember it burned for a very long time after. I can’t go back in time and tell you what I was thinking, but I can only tell you that it lasts forever.” He told me that Gordon also sprayed Chloraseptic on his genitals, remarking that he showed “signs,” by which Gordon meant signs of puberty. Later that year, John Doe 2 tried to kill himself.

In total, Finkelstein and Gordon are suspected of hundreds of acts of sexual abuse at Yeshiva, though they never faced any legal repercussions. Finkelstein was discreetly forced out of Yeshiva in 1995 but quickly found work as the dean of a Jewish day school in Florida and later as the director general of the Great Synagogue in Jerusalem, although allegations of abuse followed him to each of these new positions.

Gordon, for his part, enjoyed a thirty-plus-year career at Yeshiva. He also eventually moved to Jerusalem, where, according to the New York Times, he served alongside Finkelstein on the advisory board of the National Council of Young Israel, an organization promoting Orthodox Judaism to liberal American Jews. (The current president of the organization claims that neither rabbi had been involved with the group “to my knowledge.”) In 2002, Dr. Jonathan Zizmor—a celebrity dermatologist whose advertisements were a staple of New York City subway cars for decades—set up a $250,000 scholarship fund in Gordon’s name for future generations of Yeshiva students. (Zizmor claims he knew nothing of the abuse at the time, and when allegations surfaced, he maintained that Gordon was “a great teacher, a great man.”)

In 2013, thirty-four of Finkelstein’s and Gordon’s victims—including Singer, Goldberg, John Doe 14, and John Doe 2—filed a $680 million lawsuit against Yeshiva, alleging that sexual misconduct occurred for decades with the knowledge of the administration and without recourse for victims or punishment for the perpetrators. But by the time the suit was filed, the statute of limitations had expired, and the case was dismissed.

This past February, however, the governor of New York, Andrew Cuomo, signed the Child Victims Act (C.V.A.), which modifies the state’s statute of limitations such that many cases previously dismissed because of the length of time since the alleged crime can now be relitigated. As of this writing, attorneys for the former Yeshiva students—now numbering forty-one—planned to refile the lawsuit with new evidence on August 14, the day the law was scheduled to go into effect. Their hope, one of the attorneys, Michael Dowd, told me, is for Yeshiva to “finally be held accountable for their craven, repugnant, and unconscionable behavior in letting known sexual predators have unfettered access to scores of innocent and unsuspecting boys.” But even if they succeed, it’s far from certain whether the C.V.A. will be able to fundamentally change the culture of secrets and lies that has given rise to scandals such as the one at Yeshiva in the first place.

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Jewish Organizations and the Allegations of Child Sexual Abuse, Victims Should be ENCOURAGED to Come Forward

Team USA volleyball player Sarah Powers-Barnhard speaks in support of the Child Victims Act on March 14, 2018 at the New York State Capitol in Albany, New York.  Getty Images

Through ‘Lookback Window,’ Jewish Orgs Face Retribution for Child Sex Abuse

As child abuse cases against yeshivas mount following a one-year lookback provision, questions turn to legal strategy. Are their fears of bankruptcy warranted?

When a one-year lookback provision created by New York’s new Child Victims Act opened last month — temporarily lifting the statute of limitations on civil child sex abuse cases and allowing survivors of any age to pursue justice through the courts — youth-serving institutions across the state braced for legal fire.

Now, just weeks after the lookback clause went into effect, Jewish institutions across the denominational spectrum are facing legal retribution for allegedly mishandling allegations of child sexual abuse, with claims reaching as far back as the 1950s. In the handful of cases filed thus far, prominent defendants include the National Ramah Commission, the Conservative movement’s camping arm; the Conservative movement’s flagship rabbinical school, Jewish Theological Seminary; Modern Orthodoxy’s flagship institution, Yeshiva University; prominent Modern Orthodox day school Salanter Akiba Riverdale High School (SAR); prominent Modern Orthodox day school Westchester Day School; Yeshiva Torah Temimah, a Brooklyn-based ultra-Orthodox school with a branch in Lakewood N.J.; Oholei Torah, a prominent Chabad yeshiva in Brooklyn; and Temple Beth Zion, a legacy Reform congregation in Buffalo.

Claims leveled against these institutions include negligence in stopping or preventing sexual abuse; breach of fiduciary duties; and the intentional infliction of emotional distress against survivors of childhood sex abuse. Though details among the cases vary, leadership across institutions are alleged to have known about predatory behaviors and failed to act; helped alleged abusers gain entry to other youth-serving institutions; and engaged in intimidation tactics to prevent victims from coming forward.

Yeshiva Torah Temimah, an all-boys charedi school based in Brooklyn, faces a new lawsuit for covering up the alleged sexual abuse perpetrated by Rabbi Yehuda Kolko, who taught at the school from the 1960s throughout the ’80s. Four ex-students previously sued the school, charging Kolko molested them from ages 11 to 13; at the time, the state court tossed the cases after determining claims fell outside the statute of limitations then in place.

(L-R) Barry Singer, Jay Goldberg, David Bressler three of the plaintiffs in the suit against Yeshiva University at a recent press conference announcing their suit against YU. Hannah Dreyfus/JW

(Previously, the school agreed to pay an unprecedented $2.1 million to two former students who accused Kolko of sexually assaulting them. Details of the secret settlements emerged in 2016 when the school failed to make payments. The case marked the first time a New York yeshiva paid off alleged victims of sex abuse, experts said. Kolko, now 72, received a controversial plea deal from then-Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes in May 2012 after pleading guilty to two misdemeanor counts of child endangerment; he did not have to serve jail time or register as a sex-offender.)

Now, the case is being revived under the Child Victims Act. Alleged victim Baruch Sandhaus filed a complaint in Brooklyn Supreme Court last month, alleging that Kolko and another rabbi on staff “would inappropriately touch” his private parts on various occasions between 1978 and 1980, when he was a student at Torah Temimah.

Hank Sheinkopf, a spokesperson for the yeshiva, said the alleged events occurred “40 years ago” and so have no connection to the current administration.

“Why would a new administration know anything about what took place decades ago?” he told The Jewish Week in a phone conversation. “It’s not going on today.” The school, he said, is “financially capable of dealing with a lawsuit” and will “continue to function and turn out Torah-trained young people.”

Sheinkopf referred to the new roster of lawsuits — including the revived case against Torah Temimah — as “a trial lawyer game to make a lot of money.”

As cases begin to play out — a process that could take years — precedents set in other states that have adopted similar lookback provisions might provide a blueprint for what institutions, and survivors, might expect, lawyers say.

“So far, every religious institution I’ve sued has told its constituents that lawsuits would lead to bankruptcies,” said Patrick Noaker, the attorney representing plaintiffs in a new lawsuit filed last week in Kings County Supreme Court against the Chabad boys yeshiva, Oholei Torah.

Yeshiva Torah Temima in Brooklyn, NY. Wikimedia Commons/Jim.henderson

Noaker said the passage of the Child Victims Act won’t make it any easier for alleged victims to win cases. “Sometimes the time that has passed can make it hard to find witnesses and evidence that the school knew or should have known that children were in danger. We also have to prove damages,” he said. “The only thing the Child Victims Act does is open the court room doors. We still have to prove our case like any other,” he said.

“The only thing the Child Victims Act does is open the court room doors. We still have to prove our case like any other.

In February, shortly after the Child Victims Act bill passed, Agudath Israel of America — a large charedi umbrella group that long advocated against the bill alongside the Catholic Church and Boy Scouts of America — issued a statement warning its constituents that the look-back provision “could literally destroy schools, houses of worship that sponsor youth programs, summer camps and other institutions that are the very lifeblood of our community.”

Rabbi Avi Shafran, director of public affairs for Agudath Israel, told The Jewish Week this week that “the fears certainly continue,” though he was not aware of how many suits had been filed against yeshivas.

For Noaker, a Minneapolis-based lawyer who represented plaintiffs in a host of lawsuits against Catholic dioceses in Minnesota after the state passed a three-year lookback window in 2018, the line is familiar.

The argument is straight-up manipulation.

“The Catholics said lawsuits would shut down hospitals and homeless shelters — it never happened,” said Noaker. “The argument is straight-up manipulation.”

Though several of the cases he litigated did contribute to dioceses in Minnesota filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in order to settle hundreds of claims of sexual abuse at the hands of priests, not one diocese ceased to function because of the financial decision.

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More on the Child Victims Act here.

Child Victims Act Look-back Window in Second Month – Now is Your Chance to Get Closure, Restitution, Understanding..

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38 Ex-Students Accuse Orthodox Rabbis of Sexual Abuse at Yeshiva University High School in New York

(NEW YORK) — Thirty-eight former students of an Orthodox Jewish school in New York City operated by Yeshiva University sued Thursday over claims they were molested by two prominent rabbis in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s. The suit alleged the university failed to protect students at Yeshiva University High School for Boys and even promoted one of the rabbis to principal after receiving abuse reports.

A Yeshiva University spokesperson declined to comment, citing a school policy against speaking publicly about litigation.

The lawsuit is one of hundreds that have been filed over child sexual abuse allegations since last week, when New York state opened a one-year window for suits previously barred by the state’s statute of limitations.

During a press conference Thursday, three of the alleged victims, flanked by their lawyers, spoke about disturbing behavior they say went on for decades. “I didn’t even understand at the time that this was sexual abuse; I just knew that this guy was putting his hands all over me,” said Barry Singer, 61, speaking of one of the rabbis he said kept reaching into the boy’s pants, even in school hallways.

The Associated Press doesn’t typically identify people who say they are victims of sexual abuse unless they choose to be named.

One of the accused rabbis, Macy Gordon, died recently in Israel. The other, George Finkelstein, has denied the allegations.

Finkelstein was promoted from the school’s assistant principal to principal even after some of the boys’ parents reported the alleged abuse to school officials, the plaintiffs said. He also eventually moved to Israel, where he worked at Jerusalem’s Great Synagogue. Calls to the synagogue rang unanswered Thursday.

Thirty-four of the plaintiffs attempted to sue Yeshiva University for sexual abuse and facilitating sexual abuse in 2013 but the case went nowhere, because it was barred by the statute of limitations at the time.

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