In October of 1997, four Jewish Yale undergraduates (initially five) filed a federal law suit against Yale University charging that the school’s housing policy requiring unmarried freshmen and sophomores to live in coed dorms was discriminatory against Orthodox Jews. Required coed housing and being denied single-sex bathrooms was a violation of the laws and teachings of the Jewish concept of modesty and thus untenable to the plaintiffs.
Not that anyone appreciates a lawsuit, but Yale’s vitriol over this grievance was in a league of its own. The university despised the case and filed for dismissal. And Yale was not the only one passionate in their objection. Two Jewish groups, the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Congress filed amicus briefs against the Yale Five. (The irony, as Mr. Nathan Lewin noted wryly, was that the establishment Jewish groups would have had no hesitation had it been any other minority group that sought such a concession from Yale.)
The staunchly observant, on the other hand, were proud of the heroic stand that was being taken on behalf of modesty and traditional values. They were joined by the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights and other religious and conservative groups. In short, the Yale Five became the cause célèbre of the liberals who maligned and the conservatives who triumphed the cause.
As the legal battle gained momentum, the case of the Yale Five became the favorite subject of sermons in synagogues and temples. There was no shortage of op-ed pieces that appeared in Jewish newspapers. The Jewish Forward quoted Yale professor of Jewish history, Ivan G. Marcus, “Yale is not only about classes and a degree. It is also about mixing, meeting, arguing, learning to defend, being different and dealing with different people. It is about people and ideas 24 hours each day, not just in the classes a few hours each week.”
Agudath Israel’s Coalition featured an article by Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel, “First, and in certain ways foremost, the entire Orthodox community – including those who would never even consider college, let alone Yale, as an acceptable option for themselves or their children – should take pride in the firm stance taken by these five students. Alone among their many Jewish and Gentile peers, these young men and women have dared object to the objectionable. In so doing, they have proclaimed, for all the world to hear, that Judaism demands of its adherents a code of moral conduct totally incompatible with the promiscuous atmosphere that prevails in a modern-day college dormitory. K’vod Shoymaim [the honor of Heaven] has been enhanced – and for that we can all celebrate.
“If Yale is legally entitled to close its doors to students whose religious beliefs are incompatible with immorality – or to discriminate more generally on the basis of religion – so too are other schools. Orthodox Jews have a stake in the rule of law that precludes such discrimination. We may not choose to attend any given college, or any college, but the law should give us that choice.”
On December 4, 1997 Nathan Lewin filed suit in U.S. District Court in Hartford charging that Yale had violated the “religious freedom and constitutional rights” of Batsheva Greer, Elisha Hack, Lisa Friedman and Jeremy Hershman (Rachel Wohlgelernter had undergone a civil marriage three months before the date of her religious ceremony in order to gain exemption from the housing policy).
In the preliminary statement of the case Lewin charged, “Rather than accommodate the plaintiffs’s faith and appreciate their contribution to the richness of the Yale community, the defendants have persisted in hindering and penalizing the plaintiffs’s religious practice and in requiring them, as a condition of membership in that community to compromise their religious integrity and obligations.”
Shana Tova – have a wonderful year!