Alongside the Jewish groups waving their banners at the country’s many Gay Pride parades last month was a group of relative newcomers who —though technically on vacation this time of year — have become a major force in gay Jewish activism nationwide: college students.
Nathan Weiner, a recent graduate of George Washington University, is the executive director of the National Union of Jewish LGBTQQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer and Questioning) Students and the overseer of its first-ever executive board. According to him, “There are probably about 10 or 15 self-sufficient, strong campus groups across the country.” When including smaller groups, this number jumps to several dozen. Weiner is currently seeking to unify the dispersed groups under his umbrella organization.
“It’s fairly recent that we’ve begun to pay attention to the needs of this group of students,” said Mychal Copland, a Hillel rabbi who, since 2001, has helped found groups at Stanford and UCLA. “Many Hillels for years and years have hoped that they were welcoming to LGBT students, but didn’t know what that really meant.” Copland said that “Hillels are starting to go through that transformation” in much the same way that many synagogues and other communal organizations have refashioned themselves in a way that is more welcoming to gay members.
Debbie Bazarsky, Princeton’s gay student services coordinator, first became involved with Hillel programming when one of the organization’s professional conferences was held on Princeton’s campus. Upon interacting with professionals there, she developed a questionnaire titled “Is Your Hillel Welcoming to LGBT Students?” which includes questions like “How would you react if a Jewish LGBT student came out to you?” and “Would you have resources to provide the student?” Other documents that Bazarsky developed include lists of print and online resources for Hillels to share with students, as well as programming ideas.
Jewish campus gay groups — often named Keshet (Hebrew for “rainbow”) — tend to sponsor the same sorts of pizza parties and discussion sessions that are the lifeblood of campus life. Like most Jewish activities on campus, the groups are typically part of local Hillels or other campus Jewish student umbrella organizations. One of the year’s more significant events for campus gay groups is the Passover Seder, which, with its emphasis on the theme of liberation, has had particular appeal.
Kerry Chaplin, a recent graduate of Washington University in St. Louis who led the gay Jewish group there, said of homophobia on campus, “It’s about the same as it would be in the general society. There’s homophobia everywhere, and we’re just trying to educate it away.”
Chaplin’s group helped to develop Washington University’s first-ever gay formal. “People said, ‘I’ve never felt so comfortable on campus before, I’ve never felt so comfortable at a party before,’” Chaplin said of the reaction to the dance. His work is noteworthy for how it has bridged the Jewish and the broader gay agenda. At several campuses, Jewish students such as Chaplin have found themselves leading both the gay community in general and its Jewish group.
A primary sticking point for the campus gay groups in general has been many Hillels’ and other campus Jewish organizations’ focus on singles events that are premised on a heterosexual model. “A lot of the state colleges in particular do programming around singles… to help Jewish students meet each other in a dating environment,” Bazarsky said. However, those contacted by the Forward agreed, if such events were made more universal, there wouldn’t be as much of a problem.
“I don’t think having a Jewish marriage [as a goal would] exclude Jewish LGBT community members,” said Seth Brisk, executive director of the San Francisco Hillel, describing his Hillel’s approach to developing a universal environment.
Brisk’s Hillel is one example of several that actually have seen gay groups come and go. In the case of San Francisco, Brisk said, students “who have taken part in our programs, they’re out in terms of their status but feel, fortunately, comfortable in our regular programs.” According to Brisk, as the Hillel came to be seen as an accepting environment and the general gay groups on campus opened up to Jewish students, students stopped developing the gay group at Hillel.
The collapse of a select few Jewish gay groups on campus has led to the question of whether, in a truly open environment, such groups will continue to serve a purpose. According to Princeton’s Bazarsky, the ideal situation would be when both Jewish and non-Jewish students “feel like their concerns are integrated.”
Steven I. Weiss is editor and publisher of CampusJ.com.