Benjamin Winter

Benjamin WinterCommunity Contributor

Benjamin Winter is a graduate of Yeshiva University and is currently a Masters of Social Work student at The Ohio State University. Ben organizes with Open Hillel and has worked with the special needs population for quite some time. His writings have been published in the Forward and in other news outlets.

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The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Forward.

Queer Jews Deserve Better: Why OSU Hillel Should Reinstate B’nai Keshet

Growing up in a tight-knit Modern Orthodox community, I rarely encountered people whose backgrounds, perspectives, or life experiences were very different from my own. I went to college at Yeshiva University, a Modern Orthodox University in New York.Though I learned from brilliant professors and formed lasting friendships, I regretted the fact that I had placed myself in such an insular community — Yeshiva University was, in many ways, ideologically and culturally homogenous.

When I enrolled in Ohio State’s Master of Social Work program, I felt both obligated and excited to learn more about and from the diverse communities in our Columbus community and in the nation at large. As a student here, I have had the opportunity to take classes and engage with research on the subject of diversity, as well as to engage in a plethora of programming organized by students and by the university administration. Thanks to these experiences, as both a future social worker and as a citizen, I feel better equipped to take on the challenges of building bridges between people and communities and working to promote justice for all.

Coming from a specifically Orthodox undergraduate institution, I was also excited to meet and learn from Jews with a wider range of backgrounds and perspectives; I turned to OSU Hillel as a pluralistic Jewish community in which I could do so. Over the course of my two years as a student here, I have found Hillel to be an inclusive and safe environment for Jews from many diverse backgrounds.

However, OSU Hillel’s recent actions regarding the LGBTQ Jewish community on campus have changed my perception.

Under pressure from Hillel International, Ohio State Hillel decided to expel B’nai Keshet, the LGBTQ Jewish group at OSU, for participating in a fundraiser for LGBTQ refugees. At a time when the Trump administration has threatened the rights and safety of refugees in our own country and around the globe, B’nai Keshet took concrete steps to support refugees in our local Columbus community. Beyond the tangible benefits of this fundraiser, B’nai Keshet and the fifteen other student and community groups who came together to support refugees sent a powerful message about the importance of diversity and inclusion.

Hillel should have supported B’nai Keshet in pursuing this crucial work. Instead, because the fundraiser was co-sponsored by Jewish Voice for Peace, an organization that Hillel deems too critical of Israel, Hillel gave B’nai Keshet an ultimatum: they could either pull out of the event or no longer be housed and funded under the Hillel umbrella.

Hillel, the Foundation for Jewish Campus Life at 550 colleges and universities, was founded on the ideals of pluralism, diversity, and inclusion within the Jewish community. Hillel boasts that it provides a safe haven for Jewish students across the nation (and the world) to practice Judaism, engage with the culture, learn about the religion, and most importantly to build community together. However, Hillel’s expulsion of B’nai Keshet shows that as long as Hillel International maintains its “Standards of Partnership,” which bar individuals and organizations deemed too critical of Israel and Israeli policy, it is unable to truly welcome all Jewish students. By enforcing the Standards and expelling B’nai Keshet, not only has Hillel effectively pulled the welcome mat out from under the feet of Ohio State LGBTQ students; it has also sent a message to Jewish LGBTQ students across the nation that they too are unwelcome.

Censorship and exclusion do not protect or strengthen our Jewish communities. Rather, these practices serve to divide and weaken us. For a number of years, I have worked with Open Hillel to promote honest and open discourse in the Jewish community. At Open Hillel, we firmly believe that Hillel should treat Jewish students not as children to be sheltered, but as young adults capable of thinking critically, exploring our Jewish identities, learning from one another, and building the communities that we want to see. Instead of seeking to shield Jewish students from a full range of opinions, Hillel should empower us to engage with the diversity of ideas that we encounter on a university campus. Instead of preventing Jewish students from working with other student organizations, Hillel should empower us to build partnerships and engage in dialogue within and beyond the Jewish community.

So, I must ask Hillel: for how much longer will you plug your ears upon hearing non-conforming opinions? When will you be ready to engage in adult conversations?

Hillel has an opportunity to create ripples of positivity by reinstating B’nai Keshet’s membership. But in order to truly make change in the long term, it must end the Standards of Partnership and embrace tough conversations. By reinstating B’nai Keshet and ending the Standards, OSU Hillel and Hillel International can reclaim their reputation within the Jewish community as pillars of pluralism, diversity, and inclusion — for all students.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Forward.

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