New Voices: Campus Report


The New Puritanism

Is Dorm Life At Yale Immoral?

By Jonathan Weinbach

Dr. Daniel J. Vitow could not believe what he was reading.

When Vitow, the man in charge of Long Island's Hebrew Academy of the Five Towns and Rockaway (HAFTR), went to a newsstand in late August to purchase a copy of the New York Jewish Week, he was delighted to see a picture of Yale sophomore Jeremy Hershman, a Cedarhurst, NY native and a HAFTR graduate, prominently featured in a page one article.

But Vitow's pride was short-lived. As he read on, Vitow realized that his former star pupil was not being honored for community service or lauded by an impressed professor. Instead, Hershman had been singled out because of the federal lawsuit he and four other Orthodox Jewish undergraduates were threatening to file against Yale in response to the University's refusal to exempt the students from a rule requiring all freshmen and sophomores to live on campus.

"This came to me as a shock," said Vitow, who oversees the secular education of more than 500 Orthodox teenagers as Principal of General Studies at HAFTR's high school. "I thought I was going to drop dead when I understood what [the students' complaint] was about."

The fallout from their complaint has been the subject of much media scrutiny during the early weeks of the 1997-98 school year. Representatives from press outlets such as The New York Times, Time, CNN, the Boston Globe, and The New Yorker have focused their gaze on New Haven this fall. All are eager to dive into a story that has both Jewish and non-Jewish communities buzzing with debates about diversity, religious freedom, and the power universities like Yale have to enforce housing requirements that may be unacceptable to minority groups.

According to Hershman, fellow sophomore and HAFTR graduate Lisa Friedman, and three freshmen: Batsheva Greer and Elisha Dov Hack of New Haven and Rachel Wohlgelernter of Los Angeles, Yale's housing policy creates a fundamental religious and moral dilemma. It forces them to reside in an atmosphere that is, as Hack wrote in a September New York Times op-ed piece, "contrary to the fundamental principles of Judaism lived according to the Torah and 3,000 year-old rabbinic teachings." More specifically, the on-campus rule requires them to live in co-educational dormitories, dormitories in which men and women can and sometimes do share bathrooms and (occasionally) bedrooms.

The vast majority of freshmen at Yale ‹ and nearly all of those who live on Old Campus, the central quad which houses freshmen from 10 of the school's 12 residential colleges ‹ live on single-sex floors. There are, however, no single-sex buildings and all-male floors are frequently situated above or below all-female floors. During sophomore year students frequently live on co-ed floors ‹ and share co-ed bathrooms ‹ unless they employ certain room draw methods to guarantee a single-sex environment.

For the students contemplating the suit, this intermingling between the sexes does not square with their interpretation of Jewish rules concerning modesty and privacy. And though none of the students has spent a night in a Yale dormitory, the group argues that the potential presence of alcohol, condoms, and immodest dress on Old Campus and in the colleges are, as Wohlgelernter explained, "symbolic of a moral looseness that doesn't fit in a Jewish scheme."

In order to avoid engaging in that moral looseness, the students ‹who have dubbed themselves "The Yale Five" ‹ are asking Yale to exempt them from the two-year on-campus requirement and, perhaps more importantly, the $6,800 annual fee that comes with it. After meetings with administrators last spring failed to produce an acceptable resolution, the students hired distinguished Washington attorney Nathan Lewin to represent them this fall. Lewin, who has argued a number of religious freedom cases before the Supreme Court, has been equally unsuccessful in gaining an exemption for the students from the administration.

The whole process has students, parents, rabbis, professors, reporters, and any number of other people asking different variations on the same question ‹ why the fuss?

Supporters of the five students, including Harvard Law Professor Alan Dershowitz, wonder why the university is being so stubborn. They point out that Yale's rules already provide housing exemptions for married undergraduates and students who are over 21 when they matriculate to Yale. Why, they ask, should religion be treated with any less respect than factors like age or marital status? Moreover, as Lewin pointed out to a group of students and New Haven community members during a September 23 speech at the Yale Political Union, Yale should recognize that "in this country people who are motivated by religious convictions are entitled to particular respect." For Lewin and his clients, "particular respect" should take the form of off-campus living.

For those aligned against the students' complaint, a group which includes many Orthodox Jews from both within and outside campus walls, the "Yale Five" case does not appear to be about religious freedom or religious convictions at all.

"This is not a moral issue. This is an issue about money," said HAFTR's Vitow. "No one was holding a gun to these kids' heads telling them they had to go to Yale. In recent years there has been a clear sense in the community that Yale has made a concerted effort to accommodate Orthodox Jews. Yale is saying that they have their own institutional well-being and costs to worry about. And that, I think, is a very rational approach to take."

The students' complaint has provoked a variety of reactions from the Yale Jewish community, though the vast majority of Jewish undergraduates ‹ be they Reform, Conservative, or Orthodox ‹ do not support the idea of a lawsuit. There is also concern that a suit would create a false impression of Jewish life at Yale.

"We have a minyan every morning, a Monday night Talmud class, a Tuesday night individual study program, a wonderful kosher kitchen ‹ and all of these are fueled by a population of Orthodox Jews who, like me, live in the dorms and choose to be a part of campus life," said Josh Feigelson, a senior from Ann Arbor, Mich. and former President of Yale Hillel. "[The Yale Five] want to avoid things which might stimulate 'impure thoughts' and which could distract them from their lifestyle."

Dan Reich, a Yale senior from Manhattan who attended the modern Orthodox Ramaz school, conceded that he understood the student's misgivings about entering dorm life. But he said that their unwillingness to enter the allegedly "immoral" realm of residential life while they eagerly take part in Yale's educational sphere struck him as contradictory. Mike Kestenbaum, a senior from New Jersey, echoed those sentiments.

"There are illustrations of sexual organs and discussion of sexual function in any reproductive biology class. Is the 'mere presence' of unclothed bodies and condoms any more immoral in a dorm than it is in a lecture hall?" Kestenbaum said. "These seem to be very hazy lines."

Jewish faculty members on campus have raised a related objection, claiming that the "Yale Five" have a skewed perception of what defines a secular, liberal arts university. In addition, the professors say, the students are wrongly attempting to shape Yale to fit their own demands.

Professor Paula Hyman, who held an administrative and academic post at the Jewish Theological Seminary before moving to New Haven to join the Yale history and religious studies faculties, called the students' claim "an inappropriate request."

"Yale is a private, secular institution, and these students knew that before they came and they know it now," said Hyman, who also chairs Yale's Judaic Studies Program. "Living on campus is a reasonable demand that a university can make on its students."

A sharper critique came from history professor Ivan Marcus, who as an undergraduate at Yale in the 1960s paid extra fees to receive kosher meals. "These students want to have both the advantages of Yale and change Yale ‹ they want to frame the university in their own image," said Marcus, an expert in medieval Jewish studies. "By deciding to come to Yale, these students have decided that they are ready to engage in situations that are not like the private, unique environments they are used to. And Yale has always been clear that books are only a part of the education ‹ it has always been about mixing and living with your classmates in the colleges."

The colleges Marcus refers to form the core of an on-campus housing system that in many ways helps define the "Yale experience." Yale has long prided itself on the Oxford-like setting of the colleges, where students and faculty members live, eat, and learn together in a community of scholars. In an age when well-intentioned "cultural houses" have exacerbated ethnic and racial separatism at universities across the country, Yale views the colleges as a uniquely open environment, an environment that forms an integral part of undergraduate education. So far, administrators have bristled at Lewin's suggestions that Yale's commitment to diversity mandates the university to waive its on-campus housing rule for his clients.

In a letter faxed to Lewin September 22, Yale's Deputy General Counsel William Stempel repeated what has become Yale's standard reply when questioned about this case: that while the University does not dispute the sincerity of the students' convictions, it cannot simply grant an exemption from what it views to be a central aspect of Yale's educational philosophy. Stempel's fax quoted Yale College Dean Richard Brodhead's September 11 letter to The New York Times: "To allow students to separate themselves from the full collegiate community would be to impoverish the residential college aspect of a Yale education. As important, [the Yale Five] would rob others of a chance to learn who they are and why their convictions require respect."

Lewin and his clients have countered Yale's claims by noting that if Yale regards on-campus living to be so crucial, then married students and underclassmen who are over 21 should also be forced to live in the dormitories. In addition, Lewin has called Yale's commitment to the colleges "phony" because, he says, the university could care less about where his clients live so long as they continue to pay the room charge. Last year, both Hershman and Friedman lived off-campus while their parents continued to write housing fee checks to the Yale bursar's office. By last June, however, Hershman and Friedman were under the impression that the bursar's office would not charge their families the housing fee for the 1997-98 school year.

But later in the summer, both families ‹ along with the three families of the incoming freshmen ‹ received word from Yale that they were expected to pay the full room payment even though their children would be living off-campus. Currently, four of the students are on "bursar's hold" because they have outstanding bills to the university, a situation which could prevent them from receiving credit for their work. The fifth, 19-year old Wohlgelernter, was able to persuade school officials to waive the room charge because her wedding is scheduled for December. In an odd twist to the case, Wohlgelernter recently went to New York City to take part in a civil marriage ceremony presided over by a secular judge. She is now officially married and, it would seem, without reason to sue Yale.

"I guess the name 'the Yale Five' is a bit of a misnomer," said Wohlgelernter, who spent last year at the Michlalah seminary in Jerusalem. "I'm involved to the extent that I want to be involved, but I'm not officially a litigant."

Batsheva Greer and Elisha Dov Hack are still litigants, but prior to 1996, Yale's on-campus housing requirement would not have posed a problem for either. Both first-year students are residents of New Haven, and as such they would have been eligible for what administrators referred to as the "townie exemption." In the past, Yale waived room and board fees for residents of the Elm City and allowed them to live at home and commute to school. This was the system that allowed Esther, Dov, and Chana Greer, Batsheva's older siblings, and Avi Hack, Elisha's older brother, to attend Yale and live at home without paying the annual $6,850 room charge. But last year the members of the Yale Corporation, the University's governing body, voted to do away with that policy beginning with the class of 2000. That move followed a 1995 Corporation decision to require all sophomores to live on campus.

During the course of the students' dispute with Yale, the voice of Batsheva Greer's father, Rabbi Daniel Greer, has been a consistent, and to some, suspicious presence. Rabbi Greer, a graduate of the Yale Law School and a former city administrator in New Haven and New York City, has been described by one Yale senior professor as a "troublemaker in New Haven for a long time." In 1995, Greer's Gan School used information from the Connecticut state attorney general's office to gain a headstart on fellow non-profit organizations who were seeking tax credits for corporate benefactors. Greer hired a Meriden, Conn. security firm to hold a space in line for his school after he received advance information about when and where the state's Department of Social Services would be receiving applications. The move generated state-wide headlines, as did Greer's 1995 appointment to Governor John Rowland's 16-member commission to create a school-voucher plan for Connecticut parents. Greer has been an outspoken critic of the public school system, and his suggestions for improving education have included providing public money to relgious institutions.

The letter he wrote on behalf of his daughter to Yale Chaplain Frederick J. Streets, a copy of which was included in an information packet distributed to members of the media, compared Yale's administrators to "the learned of Sodom and Gommorah." Several sources close to the individuals involved in the dispute have accused Greer and Harold Hack, the father of Elisha and Avi, of being "ringleaders" in this case, of encouraging their children to confront Yale in order to call attention to political ideas that have little to do with Yale or religious freedom.

"The [Greer and Hack] families have for some time been involved with activism on behalf of their interpretation of what direction Orthodox Judaism should be heading in," said a longtime acquaintance of Hack and Greer who declined to be identified for this story. "Both Rabbi Greer and Mr. Hack started out their adult lives as liberals, and both underwent a transformation, a disillusionment with liberalism. Their kids were raised to live in a secular world and exist in an Orthodox Jewish society. They have also grown up with their parents' agenda, which encourages them to be confrontational with the 'Sodom and Gommorah' of Yale."

While Rabbi Greer did not return phone calls, Mr. Hack admitted that he "did not want to go on and on" discussing his personal feelings on the case, and he "preferred to have his son do the talking." For her part, Wohlgelernter admitted that she would have been unlikely to pursue a lawsuit had it not been for the efforts of the Greer and Hack families. "It's definitely true that the Hacks and Greers are the ringleaders behind this," she said. "I certainly wouldn't have instigated this myself, and if it hadn't been for them, I probably would have paid the board fee and lived off-campus."

If nothing else, the combative stance Rabbi Greer, Mr. Hack, and their children have adopted in this case has been an effective tool in drawing attention to their complaint and to their battle with Yale. Their weakness for inflammatory language ‹ Greer's son Dov has compared the dorm atmosphere to "living in sin" ‹ wins them few friends, particularly among fellow Jews. But it has helped them gain what many politically-minded citizens dream of: national exposure.

It is exactly that national spotlight which has given rise to fears in the Jewish community that the Yale Five may be doing more harm than good for future Orthodox applicants. However Daniel Wohlgelernter, Rachel's father and a graduate of Yale medical school, dismisses these fears as unfounded.

"This shouldn't be looked at as strictly an Orthodox Jewish issue. Maybe it is time for Yale and other colleges to rethink the dynamics of the living environment in their dormitories," Wohlgelernter said. "Sometimes you have to push the envelope ‹ 50 years ago many Jews weren't able to get a job unless they were willing to work on Saturday ‹ and yes, sometimes your own co-religionists will resent that effort."

For educators like Dr. Vitow, the effort Wohlgelernter and his daughter are engaged in creates fears that for the thousands of devout Jewish teenagers who dream of attending Yale and other Ivy League schools, admission and social acceptance on campus will be harder to find.

"I really just want to be comfortable and have a clear conscience that the kids who knock themselves out during high school to go to places like Yale will not be put at a disadvantage because of this situation," said Vitow. "I've heard this same concern voiced by other principals and rabbis. We are worried about the ramifications that this may have on undergraduate and graduate admissions."

Given the media microscope that Yale is now operating under, many pundits and publications have suggested plans for how both sides can resolve the issue. Some, like Dershowitz, argue that Yale should simply provide an exemption for students with strong religious convictions. According to their line of argument, the housing quarrel is identical to debates Yale and other universities had regarding kosher food a generation ago.

Thirty-five years ago, Yale believed that communal dining was an indispensable part of the undergraduate experience. After some students confronted the administration, however, Yale relented and allowed Jewish students to eat kosher meals in a setting outside the residential colleges. Lewin has used this example to illustrate that the university did not crumble when it made that exemption, and it will not crumble if it exempts his clients.

Though it may have been considered equally important in the early 1960s, today communal eating is not held in the same esteem as communal living. Yale regards residential life on Old Campus and in the colleges to be as sacred as any institution or individual in the university. An outside observer need only look at Yale's overcrowded dining halls, inflexible meal plan and poor labor relations to realize that food is not a top university priority. But maintaining the integrity of the college system is a top priority, so much so that Yale plans to spend much of the $1.5 billion it raised during the recently-completed "...and for Yale" campaign to renovate neglected college facilities. It is not surprising that a close reading of Yale's statements and letters during the Yale Five ordeal reveals a degree of frustration with the Orthodox Jewish students, particularly with their continued unwillingness to even consider living in the dorms, if only for a night. In Stempel's letter to Lewin, the deputy general counsel writes,

I note that your clients have not had the experience of living on campus, and that other Orthodox Jews who have lived there have found it acceptable, with Yale's accommodations for them. Because you and your clients have been unwilling to discuss clearly and specifically what you see as the conflicts between their religious obligations (which they have discussed generally) and residence in a Yale dormitory (of which they have no first-hand knowledge), it has been impossible so far to explore a solution. However, we remain eager to work with you and your clients to do so.

As this case has shown, the university is leery of creating a "slippery slope" for its housing system by establishing a precedent that any strongly-held religious belief is enough to exempt a student from living on campus. If Yale says yes to the Orthodox Jews, the argument goes, then it will have to say yes to those who say their religion prohibits them from living near homosexuals or from attending lectures taught by "immodestly dressed" female professors. Even if that situation did not develop, professors say Yale has adequate reason not to begin making exceptions.

"Should every institution accommodate everybody's sensibilities?" asked Marcus. "The university would be in chaos if it bent over backward to accommodate everyone's sensitivities."

Unless the sides come to an agreement before Lewin officially files a lawsuit, it appears that the line between chaos and accommodation will be decided in court.

Jonathan Weinbach attended Sinai Akiba Academy in Los Angeles for nine years before moving to Beverly Hills High School and Yale University. For the past two semesters he has served as Executive Editor of the Yale Daily News.