LGBTQ Jews have long been on the front lines, fighting for social justice. We are found on every page of the LGBTQ movement, from Harvey Milk, the first openly gay person to be elected to office in California, to Avram Finkelstein, who co-founded the AIDS advocacy group ACT UP. We are found on every page of the progressive Jewish movement, from Adrienne Rich and Faygele Ben Miriam, leaders in the New Jewish Agenda social justice movement of the 1980s, to Leslie Feinberg, an early leader of the Jewish resistance to the occupation of Palestine. Our commitment to social justice stems from our experiences living at the intersection of two marginalized, persecuted identities.Yet queer Jewish tradition and expression extends beyond modern social justice movements. Queer Jewish stories stretch back to the Torah. We are found in the story of Joseph, a perpetual outsider, in the love stories of Ruth and Naomi and Jonathan and David, as well as in the Talmud’s recognition of six genders. In the present day, we innovate Jewish ritual to honor our lives in the form of name change ceremonies, blessings for chest binding, blessings for transitioning, and mikveh immersion. The entire Jewish community can learn from the lessons that queer Jewish tradition provides.
Unfortunately, I and many of my queer Jewish friends have felt taken for granted at Hillel. For instance, when I critiqued Hillel for excluding queer students from programming, Hillel leaders responded not by seeking to remedy these concerns but by seeking to protect their own reputations.
This is exactly what happened at Ohio State University Hillel last week.
In early March, B’nai Keshet, the LGBTQ Jewish group at Ohio State University, co-sponsored a Purim drag show to benefit a local agency that resettles LGBTQ refugees, alongside fifteen other student and community groups. This event was deeply queer and deeply Jewish. Throughout history, Jewish people have been refugees, and supporting queer refugees upholds the Jewish value of helping the stranger, twice over. Hosting a drag show honors the inherent queerness and theatricality of the Purim holiday and celebrates the great tradition of LGBTQ Jewish playwrights. One would hope Hillel would laud this incredibly meaningful expression of Jewish values and solidarity.
Not so. Because Jewish Voice for Peace-OSU, a pro-BDS group, organized the event, OSU Hillel and Hillel International determined that the entire event violated Hillel’s Standards of Partnership for Israel Activities. Under pressure from Hillel International, OSU Hillel demanded that B’nai Keshet rescind its participation in the event, or lose Hillel’s institutional support. B’nai Keshet refused to rescind their co-sponsorship, and Ohio State Hillel has since pulled all institutional support for B’nai Keshet.
There are many things wrong with this situation. First, Hillel declined an opportunity to help support refugees, and worse yet, it tried to prevent its students from doing so. Hillel claims to enrich Jewish students so we can enrich the world. How can we ‘enrich the world’ if we are punished for seeking to help refugees and pursue social justice?
Second, Hillel withdrew support for LGBTQ Jewish students at OSU. Hillel’s actions speak louder than its previous words about LGBTQ inclusion. By expelling B’nai Keshet, Hillel has demonstrated that it does not care about LGBTQ Jewish students and that we can be easily discarded. Hillel’s actions tell us that Hillel has no wish to know our stories, no wish to see how queerness can innovate Jewish ritual, and no desire to learn about our Jewish values or the queer Jewish history that grounds us. Hillel’s actions tell us that Hillel only cares about including LGBTQ Jews when we are “respectable” and when they can take credit for fostering surface-level diversity. We are included to the extent we are useful and to the extent we remain objects to be acted upon within a larger unchanging framework.
However, support for queer Jewish students cannot come with strings attached. We do not want to be “showcased,” as Hillel claimed to do in their statement justifying their actions at OSU. We want to be supported. We need to be recognized as people with agency and voices of our own.
Hillel’s policies and actions undermine its claims to leadership and moral authority in the Jewish community. If Hillel is choosing not to help refugees and not to include LGBTQ folks, what do Jewish students – who overwhelmingly support LGBTQ equality and refugee rights – stand to gain from Hillel? What Jewish growth is Hillel fostering, especially for LGBTQ students? What knowledge of Jewish values is it imparting? Can Hillel still claim to be relevant?
Faith and cultural organizations like Hillel can be a driving force for learning, for community-building, and for justice. But in order for Hillel to fulfill this role and meet the needs of the Jewish students it claims to serve, it must really listen to us – especially those students within and beyond the LGBTQ community who are too often silenced. Hillel must drop its exclusionary Standards of Partnership, which led to the expulsion of B’nai Keshet, and end other non-inclusive practices like its $22 million partnership with Mosaic United initiative, tied to homophobic politician Naftali Bennett. In doing so, Hillel can help build campus Jewish communities that value LGBTQ Jews and other intersectional identities, communities that are stronger and more welcoming for us all.
Emily Strauss is a senior at Pennsylvania State University.