Tzni’ut and the Ivy League: Orthodox Students Take on Yale’s Sinful Dorms (1997)
Jason A. Miller
As we have all heard by now, five Orthodox students are threatening to sue Yale University for being obligated to pay the mandatory fee to live on campus in the dorms. Dorms where they say the environment violates their religious rights—specifically the moral concept of tzni’ut (modesty). I have been asked my assessment of this heated debate many times now; both as a Jewish student in a secular university and as a Conservative Jew. I have yet to render a decision exclusively for either party in this conflict, though I present here the rationale for accommodating the students by creating a more modest atmosphere within the campus community.
Yale University, like many prestigious schools, requires that all freshman and sophomores live on campus. Currently, all the dorms are co-ed and no regulations have been enacted to keep men and women from “co-habitating” in each other’s rooms. The “Yale Five” argues that even on single-sex floors, men and women routinely stay in each other’s rooms, and students of the opposite gender are frequently in a state of near-complete undress in the dorm hallways.
First, it must be noted that Yale University has already deviated from its policy by granting some Orthodox students permission to live off campus during their first two years. However, these students are still responsible to pay the standard $6,850 fee for living in the dorms. This act by the university surprises me. How can the Yale administration set this code, claiming it is necessary for all the students, and then grant some students an exemption? I question the university’s motivation behind granting this waiver to the Orthodox students, yet still requiring their payment for campus housing.
I concede that many reasons exist as to why these Orthodox students should be made aware of how the general population of the university behaves. However, they chose to attend Yale for its academic reputation only. I am sure many of us know someone who selected a university for its reputation as a “party school.” Yes, they could have elected to attend a religious school, like Yeshiva University that would better conform to their value system; but instead, they chose a secular school in the Ivy League. In actuality, Yale already accommodates observant Jews (as do many other schools) by offering a strictly Kosher option, separate from Hillel.
The main issue is whether a university (it must be stipulated that Yale is private) has the right to dictate where adults must live. While it may be a good experience for the Orthodox to be exposed to secular culture, it remains their prerogative as adults. Even if colleges should be expected to expose their students to different cultures and religions, it should not be done at the risk of sacrificing students’ moral beliefs and principles.
We are extremely angered, and legitimately so, when the Ultra-Orthodox attempt to impose their values, observance, and customs upon us. Is it justifiable for a secular university in 1997 to demand that these observant Jews compromise their belief? One of the “Yale Five” even went so far as to marry her fiancé in a civil ceremony only to receive a legitimate exemption from dorm life.
Yale should, at least, try to accommodate Orthodox students, just as they should attempt to convenience all students with “special” needs. I acknowledge that being a private university, Yale may not be as open to accommodate; however, if they investigated possible solutions they may find a way to provide a reasonable comfort level for many students—not just the Orthodox Jews on campus. At some schools (Michigan State included), the lack of a Kosher dining facility is grounds for exemption from the dormitory requirement, which is binding on freshman only. The college campus has a long tradition of being the catalyst for change in our society, whether in the realm of feminism, multiculturalism, or the acceptance of nontraditional sexual preferences. Of course, with the tremendous amount of diversity on college campuses it would be difficult to satisfy the needs of all students, but not to try is shameful.
Yale has already relented on this issue once. They chose not to reprimand the five students who elected to live off-campus while still paying the requisite $6,850 fee. This act shows that perhaps the administration is more concerned with the money and not the principle! Some schools make smoke-free and alcohol-free floors in the dorms accessible to their students who would otherwise be uncomfortable in the dorm environment. Other schools even have “quiet floors.” The “Yale Five” does not want the university to seclude them in a separate dormitory; rather, they wish to ensure that their religious views will not be hindered.
I would propose that Yale, and other schools where the need is apparent, designate certain areas of the dorms (i.e., floors) to be strictly off limits to students of the opposite gender. If this plan were implemented, a situation where a male student would see a female student in the bathroom would no longer occur. Yes, observant students will still be subjected to witnessing offensive posters promoting safer sex, hearing vulgar language, and seeing students in revealing attire and immodest, compromising positions. This comes with living in secular America. As a secular institution, it is not binding on Yale to make these reforms and thereby accommodate the “Yale Five.” However, if the university can take steps to bring the students back to campus life, and allow them some comfort at the same time, it seems that both sides would benefit.
I object to the national media circus the “Yale Five” has brought about in regard to this situation. I feel they created an undo amount of public attention and perhaps made a shanda far di goyim (a shame for the Jews in front of the gentiles). But their message should not be lost. It would greatly benefit Yale to accommodate their values in the case of tzni’ut. Then the university will still get their money and the “Yale Five” will be able to live and study without yielding their religious morals. When Alan Dershowitz (Law, ’62) attended Yale, there were no Kosher dining options available and the sight of a Jewish student wearing a kippah was shocking. Today there is the Yale Kosher Kitchen, and moreover many Yale students can be seen with kippot on campus. Perhaps, in the future there will be a “Tzni’ut Living Option” available in the Yale dorms! Who knows?