With back-to-school season upon us, Julie Sugar reminisces on what she learned at college…as an educator, not a student. Julie’s reflections remind all of us, in turn, about the immense, powerful, and sometimes under-appreciated role allies play in creating inclusive space for everyone.
I found my voice in college—though not as a student.
I worked for nearly three years at the Bronfman Center for Jewish Student Life at NYU, where I wore (as all Hillel professionals do) many hats: running internships, staffing trips, advising clubs, and more. One group I advised was Keshet, NYU’s club for LGBTQ Jews [no relation to the Keshet that runs this blog!] and their allies. Keshet had been larger and more active in the past, and was quite small when I started. Then, with time, incredible student leaders, and staff support, the group blossomed and became a renewed presence on campus. On a personal level, I learned so much through the experience:
At first, I felt insecure and tongue-tied. I was sensitive enough to know the impact of insensitivity, and the fear of saying something wrong (LGBT? GLBT? Add the Q? What’s the deal with the word “queer”? Can I call myself an “ally”?) was overwhelming.
An NYU student-led SafeZone sensitivity training brought home what I started to feel intuitively: good intentions do make a difference. When you speak with someone, and you say something that is not perfectly up to speed with the lingo, it’s okay. Yes, learn the lingo—but don’t silence yourself as you learn. You care. That does make it better.
I worked with three consecutive student presidents of Keshet. When I started working with the third student, we would darkly joke that she was president and sole member of the club. We met for an hour every week. We felt confident—as the previous president and I had felt—that there were students who would greatly benefit from the presence of a group for LGBTQ Jews and their allies. So we kept going. Another student stepped up as vice-president. We kept going. The group came together over time, and I’m sure that every moment we kept going was what brought us to the next.
Watch Your Words
While good intentions do matter, don’t use that as a license to clomp around and say whatever stupid thing pops into your head. Our words—in person, online, on print materials—carry the power to be deeply affirming or discouraging. You also never know when you may be interacting with someone who is in the closet or questioning their identity, and the words you choose will be a signal to them of whether or not you’re a safe person for them to speak with. Avoid heteronormative language: don’t assume, for example, that a boy is looking for a girlfriend and a girl is looking for a boyfriend.
It is impossible to know the full impact of Keshet programming at NYU, because the number of students affected go beyond the number of students who stepped foot inside any given program. By advertising each program on the Bronfman Center calendar, in the newsletter, on Facebook, on fliers, the group was making invisible ripples throughout the Jewish and larger university community. The message communicated between the lines was clear: This is an important and active group, and one that is fully embraced. We never forgot about the students who weren’t in the room; the supportive space created by the group was much larger than any room.
I learned to think differently about the idea of coming out of the closet. The phrase implies one action, after which a person is—simply—“out.” But that’s not how it works; people have to come out again and again and again; some circles may not ever know their full identity, or may learn years after others. Better, I learned, to think of the act as being “invited in.” Someone is sharing something personal and intensely important, and is inviting you into a space where people know and support that part of their identity.
We all are in a closet of one sort or another, and we all know who the special people are that we feel comfortable inviting in. I hope we can be that person for others, too.
Last spring, I went to Keshet’s (the national organization) Training Institute for Jewish communal professionals. The Institute was fantastic, and there was one moment in particular when the importance of this work sank in for me. I don’t remember the context of the conversation, but someone suggested waiting for change to happen. Sometimes there’s practically nothing to do but wait, the participant was implying.
“I have a question for you,” replied Joanna Ware, Lead Organizer and Training Coordinator at Keshet. She was speaking to the whole room. “What does it mean to wait—when what you are waiting for is to be seen as a full person?”
Let’s not wait.
Looking back, the most fulfilling jobs I’ve had are the ones where professional growth brought personal growth; the experience I had at the Bronfman Center truly encompassed both, and the lessons I learned continue to resonate wherever sensitivity, advocacy, perseverance, and justice are needed—which is a long way to say: everywhere.