Three years ago, I found myself - closeted and terrified - at a Rainbow Seder at Ohio State Hillel. To celebrate the Jewish holiday of Passover, Hillel staff applied the traditional Seder text, which recounts Jewish liberation from slavery in Egypt, to the LGBTQ experience. When a Hillel staff person compared the darkness over Egypt to the darkness of the closet I had never felt so vulnerable, or so relieved. Outing myself to my Jewish community petrified me, but being out, being me, felt like being freed. As queer Jewish students shared their stories, I realized that LGBTQ-affirming Judaism was just as powerful for them as it was for me.
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However, while some of the cis/straight Seder participants listened respectfully, many snickered and whispered snide comments as LGBTQ students called for acceptance and understanding. The staff who were leading the seder, though admirable in their commitment to the event, used inappropriate language to describe LGBTQ issues and failed to protect queer students from our classmates’ homophobia. It was clear that Hillel needed a space for us – and that LGBTQ students should be the ones to build it.
So, the following semester, queer Jewish students started a group called B’nai Keshet (Children of the Rainbow) at Hillel. We aimed - and still aim - to give LGBTQ Jewish students a space to embrace our queer and Jewish identities fully, without feeling as though we have to sacrifice one of our communities for the other. We strive to build a Jewish community in which all Jews feel valued, respected, and safe.
A few weeks ago, B’nai Keshet co-sponsored a fundraiser for LGBTQ refugees in the Columbus area, alongside fifteen other student and community-based organizations. We were proud to join with the wider LGBTQ community, and we were proud to act on the Jewish (and queer) value of ‘welcoming the stranger’ by supporting refugees. We had hoped Hillel would support us in this important effort.
Instead, under pressure from Hillel International CEO Eric Fingerhut, OSU Hillel expelled us from the Jewish community on campus. Hillel staff told us that because Jewish Voice for Peace – OSU was one of the fundraiser’s co-sponsors, the entire event violated Hillel International’s Standards of Partnership for Israel Activities. Rejecting attempts at compromise from our members and from Ohio State’s LGBTQ student coordinator, Hillel informed us that B’nai Keshet could no longer be part of Hillel.
Hillel administrators withdrew all material support for LGBTQ Jewish students at OSU, effectively isolating queer Jews from Jewish campus life. Hillel pulled staff advising, funding, access to the Hillel building and student list-serve, and subsidized kosher food for meetings from the group. Hillel also withdrew a paid internship from one of our leaders.
Worse yet, by expelling B’nai Keshet, Hillel banned us from organizing with the Jewish community. We can no longer collaborate with Hillel student groups, nor can we promote our organization within Hillel. When LGBTQ Jewish students walk into Hillel, they have no way to find a queer Jewish community. Furthermore, LGBTQ Jewish students no longer have an organized voice to address issues that affect us at Hillel. Without access to Hillel staff, we cannot advocate for policies and practices that promote LGBTQ inclusion in the Jewish campus community. By shunning LGBTQ Jewish students, Hillel sent a message that they do not respect us as equals, worthy of the same rights and human dignity (kavod habriyot) as our peers.
For too long, Hillel has sacrificed its students -- particularly those of us who are already vulnerable and marginalized -- to appease its major donors. Most recently, Hillel International entered into a $22 million partnership with Mosaic United, a program run by Israeli education minister Naftali Bennett that aims to combat “critical discourse” on Israel and promote “the Jewish foundations of the family unit.” Bennett’s vision of the Jewish family explicitly excludes queer couples and families; he said that “Judaism doesn’t recognize gay marriage, just as we don’t recognize milk and meat together as kosher.” Earlier this semester, while OSU Hillel was expelling queer students from the campus Jewish community, they also accepted a $73,000 grant from Mosaic United.
Hillel should encourage Jewish students to explore new and interesting ways to practice Judaism and repair the world, rather than using the McCarthyist red lines to shut down crucial social justice work. Hillel should celebrate Jewish diversity, not allow major donors or Israeli government officials to act as gatekeepers of our community. Hillel should support B’nai Keshet -- and all queer Jewish students -- as a full and equal members of the Jewish community.
Hillel must end its exclusionary Standards of Partnership and readmit B'nai Keshet so as to empower Jewish students to build open, pluralistic, and vibrant Jewish campus communities.
Elaine Cleary is a fourth-year economics and political science major at Ohio State University, and the Vice President of B’nai Keshet.