Cover Story

Poison Ivy?

Remember when smokin' in the boys' room was scandalous? At Yale, it's not smoke but steam that is scandalizing a group of Orthodox Jews who are fighting the school's libertine dormitory policies. Around the country, the existence of loose rules makes virtuous living more difficult for on-campus believers-but does that compromise the gospel?

Issue: "Walk the Talk," Nov. 15, 1997

At first glance, these two young Yalies, Paul Clewell and Elisha Dov Hack, aren't very dissimilar; they're both young men from fairly average middle-class backgrounds (their grades got them into Yale, not their families' pull). They arrived on campus with firm beliefs and a knowledge that their beliefs would be tested at Yale.

The difference is in how they've reacted.

Mr. Hack, 20, is one of the "Yale 5," a group of Orthodox Jewish students now suing Yale to let them live off campus (Yale rules say almost all freshmen must live on campus). The problem, they say, is the anything-goes atmosphere in the Yale dorms; most residential buildings are co-ed, and bizarrely, most bathrooms and (unofficially) many bedrooms are, too.

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"When I entered last summer on an orientation tour, I literally saw the handwriting on the wall," says Mr. Hack. "A sign titled 'Safe Sex' told me where to get condoms on campus, and another sign suggested 100 ways to make love without having sex, like 'take a nap together' and 'take a steamy shower together.'"

All incoming freshmen were sent a welcome packet, which included a special edition of the Yale Daily News. One article mapped out Yale students' favorite spots for having sex, including the library. "Fornicating undergraduates can also make use of the public restrooms," the article suggests.

Wanting the education (or at least the educational status) of a Yale degree, but not wishing to put himself in a compromising environment, Mr. Hack and the other Orthodox students began lobbying Yale officials to let them live off campus. After all, his family lives in New Haven (the town where Yale is located), and until two years ago, Yale exempted New Haven residents from having to live in the dorms.

"We're not trying to impose our moral standards on our classmates," says Mr. Hack, who has taken a liking to talking with the media (he now wears a pager to help him field calls from reporters). "We're just asking that Yale give us permission to live off campus."

Paul Clewell, 22, a junior English major, is a devout Christian. He's watched the Yale 5 take on a major Ivy League institution, and it's made him and other Christians on campus think, he says.

"We as Christians have mixed feelings about the issue of morality on campus," says the bright, blond midwesterner. "Most of us just make do; we're not comfortable, by any means, with the co-ed bathrooms and showers, or the all-night visitation policies, but then again, we're called to be salt and light in the world. That can best be done in places where salt and light are needed."

Mr. Clewell's lifestyle gives credence to what by his own admission sounds, at first, like rationalization. He spends his time studying and helping bring chess to inner-city schools. He knows the kitchen help at the Stiles dorm cafeteria by first name, and when he meets a dean in the quad, the dean greets him by name and smiles.

"The thing is, Yale's not as bad as the Yale 5 are making it sound," he says. "Don't get me wrong, it's bad enough. But the co-ed bathrooms, for example, are more co-ed in name than in practice. For all the talk, most people just don't want to take showers or use the bathroom with people of the opposite sex.

"You can avoid bad situations," he explains. "You can request a single-sex floor on a dorm, and you'll probably get it. That might not be Yale policy, but it's Yale practice. And if there are women in the bathroom on your floor, you just go down a floor. You just don't put yourself in compromising situations."

Mr. Clewell's room is a good picture of life in the Ivy Leagues (at least for the studious). The fairly spartan (and certainly ugly) Ezra Stiles dormitory has rooms of about 10 feet by 15 feet, with just enough room for a bed and a desk. Mr. Clewell's walls have the requisite Trekkie mementos, and his desk is piled with Shakespeare scripts (for a course he's taking this semester) and Christian, classical, and country CDs. His bed is made, and his laundry is out of sight. There are fliers for various events sponsored by the small but active evangelical Christian community at Yale; most of the Christian groups on campus have agreed that maybe the Yale 5 are making a valid point.

David Mahan, who leads the Campus Crusade for Christ chapter at Yale, admits that the Jewish students have provided something of a wake-up call. "It's making a lot of the students think about what kinds of lines they should have drawn," says Mr. Mahan. "Over the years, a lot of them have come to me and expressed concerns or pain over seeing their values trivialized. A lot of women have come to me and said they weren't comfortable about sharing bathrooms."


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