Orthodox Jews relieved by ‘Yale 5′ loss

A line from the bar mitzvah ceremony best sums up the reaction of the Yale Orthodox Jewish community to a recent ruling that will likely mark the end of the legal saga of the so-called “Yale Five,” which brought internal controversy and external scrutiny to their community.

“Blessed are you O Lord, master of the universe for having absolved us of responsibility for this one’s actions,” it reads.

A Dec. 28 ruling by the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a 1998 U.S. District Court decision stating the plaintiffs could have chosen to attend another university if they felt Yale’s housing policy violated their religious convictions. The ruling has probably ended the students legal battles, much to the relief of the Yale Orthodox Jewish community.

The original suit filed in October 1997 charged that Yale’s housing policy, which requires unmarried freshmen and sophomores to live on campus, was discriminatory against Orthodox Jews and violated the Sherman Anti-Trust Act because it tied together two businesses — education and housing. The suit also claimed Yale could not base its policy on the basis of being a private university because Yale has a long-standing historical relationship with the State of Connecticut.

Neither Elisha Hack ’01, the sole member of the group still enrolled at Yale or the group’s lawyer, Nathan Lewin, responded to requests for comment.

“I can’t tell you how bored I am and how bored I and everyone else is with this whole subject,” said Isaac Meyers ’01, a member of the Orthodox Jewish community who was a freshman at the time of the dispute, expressing hope that the issue would finally be laid to rest.

The controversy began in the spring of 1996 after three Orthodox Jewish freshmen, Elisha Hack ’01, Batsheva Greer ’00 and Rachel Wohlgelernter ’00, asked to be exempted from the University’s policy about living on campus, a policy which had been adopted a year before. They claimed living in coed dorms was a violation of the Jewish notion of modesty between the genders, and thus, untenable for them as religious Jews.

As negotiations between the students and the University began to break down, the three retained the legal counsel of Lewin, a prominent Washington, D.C. civil rights lawyer who had championed Orthodox Jews in several previous cases. They joined forces with two then-sophomores, Lisa Friedman ’00 and Jeremy Hershman ’00, who had been living off campus while paying for campus housing the previous year.

Hack, Greer and Wohlgelernter rejected a compromise from the University stipulating that they could have bathrooms within their campus suites on single-sex floors. Friedman and Hershman sought a refund for money they had paid for rooms they never occupied.

By the time Hack, Greer and Wohlgelernter arrived on campus in August 1997, their dispute with the administration and impending lawsuit had become a hot-button issue on campus. Within a few weeks, The New York Times reported on the impending lawsuit and the controversy became a national news item, forcing the Orthodox Jewish community into the spotlight.

“There was one particular week where a bunch of big networks and papers came to campus and walked around trying to interview a lot of people,” recalled Jedidiah Siev ’01, an Orthodox Jew from New Haven, who was a freshman that fall. “That fueled everything by asking what the Jewish community’s take on this was. Everyone wanted to claim that their view was that of the community, which led to a lot of argument. It was a little bit out of control.”

Yale Hillel decided not to adopt a position on the issue.

Responses to the Yale Five within the Orthodox community ranged from sympathetic to angry at the time.

“I never really knew or cared too much about the legal merits of the case; I supported them as a friend,” Siev said. “I had known some of them since I was three or four years old.”

Meyers recalled many Orthodox students were angry with the Yale Five.

“[Other Orthodox students felt they] were besmirching them by implying that anyone who did stay on campus was not modest and because they felt that they were giving Orthodox Jews a bad name — litigious, against diversity, not team players,” he said.

“There was a general sense among Orthodox students that the lawsuit was a sort of personal challenge, that they were under attack because [the five] were saying that you couldn’t be religious and live in the dorms,” Siev added.

Many Orthodox students tried to distance themselves from the Yale Five in the national media, claiming many Orthodox students could and did live in the residential colleges while adhering to the precepts of their faith. Saul Nadata ’01, who would have been Elisha Hack’s roommate, wrote a letter to The New York Times describing how he was able to live a full Jewish life at Yale.

Nadata and others sought to emphasize how accommodating the University had been of the needs of Orthodox students. Relations between the Orthodox community and the administration had, by all accounts, been harmonious in previous years. The administration had made numerous provisions for Orthodox students, which included the issuing of metal keys so that they would not have to violate the Sabbath by using electrical key cards to access their dorms.

“The publicity is bad. The truth is that Yale is a great place for Orthodox Jews,” Rabbi Michael Whitman, director of the Young Israel House at Yale told the News at the time. “The media has presented an inaccurate and unfair image of the Yale Jewish community.”

“One of my roles was to try to make sure that the community stayed united despite the difference of opinions,” he said.

Whitman published a column in the News in which he wrote that the case reflected only shallow divisions within the Orthodox community. All Orthodox students believed in a common sexual ethic and notion of modesty; the disagreement, he said, only extended to what he termed “secondary requirements of those issues.”

Whitman claims the effort was largely successful.

“Very absent was any kind of rancor or personal animosity,” he said.

While heated debate went on within the Orthodox community for a number of weeks, Siev said discussions eventually burned themselves out.

“Once the media were done running their stories about it, people started thinking about whether the Knicks were winning,” he said.

Opinion on campus was sharply critical after all the students except Wohlgelernter, who entered a civil marriage to gain exemption from the housing policy, filed suit Oct. 15, 1997.

In a Yale Daily News poll of over 600 students conducted two weeks later, 87 percent of respondents said they did not support the suit, in comparison with 11 percent who did.

Some campus conservatives rallied behind the five, said Meyers, out of the perception that the five were victims of political correctness.

University Chaplain the Rev. Frederick Streets also recalled expressions of sympathy for the Orthodox students from devout Christians “who were sensitive to the issue but chose to find a way in which they could accommodate a more secular environment.”

Although the on-campus furor eventually died down, Jewish students found themselves fielding questions about the case for months and years thereafter.

Magevet, the Jewish a cappella group, was deluged in questions about the case during their tours. When Meyers, who wears a skullcap all the time, transferred residential colleges in the middle of that year, an official of his new college asked him, “Are you going to sue us?”

“When I went home for Rosh Hashana that year, a lot of people at my synagogue asked me about the situation,” Sophie Oberfield ’01 said. “I didn’t know exactly what to say, so I said that living in the dorms was fine for me and fine for a lot of other Orthodox people.”

Even Streets did not escape the uproar.

“I would go out to deliver a lecture on a totally different topic, and people would always come up and ask me what this Yale Five thing was all about,” he said.

The lasting effects of the case on the Orthodox community are unclear. Although Whitman maintains that the case had no real adverse effect on the Orthodox community, Meyers believes there were fewer Orthodox students in incoming freshmen classes after the lawsuit. He describes the increasing difficulty of finding enough male Orthodox Jews for the quorum of 10 necessary for ritual prayer. Of the entire Class of 2003, only a single male participates in Orthodox services.

“My sense is that in the couple years after the case that it did do a little bit of damage [to the willingness of Orthodox students to apply] by creating a negative perception of Yale,” Siev said. “I don’t think it’s a long term thing.”

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