Yeshiva battle over gay club strikes at universitys heart

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NEW YORK — In an unlikely partnership shaping up at Yeshiva College, student advocates and opponents of a gay club on campus are planning to jointly petition the school's student council to charter a gay students club.

Students opposed to gay clubs "want to force the administration's hand and put them in a position where they have to take a stand against the club," said an incoming senior at Yeshiva College, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

A senior member of the Yeshiva University administration, who likewise asked not to be named, described the alliance as "a marriage of convenience."

However, sources say the student council of the predominantly Orthodox Jewish student body is unlikely to approve the club when the petition comes up in the fall.

The effort comes amid a continuing controversy over the sanctioning of gay clubs at Yeshiva University-affiliated schools by providing them with funding and space for activities.

Officially funded gay and lesbian student groups have existed at Yeshiva's Cardozo Law School and the Einstein School of Medicine for several years.

Both professional schools are located separately from the university's main campus in the Washington Heights section of Manhattan.

Informal groups of gay and lesbian students also gather at the university's Wurzweiler School of Social Work.

With Yeshiva College located at the main campus, near the rabbinical seminary and Judaic studies programs for men, the effort to create a gay club there brings the issue right to the heart of the university.

Y.U. officials say there is a psychological distinction between the presence of gay clubs at the professional schools, where there is a diverse student body, and such a presence on the main campus.

The clash over the gay clubs highlights the tension inherent in reconciling Orthodoxy with modernity. Yeshiva University has long been an ideological fountainhead of centrist Orthodoxy.

Its motto and underlying philosophy is "Torah U'maddah," which means that Torah, or Jewish tradition, can be integrated into a life embracing modernity.

Other segments of the Orthodox world tout a philosophy that increasingly eschews modernity. Those adherents distance themselves from what they view as the dangers of engagement with secular culture.

For some students, the issue is clear.

The Cardozo and Einstein gay clubs should not be sponsored by the university "because they seek to legitimize a lifestyle that is unacceptable according to the Torah," said Jeff Stier, co-editor of Cardozo's student newspaper.

"People like to say that this is about gay rights vs. religion, but it's really an issue of institutional schizophrenia," said Stier, who has vigorously campaigned against the clubs.

"People may call Torah U'maddah a paradox," he said, "but it's a paradox that can be justified using the truism that the Torah must come first if there's a conflict."

University officials said they are required to provide funding to a gay and lesbian students club just as they are to a black students club and Asian students club, because New York City's administrative code prohibits any publicly funded institution from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation.

The university changed all its schools' charters, except for the rabbinical school, in 1967, making them technically secular institutions so that they could gain access to state and city funding and benefits. University officials said they are "channeling" funds from student activity fees, rather than providing them directly.

Critics, however, decry the distinction as merely semantic.

Yet the fundamentally Jewish nature of Y.U.-affiliated schools seems clearly at odds with its technically nonsectarian status.

Even Cardozo, where about half the students are not Jewish, is closed on Shabbat and Jewish holidays, and only kosher food can be served at all functions, including at meetings of the Asian law student club.

"It shows the difficulty of trying to live in two worlds," said Marc Stern, co-director of the legal department of American Jewish Congress and a 1973 graduate of Yeshiva College.

"No question it's easier to live in one world only, but Y.U. has the burden of trying to balance the two."

Y.U. president Rabbi Norman Lamm declined to be interviewed, but he issued a statement.

"As a rabbi, I cannot and do not condone homosexual behavior, which is expressly prohibited by Jewish law," he said.

"But as president of a nondenominational institution that must accommodate people who reflect a wide range of backgrounds and beliefs, it is my duty to assure that the procedures of Yeshiva University conform to the applicable provisions of secular law."

Lamm has been publicly attacked for his position by Orthodoxy's right flank and by his own faculty.

Rabbi Chaim Keller, head of Chicago's Telshe Yeshiva, published a letter addressed to Lamm in the summer 1995 issue of The Jewish Observer, the magazine of Agudath Israel of America, which represents the fervently Orthodox.

"Whether the university funds or does not fund the clubs does not change the fact that their very existence on campus is an abomination," wrote Keller.

"It is indeed a sad day when someone who stands at the head of a century-old Yeshiva cannot have the moral courage of the Catholic Church."

Keller, who as a student attended Y.U.'s rabbinical seminary, warned Lamm that his stance would undermine the credibility of the university.

In addition, 24 of the university's most prominent rabbinical faculty members published an "open letter" to Lamm earlier this month in the Jewish Press and the Algemeiner Journal, two newspapers catering to the Orthodox community.

"We deplore and condemn the continued existence of these gay-lesbian groups," they wrote.

The controversy "has besmirched the name of our yeshiva and caused us untold embarrassment in addition to offending our most basic moral values as believing Jews."

Before issuing the letter to the media, the rabbis met with Lamm and "collectively worked out the language," according to a high-level Y.U. administration official.

Several days before the letter's release, a much stronger one demanding that Lamm take legal action to ban the clubs was sent privately to Lamm by most of the same faculty members, said the official.

At another law school that is part of a Jewish university, Touro School of Law, an officially sponsored club for gay and lesbian students has not generated the same controversy.

A gay club has existed at Touro for the last three years, according to Howard Glickstein, dean of the law school. It receives the same amount of funding as other clubs, between $200 and $500. Most of Touro Law School's students are not Jewish.

Touro University, which is based in Manhattan, was founded in 1970 by an Orthodox Jew, Bernard Lander, who was then the dean of graduate studies at Yeshiva University.

The undergraduate liberal arts college offers separate classes for men and women, in accordance with current Orthodox practice, and is populated almost exclusively by observant Jews.Touro also offers programs in the heavily Orthodox Flatbush section of Brooklyn to accommodate the needs of yeshiva students.