A student attends the 2006 NUJLS conference at Wesleyan University.
When the Conservative Jewish movement voted in December 2006 to permit openly gay and lesbian students to become rabbis, three-quarters of the student body at the University of Judaism signed a letter of support that stated “as future rabbis, we feel bound by the tenets of halakhah and moved by the ethical challenges posed by our new scientific knowledge and modern understandings of sexual orientation.”
The vote signified a growing acceptance of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) students in the Jewish community and on college campuses.
“Today, heterosexual students are not ashamed to say they know and have friendships with LGBT adults and students,” says Paul Cohen, 60, who recently retired as Hillel’s consultant for Northern California campuses.
The National Union of Jewish Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Intersexual, Queer and Questioning Students (NUJLS), founded in 1998, is America’s largest organization dedicated to serving and empowering Jewish LGBT students and young adults. In May 2007, NUJLS hired its first full-time paid executive director, Vanessa “Vinny” Prell. The position was made possible by a grant from the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation.
“My role [as NUJLS executive director] is to provide education, outreach, empowerment and support for LGBT students,” says Prell, a 2005 graduate of the University of California, Santa Barbara. “And also to work with people who work with LGBT students to create an environment that is positive and welcoming and celebratory of LGBT Jews.”
Every year NUJLS holds an annual conference on a different college campus. Students of diverse sexual and gender identities and diverse religious backgrounds create a supportive community and learn about issues pertaining to both their Jewish and LGBT identities. Prell says 750 students have attended a conference since 1997.
American University senior Michael Weinberger had been “out” as a gay Jew since high school. And while he served as the Shabbat chair at American University Hillel, his first NUJLS conference proved to be an emotional experience.
“I had a very emotional reaction during the Havdalah circle,” says Weinberger. “I thought I’d conquered all the issues of being both gay and Jewish, but being surrounded by other students who were also experiencing the same thing, I thought ‘Wow, this isn’t just my experience, I’m part of a community.’”
Creating community was the impetus for Rabbi Mychal Copeland of Stanford University Hillel and formerly of UCLA Hillel to help a small group of Jewish LGBT students start “Mishpacha.” Eventually the group became a registered campus organization and a member of UCLA’s Queer Alliance. The students organized Shabbat dinners, held movie screenings and even staged a partially-drag Purim shpiel.
“It’s also an engagement tool,” says Copeland. “There are students out there who identify as LGBT and don’t know that their Jewish identity can be meshed with that new identity that they are exploring. Or they come from backgrounds where it was a definite no.”
Razi Zarchy, 23, one of the four students who started Mishpacha at UCLA, says his involvement with the Hillel-supported group allowed him to “go and take up space in Hillel and not feel like an outsider.”
To help other Hillel professionals help Jewish LGBT students not feel like outsiders, two Jewish Campus Service Corps fellows launched the development of a resource guide in December 2006. Set to be released in time for the 2007-2008 academic year, the guide consists of LGBT history and vocabulary as well as information on “Being an Ally,” “Psychological, Emotional and Spiritual Issues of Coming Out,” “Jewish Response to Homophobia” and “Affirming Jewish Text Studies.”
“Even doing something as simple as making bathrooms gender-neutral can go a long way in making a Hillel building a more welcoming space for transgender students,” explains Rachel Singer, senior Jewish Campus Service Corps fellow at the University of Chicago and one of the resource guide developers.
“Many LGBT students grew up in synagogues where they read Leviticus on Yom Kippur and after hearing that your identity is an 'abomination', for some students they are comforted to know that there is a gay Jewish community,” says Copeland. “And that’s a lot, to know they’re not the first to ever experience this conflict.”