“If it doesn’t bring more love into the world, it probably isn’t religion.”
The date was October 13, 2010, and I was at Tufts University’s Coming Out Day Rally. At the rally, Tufts University’s Jewish Chaplain, Rabbi Jeffrey Summit, spoke about the importance of not just tolerating people’s differences but embracing them and told the crowd the statement quoted above. This message was so simple, yet so powerful — and so powerfully different from what I expected a religious leader speaking about LGBTQ issues to say.
Growing up, I attended a Conservative Jewish Day School from kindergarten until 12th grade. Throughout high school, I struggled to come to terms with my sexual orientation and my religious beliefs. I was forced to grapple with these issues alone, as my high school did not offer any support for queer students and in general ignored their existence. As far as I know, no one has ever come out in my high school (though one student who was already out transferred in) and homophobic comments, including the commonly repeated phrase “that’s so gay,” went unchallenged. Consequently, I never felt safe coming out in high school.
Hillel International is the largest Jewish group for college students, with campus presence at over 550 schools in the U.S., Russia, Israel and South America. Hillel has been making big strides towards LGBT inclusion in the past few years, reconfiguring their goals for connecting with students to make sure they’re reaching a diverse spectrum of young adults, and finding ways to connect that are more nuanced and intentional than just getting them into the Hillel building. As part of their efforts, Hillel invited Andrea Jacobs, Keshet’s Director of Education, to the annual Hillel Institute at Washington University in St. Louis — a gathering of Hillel directors, staff, and student leaders from across the country. We talked with Andrea after the conference. Here’s a condensed version of our conversation.
It’s clear Hillel has really changed the way it imagines success. You could see that even from the groups at the “community organization fair,” where everyone from Israel advocacy groups to social media consultants to Keshet, was represented. At the fair, all the representatives of these groups answered questions and met one-on-one with Hillel staff and leaders. I spoke with dozens of people, but the issues that really jumped out at me came from self-identified LGBTQ Hillel staff. And by self-identified, I mean they were pulling me aside, coming out to me, and then asking these pressing questions:
- How do I be a source of support and safety without becoming “that gay Hillel staff person”?
- How do I engage with other Hillel staff or campus Jewish professionals who are Orthodox?
- How do I navigate the natural ebb and flow of student leadership while maintaining inclusion as an important issue?
It was really exciting to hear young professionals discussing these important issues and I’m so glad that we were there to be a touchstone, to encourage them to voice these questions and concerns. I’ve seen situations like this before where the educators know it’s important, the institution knows it’s important, but there’s always a lot going on, and these questions about how to create an inclusive environment for staff and students get left out in the crunch for time and competing priorities.
But when Keshet’s there, our presence creates the space where these conversations happen. That’s what we do.
With that in mind, I’d mobilized our network in the weeks and months leading up to the summit. Look, I’d said to educators and campus professionals, there’s nothing official for LGBTQ and allied staff on the docket. We’re going to have a meeting the day after the community organization fair, even if it’s unofficial, so please invite the people you know will be looking for something like this. And I reached out to folks who could make sure Hillel found a place for us to meet. In the end about twenty Hillel professionals showed up!
My goal was to help these folks create a connection with each other, to start recognizing and using each other as a resource, so I threw all of those questions I’d collected from the day out to them as a group. We all sat around the table and started tackling some of those issues: how can Hillel and Hillel professionals, who come from this big-tent, pluralistic organization, reach out to queer students, and make sure queer students have safe and accepting space within Hillel, while still doing everything else Hillel does?
All of these amazing out rabbis and senior staff began to talk about their experiences and brainstorm with this new network. It was so exciting, not only to hear their stories of both success and failure but also to see younger staff realize that they’re not alone; there are lots of people who have gone through these same issues and have a lot of great ideas. Some of the staff gave out general pointers like:
- When you talk to students, you can use your own life as an example.
- If you have a partner, you can talk about your partner!
One rabbi had a whole list of suggestions for how to get Hillel working for LGBT inclusion across an entire college. A lot of campuses are struggling with the issue of housing for trans students right now; that’s a great issue for Hillel to get involved with. Plus, Hillel can be a role model and partner with other faith groups on campus as they work towards LGBT inclusion.
What this conference really brought home for me, yet again, is that sometimes it’s not about the expertise that we bring. Sometimes, it’s about the conversations that we help bring out — out of the closet, out of the hushed whispers, out loud and in public. Those conversations themselves have the power to really change things. The group that came together for this conference is going to work to become a recognized group in Hillel — a formal place for LGBTQ and allied staff and student leaders to come together to discuss, network, brainstorm, and work together. We had a great time at the conference, and the exciting work for next year has already begun!