I came out to myself, and my wider community, during my sophomore year of college. Hillel was the first organization I was involved in on campus, and before I ever entered queer spaces, I came out at my Hillel. The reactions made me reflect on Hillel’s relationship with queer Jews and gave me with a new picture of American Jewish institutions’ overarching attitude toward young adults and marginalized members of our community. My experience taught me a lot about what inclusion isn’t and what true inclusion could look like.
After coming out, I began to notice the absence of queer Jewish spaces, leadership, or representation at my Hillel. There was no engagement strategy for reaching queer Jews, no staff working on ways to queer Jewish holidays or text study, no Jewish response to students coming out in college, no utilization of Hillel International’s relationship with Keshet, and no openly queer staff members. Queer Jews seemed like an afterthought, not a priority.
I reached out to my Hillel to begin conversations about inclusion and was met with hesitation, basic lack of knowledge about the LGBTQA community, and condescension. (For example, my Hillel once hosted a speed-dating event that was only open to heterosexual students. I stepped in to provide guidance on how to make it more inclusive and was met with outright hostility and clear discomfort from the Hillel student board.) The hesitation came from the assumption that there were not enough queer Jews in the community for our presence to matter, that there were not enough of us to merit resources, time, or meaningful investment.
But I firmly believe that, regardless of how many queer Jews there might be at Hillel, the way we treat our marginalized members is the true measure of our community. A Hillel (and a Jewish community) that is better for a few queer Jews is better for everyone.
Ultimately, the idea that a few LGBTQA students merit little attention comes from a basic lack of understanding and knowledge about the LGBTQA community’s relationship to faith. Faith communities have done more harm to the LGBTQA community than any other institution. LGBTQA students at Hillel, or LGBTQA members of any faith community, will always need our own specific, meaningful engagement strategy that works to repair previous harm done. Most of us have been met with outright vitriol or indifference from faith communities. Faith can feel irrelevant or incompatible with our lives. When we walk in through Hillel’s doors, staff has to be cognizant that we carry those experiences with us. Hillel does not exist in a vacuum.
But I was often met with an attitude from Hillel staff members that they, and the rest of the Jewish community, had already done enough for the LGBTQA community. Given the anti-LGBTQA bigotry of other faith communities, like right-wing evangelical Christians, many Jewish institutions like Hillel see themselves as historically liberal in comparison. They feel they don’t have to work as hard. But how will LGBTQA Jews know our presence is wanted, if our presence is not openly valued? There is truth to the idea that, if we build a space for queer Jews, they will come. It might seem like having out LGBTQA staff members is not necessary, but I can tell you that every time I have met a queer Jewish adult, it has meant something to me. Each time has shown me what I can be. Half of allyship is showing up for people and meaningfully investing in their access. Allyship is rooted in the conviction that our fates are bound together.
In general, there exists a pervasive attitude that Hillel has done enough for social justice causes. This goes beyond LGBTQA inclusion to race relations, Israel/Palestine, and the rampant anti-Semitism we’re seeing right now. But investing in social justice more generally is actually another important step toward LGBTQA inclusion. I have long been expressing to Hillel staff that for LGBTQA people, the need to pursue justice has always been urgent. And LGBTQA Jews are much more likely to be found in justice spaces than Jewish spaces. Hillel has the opportunity to create a space that can be both Jewish and justice-oriented, a place where queer Jews can simultaneously seek out justice and Jewish identity.
Overall, my experience with Hillel reflects a common, very troubling attitude towards Jewish young adults: one of expecting so little critical thinking from us, and the staff working with us, and setting the bar too low for what counts as meaningful engagement. If Hillel and other Jewish institutions intend to stay relevant, they need to work harder to meaningfully engage with all kinds of students.
I have been showing up at Hillel consistently, but Hillel needs to meet the needs of students coming out in college and to engage with their reality. For many of us, stepping foot in Hillel is less frightening than entering the LGBTQA center for the first time. Hillel, it is your turn to show up for us, to try to see the world through our eyes and think deeply about how to be allies. A Jewish community that shows up for justice is better for us all.
Emily Strauss is a senior at Pennsylvania State University.