New Y.U. Tolerance Club Enjoys Mixed Reception
The student body at Yeshiva College, the men’s undergraduate school at Yeshiva University, is comprised almost entirely of observant Jews who split their studies between academics and traditionally Jewish learning. Located at the northern tip of Manhattan, the school is a relatively homogeneous island in a wildly diverse city.
This year, one group of students at the college determined that the school’s lack of diversity has fostered significant insensitivity to those outside of the mainstream Y.U. culture. To confront this trend, the students founded a Tolerance Club, aimed at promoting the notion of tolerance within the Orthodox community. Their reception at Y.U. has been decidedly mixed.
When Avi Kopstick and a few friends started the club last semester, they weren’t sure exactly what form it would take. “Our first meeting had about 15 students, all with different goals,” said Kopstick. “We couldn’t decide if we should be a support center where people who didn’t fit into any social group could hang out, or an activist group that spread messages.”
The club published a newsletter for the entire student body in November, explaining that its mission was to spread “the notion that every person, within Y.U. and without, deserves to be treated with dignity and respect.” The newsletter also featured articles by several Y.U. administrators and student leaders supporting the principle of tolerance. Says Kopstick, “We wanted to teach people that the world doesn’t look exactly like Y.U.”
Next, the club launched an initiative they called the Nice Campaign. Members hung up posters around the Yeshiva College campus and sent emails to all students asking them “to perform small, random acts of niceness in order to promote a greater cohesiveness on campus.”
Their activities have given rise to some resentment. “Before we officially began there was already word being spread that there would be a club that is sensitive to homophobia,” said Kopstick. “Because of this, once we got started many perceived the club as a ‘gay club.’” According to Yeshiva College’s student newspaper, The Commentator, one panel discussion organized by the group was cancelled after administrators objected to one of the speakers, a gay Orthodox rabbi.
This perception of the club as promoting tolerance of homosexuals is problematic, as homosexuality is a touchy subject in the Orthodox Jewish community. While the Bible’s command to “love the stranger” (Deuteronomy 10:19) frames Orthodox Jews’ interactions with other cultures and individuals, Orthodox Jews are also acutely aware of the Bible’s classification of homosexual intercourse as an “abomination” (Leviticus 18:22).
In an official statement recorded in The Commentator, the Tolerance Club announced that although it “recognizes that homophobic discrimination is significant… it is by no means the only or most important topic.” But rumors still persist. “Really, it’s kind of fine with me if people think that this is a gay club,” said Kopstick, “because that means they think that a gay club exists on campus.”
Others resent the implication that Yeshiva students on their own are incapable of understanding the outside world. “Though we have chosen to come to the relatively closed environment that is Yeshiva, we do so with full consciousness of the world around us,” said Tani Cohn, a senior writer for The Commentator and editor of Gesher, Yeshiva’s student journal of academic Jewish studies. “We have come to Yeshiva, not to close ourselves off, but to place ourselves within the most conducive environment for both Torah learning and academic study.”
Despite the scattered resistance to the Tolerance Club, many at Yeshiva Universitly have supported its mission. Its Google group, which is only open to Yeshiva University students, has over 90 members, while its Facebook group, open to all, has 115.
The club’s popularity has even spread to Stern College, Yeshiva University’s undergraduate college for women. “I joined the Tolerance Club because I believe that the student body needs be pushed to open their minds and think beyond their personal experiences,” said Esther Shechtman, president of the Stern branch of the Tolerance Club.
Dr. Victor Schwartz, University Dean of Students, supported the club from its very inception. “I think any relatively small, self-enclosed and relatively homogeneous community is likely to result in the highlighting of those perceived to be ‘in’ the community and those on the outside,” he said. “So while this does not necessarily result in intolerance to others, it certainly can.”
“As we engage with the outside world,” Schwartz said, “we should be cognizant of the fact that other people may be both more like us than we imagine and sometimes more different than we might imagine.”