I have no recollection of any major student protest the many years I was at the Yeshiva University main campus. I was not unique. YU, unlike some other universities, rarely had protests. While at YU, one of the protests that I did hear about involved Rabbi Soloveitchik (the Rav) in the late 1960s objecting to the change of status of the yeshiva to become a university. I did not think much of it, since I thought it had no practical effect. Years later, after the New York County Supreme Court Judge’s decision in the YU Pride Alliance case, I realized I was wrong. The Court relied upon the change in status as grounds to apply the New York City Human Rights Law (NYCHRL) to YU. I then investigated to learn about the protest involving the Rav.
In 1897, YU had been incorporated as the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary Association (REITS) to promote the study of Talmud. In December 1967, YU changed its certificate of incorporation to continue as an educational corporation under the Education Law of the State of New York. There appeared to be little discussion or opposition to the change.
In December 1969, YU filed a petition with the Board of Regents. The plan was to “spin off” REITS from YU to be a separate entity. Various degrees with religious connotations such as Master of Religious Education would be eliminated. There was a backlash to this proposal. A student organization, Concerned Student Coalition, consisting of students from Yeshiva College and Stern College, protested the change.
The culmination occurred on April 12, 1970, when two hundred students protested at the main campus. It would have been more, but the Rav discouraged the protest. However, the Rav publicly indicated his support for their goals.
It is not mere coincidence that this happened in April 1970, a month before the killing of four students by the National Guard at Kent State. There was a new mood of activism on college campuses. While many of the students at other colleges were protesting the war in Vietnam, these students were protesting what they believed was the YU administration’s war on Torah.
While the protests were happening, the Rav spoke at the “Torah of the Seventies” program in the main building. The speech was reported in detail in the April 15, 1970, edition of The Observer, the Stern College newspaper. I relied upon the paper’s description in detail of the speech. Fifty-two years later, the Rav’s comments look prophetic.
The Rav regretted not speaking out earlier (1967) about the change in the school’s status, but felt there was still time at this stage to stop these changes.
The Rav was frightened about Yeshiva College and Stern College being reorganized as a completely secular institution to receive money per instructions of a regent in Albany. You cannot rely upon assurances made in Albany that nothing will change. For example, what right would YU have to require Shabbos observance in the dormitories? Enforcement of dietary laws has the same problem. “Would the Board of Regents accept the regulation of Talmud classes from nine to three? What if Harvard introduced the regulation that all math or chemistry majors study Latin or Greek from nine to three?”
The New York Supreme Court relied upon the changes in the school’s charter made in 1967 to determine that it was not a religious institution under the NYC administrative Code. The Court ruled that YU had no right to prohibit the YU Pride Alliance, as a LBGTQ club, at Yeshiva College. The rules apply to YU as it does to other secular educational institutions.
The Rav mentioned that all you need is one student to make trouble for the yeshiva. There are plenty around who would want to make trouble.
A lawsuit was brought by one current and three former students who were allowed to meet as a group but wanted formal recognition to engage in an agenda against the yeshiva’s religious beliefs.
The Rav lamented, “I have given 29 years of my life to Yeshiva, and I don’t want to see everything that has been achieved during that time destroyed by the brutal hand of Albany.”
The Court of Appeals, the highest court in New York State, is located in Albany.
Another issue the Rav had was with the graduate schools. Cardozo School of Law was not yet in existence. The Rav stated that “The graduate schools - if they do not wish to submit to the good of Yeshiva - they may have their walking papers. We cannot take orders from Belfer, Ferkauf and Einstein. I would rather lose all three of them than lose the beautiful student body of Yeshiva University.”
I cannot speak for the other graduate schools. However, Cardozo’s position has been contrary to Yeshiva University’s in the litigation. In other words, Cardozo is refusing to “submit to the good of the Yeshiva.” The Court, in its decision, cited a letter from Cardozo faculty to the YU president, which argued that YU is a non-sectarian institution of education and that they are bound by discrimination laws based on sexual orientation. The faculty also boasted about Cardozo’s policy toward LGBTQ while criticizing Yeshiva University’s.
Although the situation right now seems difficult for Yeshiva University, another part of the speech gave me hope. The Rav, in commenting about the protestors, stated, “They are the finest bunch of boys and girls whom I have met in 40 or 50 years. They are sensitive, intelligent, committed and ready to give of themselves. They are not rabble rousers. They wanted to demonstrate. For what? For visitation privileges in the dormitory, freedom to use narcotics, or less restrictions? No. They wanted to picket for more restrictions, for more Torah and for longer hours.” I also knew such individuals while in YUHS and Yeshiva College. I am sure there are still some at the Yeshiva today. Their numbers have been and always will be greater than those on the other side.
One thing that we can learn from the Rav’s speech is that actions have consequences. It might not happen right away. YU was fortunate that nothing happened for fifty years. Thus, in making choices, it is not enough to conclude that if nothing bad has happened then we are on the right path. We must constantly reevaluate our past actions and think about how to proceed in the future.
G’mar chasimah tovah.
By Warren S. Hecht