Onlookers from either side of Seventh Avenue in Tampa, Fla., throw beads and candy as about 40 some college students march down the street carrying rainbow flags, wearing T-shirts with Stars of David and holding signs that read “Shalom is for everyone” and “Another Jew for LGBTQ equality.”
The students from the University of South Florida’s Hillel are marching in the Tampa Pride Parade.
One student shouts, “We’re the chosen people, of course we’re accepting!” The crowd cheers the students on, yelling out names of holidays and foods from Jewish culture.
“It felt really good to get that kind of support,” Eitan Quitoriano says of the March 25 parade, his last as the Hillel’s student president before graduating.
Across the country, Hillels like Quitoriano’s have long been opening their doors to the LGBTQ community, whether by marching, hosting noted speakers, focusing Passover Seders on modern themes of oppression and liberation, or holding Shabbat services uniquely celebrating gender and sexual identity. By and large, the force driving this commitment to inclusivity are the students themselves.
Hillel at Kent State University has added gender-neutral bathrooms on the recommendation of its student board. Hillel JUC, which serves students at University of Pittsburgh, Carnegie Mellon University and Duquesne University, has unveiled a gender-neutral bathroom as well.
The night before the parade in Florida, students come together to celebrate Shabbat and prepare for the day ahead. The gathering allows introductions to be made between Hillel’s students and the school’s wider LGBTQ community, says Julie Lichterman, the organization’s student vice president.
“I had never been in a parade before, especially an LGBTQ parade,” she says. “There was so much excitement. Everyone had a smile on their face. Everyone was supporting the same cause.”
Lichterman says the Hillel’s participation in the parade allows her to meet students that she would not have met otherwise.
As a part of the executive board, she and Quitoriano are required to undergo training that teaches students conflict resolution, terminology to discuss LGBTQ issues respectfully and “how to see their world through their shoes,” Quitoriano says.
Ariel Glogower, a junior studying speech pathology at USF, says the Hillel’s involvement in the Tampa Pride Parade is “prodigious.”
“Being a Jewish lesbian, I find it exceptional to be appreciated in Hillel and not judged based on my sexual orientation,” she explains. “Hillel accepts me for being an open-minded woman and what I can offer to the Jewish and [LGBTQ] community.”
At the same time students at USF are preparing to march down Seventh Avenue, Jack Luckner, a transgender student at the University of Massachusetts Amherst is planning an LGBTQ Passover Seder.
“What does it mean to be liberated when different parts of our identities have different kinds of liberation or oppression?” Luckner asks. “What does it mean to be liberated when we might be participating in someone else’s oppression?”
These are the questions Luckner, a senior at Amherst studying public health and women, gender and sexuality studies, poses at the Seder. The Seder is a perfect venue to discuss liberation and oppression, because the story of the Jewish people leaving Egypt employs both themes.
For the modern LGBTQ community, oppression “could be something like discriminatory laws,” Luckner says. “In some states you can marry whoever you wish, but if you do that you can be fired from your job.”
Liberation means no longer facing that kind of oppression, Luckner adds.
The Seder is not Luckner’s first time holding an LGBTQ event at his Hillel. In November 2016, Luckner hosted a Transgender Day of Remembrance. The service was dedicated to mourning recent deaths of transgender individuals.
Luckner says the transgender community’s struggle for acceptance in religious spaces is the motivation for the day of remembrance.
“Taking that religious space,[the Hillel], and giving these people that importance” when they were not considered important during their lives “was something that I thought was needed,” Luckner says.
At the end of the service, attendees share what action they will take to stop violence against the transgender community. Luckner is “going to keep doing this work and keep being active and trying to bring people together.”
Hillels elsewhere incorporate LGBTQ discussion into their Shabbat programming.
At San Francisco State University, for instance, students recently hosted a Shabbat featuring Rabbi Andrew Ramer, author of “Queering the Text,” which takes Jewish stories and reimagines them with LGBTQ plots and undertones.
One such story features an additional child of Adam and Eve named Jerah. In that story, Jerah knows he is different from his siblings. He wanders from town to town looking for someone like him. When Jerah meets one of his sister’s sons, Naam, the two are attracted to each other.
“When Jerah and Naam looked at each other for the first time, their hearts like birds flew out of their breasts toward each other,” the story reads.
Ramer told stories like this one, which is called “The Seeker,” to students at San Francisco State University during its “Rainbow Shabbat.”
“It was very moving just to have that kind of energy around in the Hillel,” says Scott McDonald, a senior at San Francisco State University who identifies as bisexual. “It felt more like a celebratory kind of Shabbat.”
At the University of Arizona, students invite Moshe Alfisher to lead an alternative Shabbat service. Alfisher, an Israeli native who works for Hillel International, is a member of the LGBTQ community who speaks to others about his struggles coming out as gay to his parents and community.
“I thought that I could not say that I believe in God and say that I am gay,” Alfisher told students. “Now I am proud to be gay, I am proud to be Jewish, and I am proud of my Israeli community.”
The goal, echoes Maya Griswold, who identifies as gay and helped organize the service, is to open the Hillel “up to students who aren’t directly involved … so they can come and see how our Hillel, and religion in general, can be very accepting to the LGBTQ community.”