Yale students lawsuit divides Orthodox community

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The New Haven, Conn., university requires unmarried freshmen and sophomores under 21 years old to live on campus.

When attempts to reach a compromise failed, the students filed a federal lawsuit Oct. 15 seeking repayment of dormitory fees and unspecified monetary damages as well as a court order that would allow them to live off campus.

Under the threat of disciplinary action by the university, the students are paying the nearly $7,000 housing fee for dorm rooms they do not use.

"Yale is denying rights that these students should have," said Nathan Lewin, the students' attorney.

"Yale offered no on-campus housing that was acceptable."

Lewin said he plans to argue that Yale should be treated as a state university because of its close ties to the state of Connecticut. Public universities have to meet a higher constitutional and legal threshold when it comes to religious accommodation, he said.

Yale officials said they are confident that they will win the case.

"The university believes that the lawsuit will be unsuccessful," said Tom Conroy, a Yale spokesman.

"The fact that the lawsuit has been filed doesn't change the university's posture at all," he added. "We are more than willing to work with the students to find a way for them to live on campus; nothing's changed on that front."

While many Jewish legal observers called the lawsuit a "longshot," Lewin said, "We're right and we're going to win."

Yale has made other accommodations for its some 60 other Orthodox students, including a kosher meal plan and alternatives for students who can't use electronic keys or turn on lights on Shabbat and holidays.

But the school has refused to budge on its requirement that the students live on campus.

One of the students, Elisha Hack, said Yale "did not want to look for the alternative."

Rabbi Daniel Greer, the father of one of the plaintiffs and the director of the New Haven Yeshiva, said the lawsuit is "a last resort."

"If you have coed bathrooms, it is impossible to live halachically [according to Jewish law]," he said.

In addition to claiming that Yale has violated their constitutional rights, the students also contend that Yale broke a contract made in its literature that it would not discriminate on the basis of religion.

In another argument, the lawsuit claims that the students could face felony charges for failing to report students who take photos and videos of sex acts by people under 18 years old.

"Sexual activity involving an unmarried male or female under the age of 18 is common in Yale's residential college dormitories," the lawsuit states.

While the students initially received widespread support in the Jewish community — both Orthodox and non-Orthodox — this support has waned.

Most Orthodox Jews on campus are not supporting the students — and the organized community is divided on the issue.

In fact, the top leaders of the Orthodox Union, the umbrella of Orthodox congregations, disagree with each other.

The O.U.'s Institute for Public Affairs labeled the lawsuit a "mistake," while at the same time, O.U.'s president, Dr. Mandell Ganchrow, reiterated his support for the students.

"If students want to lead a moral life that's prescribed by their Bible, [one] that was accepted before MTV came along, they should be given [that right]," Ganchrow said.

However, Ganchrow maintained that the best place for Orthodox students is at Orthodox institutions such as Touro College, Yeshiva University or Yeshiva's Stern College.

But Richard Stone, the chairman of the O.U.'s Institute for Public Affairs, said, "It's a serious mistake to have this matter in litigation."

"If there is no way for them to live on campus, if there is no accommodation for them, maybe these schools are not for everybody," said Stone who is also a professor of law at Columbia University.

Lewin, a prominent Washington attorney who has frequently represented Orthodox Jews in discrimination claims, said Stone is "just dead wrong."

For its part, Agudath Israel of America, representing the ultrareligious, is supporting the lawsuit.

"What's at stake is not just the rights of Orthodox students at Yale, but housing policies on campuses in the United States," said David Zweibel, the Agudah's director of government affairs and general counsel.

The lawsuit names as defendants Yale University, its president, Richard Levin; and Deans Richard Brodhead and Betty Trachtenberg.

The plaintiffs are Jeremy Hershman, a sophomore from Cedarhurst, N.Y.; Lisa Friedman, a sophomore from Lawrence, N.Y.; and first-year students Elisha Hack and Batsheva Greer, both from New Haven.

Another student, Rachel Wohlgelernter of Los Angeles, recently married in a civil ceremony in order to live off campus without fighting the school.

Wohlgelernter has an Orthodox wedding service planned for December.

For his part, Rabbi Michael Whitman, an Orthodox rabbi who serves as director of the Young Israel House at Yale, is upset by the lawsuit and has offered his services as a mediator.

He has asked for a pledge from the plaintiffs that they pursue their case without "maligning Orthodox students living in the dorms and without blatantly mischaracterizing life in the dorms for most students."

Hack responded, "By criticizing Yale, that doesn't mean I'm saying" that other Orthodox Jews on campus are "less Jewish than I am."