Magazine article Insight on the News

'Yale Experience' Is Depravity for Some

Magazine article Insight on the News

'Yale Experience' Is Depravity for Some

Article excerpt

Five Orthodox Jewish undergraduates are seeking legal relief from Yale College's freshman ad sophomore housing rules. The dispute is the latest skirmish in the ongoing culture war.

On Oct. 15, following months of negotiations, five Orthodox Jewish students at Yale filed a lawsuit against the college. The students believe that Yale's gender-integrated campus dormitories are incompatible with the moral requirements of Orthodox Jewish life, and they are asking to be exempted from Yale's rule requiring freshmen and sophomores to live in dormitories. Yale has refused, claiming the on-campus requirement is essential to the Yale experience. The students rejected Yale's last offer -- dorm space that nominally would be "single-sex" but where mingling of the sexes still could occur. The legal papers were filed in New Haven by the students' attorney, Washington litigator Nathaniel Lewin.

While Yale cannot force anyone to live on campus, it can and does impose a $7,000 per year dorm fee. Students who do not pay by Oct. 1 are not registered for the semester. The protesting students have paid this fee rather than be thrown out of school, but in the meantime their case has drawn Lewin's pro-bono representation, the national media have descended on Yale and a dispute about conditions in Yale undergraduate housing has turned into a national episode in the culture wars.

Though the dispute came to a head with the start of the current academic year, it has been brewing for some time. Some older siblings of the protesting students simply paid the $7,000 and moved off campus. Others who were not prepared to do so have been in correspondence with Yale officials since last winter, trying to arrive at a mutually acceptable solution.

The protesting students are seeking to preserve their personal commitment to the Orthodox Jewish practice of "tzinis," or purity. As Lewin explained in a letter to Richard Broadhead, dean of Yale College: "Their religious convictions forbid them from residing in dormitories that are readily accessible to members of the opposite sex for extended periods of time, including overnight visits. The experience of Yale students is that this is true of all Yale dormitories, including those that are designated `single sex....' The obligation to exercise care and modesty in living accommodations so as not to permit even inadvertent encounters between men and women is a long-standing rule of Jewish religious observance."

For the protectors, the problem of no genuinely single-sex dorms at Yale (as at most other secular colleges today) is exacerbated by other aspects of campus life. Posters advertising safe-sex seminars accost students at every turn. Many bathrooms have condom dispensers. A guide to "Yalespeak" published by the Yale Daily News contains such items of argot as "couch duty," defined as "being forced to sleep on a common-room couch because your roommate and his/her significant other want some time alone together," and "sexile," defined as "banishment from your dorm room because your roommate is having more fun than you."

Yale is diverse, and many students shun the lifestyle implied by such arrangements and undergraduate witticisms. The protesting students, however, do not believe that such immersion is an acceptable way of living out the demands of their faith.

Yale so far has refused any form of accommodation, other than offering to assign the protectors to a so-called single-sex dorm, with no guarantee that "single-sex" would be anything more than a label. This is, at one and the same time, less than the protectors need and more than they are asking for. They don't need dorms with a single-sex label, they say, they need a place to live where the sexes really do not commingle. At the same time, they are not asking Yale to rearrange itself for their benefit or even to set aside space for them. All they want is to move off campus without a heavy financial penalty. …

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