Yale vs. the Orthodox

Rachel Wohlgelernter

Last week, Yale freshman Rachel Wohlgelernter of Los Angeles stoodwith her fiancé before a justice of the peace in Manhattan andwas civilly married.

She wore her everyday clothes.

When the bride and groom were pronounced man and wife, they didnot embrace or kiss each other. They did not hold hands as they leftthe courthouse. And when the newlyweds retired to sleep that evening,they did so in separate beds, in separate abodes.

There is an explanation behind this very un-wedding-like wedding.Wohlgelernter, 19, was, until recently, part of the “Yale Five,” agroup of five Orthodox Jewish students who have demanded that they beexempted from Yale’s policy which requires all freshmen andsophomores to live on campus unless they are married or over age 21.

The undergraduates claim that dormitory life — even single-sexfloors — violates their Orthodox convictions because of theprevalence of condoms, alcohol and premarital sex. The studentssecured off-campus housing, but Yale made it clear that they’ll stillbe expected to pay the annual room fee of almost $7,000 per person.That is when the students engaged a prominent attorney and threateneda lawsuit.

Wohlgelernter was part of it all until Sept. 12, when she exemptedherself of the room fee, and the requirement to live on campus, bycivilly marrying her fiancé 3 1/2 months before theirscheduled Dec. 28 wedding. But the secular ceremony was “just goingthrough the motions,” she explained in a telephone interview from herone-bedroom apartment in New Haven, Conn. “In my mind, my unmarriedstatus has not changed.”

Wohlgelernter admits that she grew up in a modern Orthodox milieufar removed from the secular, New England culture of Yale. HerBeverlywood family attended Young Israel of Century City, and, onShabbat, they shared divrei Torah and discussed all the Jewishlearning they had studied that week. Wohlgelernter’s motherfrequented five shiurim (classes) per week, and Rachel attended theYeshiva University High Schools of Los Angeles.

It was there that she began to become more religious than herparents, wearing long sleeves and vowing to wear a sheitl when shemarried. She led the junior congregation at her synagogue andobserved the prohibition against being alone with a member of theopposite sex. After graduation, she spent a year in Israel at ayeshiva that emphasizes text analysis and attracts many modernOrthodox women who want to become more observant. While in Israel,she realized that she “would only consider a husband who had aserious commitment to daily Torah learning.”

So, one has to ask, why did Wohlgelernter apply to Yale?

She begins by saying she has never been without a yen for secularknowledge and for a future career. Her father is a cardiologist, hermother a teacher, and Rachel graduated in the top five of her classat YULA, where she excelled in English and history and worked on thecampus newspaper and the model United Nations.

She applied to Yale for “the unparalleled education, theworld-renowned professors, the opportunity to interact with studentswho will become the future leaders of America.” She believed shewould feel comfortable at the university because of the Hillel house,which has an Orthodox rabbi, three Orthodox minyanim and three koshermeals per day.

Moreover, there was a family connection. Wohlgelernter’s fatherattended Yale’s medical school, taught on the faculty and was oncepresident of the area’s Young Israel. Rachel herself lived in NewHaven until she was 7, and she knew that old family friends wouldinvite her for Shabbat once she arrived at Yale. “In a way, myparents and I felt as if I would be returning to my roots,” she says.

As Wohlgelernter deferred admission for a year to go off toIsrael, she knew that several Yale Orthodox undergraduates werefighting to live off campus without paying the double housing costs.Because the university had, in the past, accommodated observantstudents by installing a special dormitory key system for Shabbat,Wohlgelernter had “high hopes” that the conflict would be resolvedbefore she arrived on campus.

“I believe Yale offers the best education in America, and I didn’tfeel I should have to give that up because of a housing rule,” shesays. “I know officials feel residential living is an integral partof the Yale education, but that is not what attracted me to Yale.What attracted me was the classes and the interaction with peers andprofessors, and there is plenty of room for that outside of thebedroom.”

The year passed, Yale officials did not budge, and, by the timeWohlgelernter arrived on campus in late August, she had joined theproposed Yale Five lawsuit.

She had also recently become engaged, and when officials refusedto exempt her from living on campus just until her marriage, she cameup with a radical solution to avoid compromising her religiousbeliefs.

Wohlgelernter and her fiancé, Dovi Adlerstein, asecond-year law student at Columbia and the son of her former YULAteacher, Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein, visited New York City Hall,waited in line for several hours and paid $25 for a marriage license.On Sept. 12, they were civilly married.

Now, Wohlgelernter is immersing herself in classes such asAdvanced Hebrew and History of the American Revolution, and she hassigned up for Yale’s model United Nations and a campus Jewishquarterly. “I have never been surrounded by so many great minds,” shesays, adding that Adlerstein will move in with her after they areJewishly married in December.

But not a day has passed that Wohlgelernter has not spoken toreporters, from Time magazine to The New York Times. “It’s beenoverwhelming, especially as an incoming freshman,” she says, “but Itold the other Orthodox students I want to remain as involved in thisissue as I can. I believe this case will set a precedent, and that itis not just a Jewish issue. It is an issue for anyone whose moralbeliefs make it impossible for them to live on campus.”