(New York Jewish Week) – This season, Yeshiva University’s men’s basketball team drew national headlines for a 50-game winning streak and its third Skyline Conference championship in four years. “The longest winning streak in men’s college basketball belongs to … Yeshiva University,” ESPN gushed in November, with “I bet you didn’t expect that” ellipses.
But in the background of the team’s success, another YU story has made quiet rumblings across campus and, to a lesser extent, the media. In an anonymous essay, published on the first day of the 2021-2022 academic year, a student asserted that she was raped by one of the players, whom she didn’t name. The accuser also said in her essay that she and her alleged rapist were asked by the school to sign nondisclosure agreements before the school would share with them the results of the investigation, which ended with no consequences for the accused.
The Modern Orthodox university’s basketball season ended March 4 with a loss in the first round of the Division III NCAA tournament. And in the wake of the allegations, the administration made moves to improve the way it handles sexual assault allegations.
On January 11, the administration announced in a letter to the student body that they would restructure their Title IX office, which oversees the federal law banning sex or gender discrimination. Then, on March 10, the university announced it had hired a new deputy Title IX coordinator who will assist with sexual harassment and assault-related matters. Previously, the Title IX office at YU did not have an officer exclusively dedicated to such matters.
But despite these changes and their own cautious optimism, the accuser and advocates for victims of sexual assault on campus are still waiting for a statement of regret from the administration, and assurances that future cases will be handled differently.
“What we’re still looking for, more than anything, is a sense of accountability,” sophomore Cayla Muschel, co-president with junior Noa Berman of the campus organization Students Against Sexual Assault. “There’s this sense that when things are done wrong it doesn’t matter. It matters.”
The campus group is optimistic that the changes will improve the system for reporting and investigating assault. And yet, they remain skeptical that it reflects deeper changes at a religious institution where, for every student loudly calling for change, there are many, many others for whom sexual assault remains a shrouded or taboo subject.
“There’s a sense of shame surrounding being the victim of sexual assault and rarely any discussion on not being the assaulter,” said Berman, speaking about the Modern Orthodox community, both in general and on the YU campuses. “Resources for survivors aren’t as easily accessible as they should be.”
SASA was started during the spring semester of 2020, while students were operating entirely online due to the pandemic. When the pair assumed the helm at the beginning of the current school year, they expected to be running educational events and working with a co-ed student board to provide resources on sexual assault prevention for the campus.
That changed on August 25, 2021, when the school’s newspaper, The Commentator, published the essay, titled “I Thought Rape Culture Didn’t Exist at YU — Until I Was Raped.” The author details the rape she said she experienced the previous school year, and accuses the Modern Orthodox university’s administration and some students of failing to support her as a survivor.
In the aftermath of going public with her story, it seemed that very little happened, at least in a public-facing way to support the victim. The article was covered by The Forward in August, and the author was interviewed on the radio show Jeff Lax Live! in January, but no official statements were made by the university or the athletics department. The Macs continued to win big and the campus seemed to move on.
At the main YU Wilf campus in Morningside Heights, all the undergraduate and rabbinical students are male; its counterpart, Stern College for Women, with more than 760 students as of Fall 2020, is located in the Murray Hill neighborhood of Manhattan.
On both campuses, students and alumni tell the New York Jewish Week, sexual assault is rarely — if ever — discussed.
Rabbi Yosef Blau, the mashgiach ruchani (spiritual guidance counselor) at the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary at YU, has spent three decades encouraging Orthodox communities to open up about sexual abuse and relationship abuse.
“Some communities, particularly religious communities, like to see themselves as somehow immune from these problems. We like to believe that if someone is a person of faith then it translates into a higher level of behavior, which doesn’t allow for this terrible kind of thing,” he told the New York Jewish Week. “Unfortunately, we know that’s not true.”
Blau explained that even though the conversation has opened up, many members of the community are still reticent to accept that someone they have interacted with could be an abuser.
“Predators don’t look like predators. They look just like everybody else,” he added. “So even when the community understands that it’s a problem, when it comes to a specific situation, it’s very hard to believe that someone that we know and have been friendly with for many years could turn out to be an abuser.”
Daphne Lazar Price, the executive director of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, said that without proper education in frank sexual matters growing up, many Orthodox women are less likely to be able to recognize abuse when it happens.
“We have seen positive trends, especially with some schools, starting the conversations younger and younger, generally focused on stranger danger,” she said. “There is less emphasis placed on abuse and assaults perpetrated by relatives, acquaintances, clergy, educators and spouses.”
“It’s a question of working on awareness in the community,” said Rabbi Blau. “Unfortunately, the means to create awareness is usually when there’s a scandal.”
The lack of discussion and education surrounding sexual assault at YU is one of the reasons that the author of the essay said she chose to publish her story in the first place. “Sometimes I feel as if telling the school was almost as painful and hard to go through as the rape itself,” she wrote.
The writer contends that YU failed to provide a guidance counselor for navigating the Title IX process, and did not ask her or the hospital to access the contents of her rape kit as part of their investigation. (She did not choose to go to the police with her allegations, like many women who experience sexual assault on college campuses.)
She also said the school refused to ensure her security while in common, on-campus spaces where she might encounter her rapist, and that she was forced to sign the nondisclosure agreement before they showed her the results of the Title IX investigation.
“I thought it was important to [share the story] and to try to make a change, so that if something like this happens to somebody else, they don’t have to go through what I had to go through,” the writer, who wishes to remain anonymous, told the New York Jewish Week.
“People — rabbis, community leaders and public figures, don’t want to acknowledge that maybe this could happen in our respected community,” she said. “Maybe they feel like if they don’t talk about prevention in the first place, it’s like it doesn’t exist; there’s nothing to prevent.”
Berman and Muschel said that, in their circles, the article made an impression, and that students reacted with “outrage, sadness, disbelief and doubt.” It made them realize how much their club was needed. “It was a real wake-up call for many students and administrators on campus,” said Berman, “and more students became skeptical of the administration.”
In the last year, SASA has had “exponential growth,” according to Muschel, with a large and active student board.
And yet, when asked by the New York Jewish Week about the alleged rape and its aftermath on campus, several students at Stern said they never read nor heard about the article, nor felt strongly enough to comment on it.
One recent alumna, herself incensed over the article and the administration’s actions, wasn’t surprised by the lack of awareness — or concern. “Thinking about my [roommates] and my friends at Stern, I don’t think any of them would speak about this,” she said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “Probably because they’re uncomfortable, and also they don’t care enough.”
She said that if people were talking about the article, it only lasted a day or two.
In her piece, the accuser suggested the school was hesitant to draw attention to her case or even punish her alleged attacker because he played on the basketball team, though she did not provide evidence to back up that assertion.
“At first, there was a much stronger reaction against the basketball team from the student body,” Berman said. “But as time has gone on it has been replaced by the excitement from all the hype the basketball team has been getting. There are a lot of students who are frustrated that not much has been done, but there are equally if not more students who would rather be involved in the excitement of the basketball games.”
Because the men’s and women’s campuses are far apart, it can impede collaboration when it comes to sexual assault prevention education, said Berman and Muschel. Though the club has male board members, it is harder to do outreach on the Wilf Campus when they aren’t holding events there.
“I get the feeling that the administration has this idea that since the campuses are separate, there isn’t much interaction between genders and therefore there isn’t so much concern regarding sexual assault,” Berman said.
Still, since the essay was published, some current and former students have taken up the cause. Steven Gotlib, a recent graduate of YU’s rabbinical school, sent two letters in January — signed by at least 50 students and alumni of the rabbinical school — to Ari Berman, the university’s president, as well as other members of the administration.
The letter criticized university fundraising campaigns that prominently featuring its basketball team, saying the message “sends a chilling and troubling message to all survivors of sexual abuse within our community.” It also demanded a public statement from the administration acknowledging the need to hear and uplift voices of survivors, including the student who wrote the article. The president’s office said they would schedule a meeting with Gotlib and his co-writer Avi Hoffman, but the meeting never happened, according to Gotlib.
In an opinion piece in The Commentator in December, Yeshiva College alumnus Doniel Weinreich argued that all coverage of the Macs basketball team must include coverage of sexual assault. “Silence is not neutral. Silence supports and enables perpetrators,” he wrote.
In January, the administration said it would restructure their Title IX office. The overhaul was the recommendation of an evaluation committee that included university deans and third-party experts that met over the fall semester under the leadership of undergraduate dean Karen Bacon. In the letter to students, Bacon noted that the committee met with several campus groups in order to reach their findings, and emphasized the university’s commitment to providing a safe and accessible environment.
Dean Bacon did not respond to several requests for comment.
Berman and Muschel were among those who met with the evaluation committee throughout the fall semester. One of their demands was better education surrounding the college’s Title IX procedures for students, a suggestion that appeared in Bacon’s letter and which the university said it will implement in the spring semester.
YU announced on March 10 that they have hired a new Title IX coordinator, Ann Todd, who will be exclusively dedicated to responding and handling Title IX complaints. Todd will also help launch a website dedicated to sexual assault-related issues, expand educational resources and review the school’s Title IX policies.
She brings experience as a Title IX investigator at a consulting firm that specializes in campus safety and security, as well as experience training investigators and responders and shaping school policies.
“I really believe in having a trauma-informed process from the moment someone reports until the moment when the case is ultimately resolved,” she told the New York Jewish Week. “I think my coming on board is, in part, for the university to respond to student concerns that have been raised, but also it’s an effort to look forward and figure out what we can always do better.”
Todd said she hopes to train students on how to be supportive to their peers when they come forward about an assault. “Their role as classmates is not to be the judge and jury,” she said. “I want to help students understand the process and understand the impact of trauma so if something bad has happened, they understand what that looks like, and can be prepared to provide support.”
Berman and Muschel say they are optimistic but cautious.
“I wish someone could stand up and take responsibility and say, ‘We should have had a functional Title IX office, we should have made this information easily accessible. We’re sorry,’” Muschel added.
The anonymous author of the essay now runs an Instagram account, @metooatyu, where she shares updates on her mental health, answers questions about her interactions with YU administrators about the incident, and connects with students who say they have gone through similar situations.
“I guess people consider me kind of an activist now,” the author told the New York Jewish Week. “I have never considered myself an activist. I’m just someone who’s talking about what I went through. I just want that to change for others.”