Even as a fly on the wall, I could tell that the community in the Hillel International LGBTQIA2S+ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer and/or Questioning, Intersex, Asexual, Two-Spirit) Student Cohort was going to be something special. The cohort invites queer Jewish students to come together once a month for social and educational programming, to build relationships across campuses, and form a sense of community, with the intent of creating a safe and supportive environment in the Hillel community.
The person championing this cohort is Nathan Waldman, who was inspired by the Exodus Queer Seder that took place at University of Washington Hillel during this year’s Passover. After enjoying this event, they started a successful smaller version of the student cohort at the University of Oregon. Energized by the community built at Oregon, Waldman took the idea to the Hillel International Student Cabinet, of which they are a member. Waldman wanted to create this type of cohort on a larger scale: “We’ve never had a space within our movement [Hillel] for LGBTQIA2S+ students on a global scale. I think it’s something I needed. The cohort is something other students in our movement really find value in.” Joining Nathan in leading the cohort are Clark University student Elijah Cohen-Gordon and University of Utah student Abram Berry.
“The first thing I noticed during the meeting I attended was how welcoming everyone is,” said B Littman, a student at the University of Nebraska and an attendee of the October meeting. Students were welcomed in and put into breakout rooms for discussions led by the other facilitators. Facilitators asked the group questions to prompt small talk and help spark connections and camaraderie in the group. Each attendee seemed excited to be there, eager to make friends and supportive of their peers. The group’s theme for the evening was “coming out” in coordination with National Coming Out Day on Oct. 11. Using the concept from the Exodus Queer Seder, attendees were encouraged to talk about their own coming out experiences and relate them to the exodus from Egypt. Waldman described this as “a great way for students to connect their identities with Torah and have a discussion about that with other students.”
To share their stories, students were put in the same breakout groups as before. While students weren’t required to share, having smaller, and now familiar, groups allowed students to open up more easily. Some participants chose to share their stories, some said that they were still not out yet. The goal of the cohort is to make people feel as comfortable as they can be, and it was clear that idea resonated with the group. No matter where an individual was in their journey, the group accepted them with open arms.
“I see this space as a place where people who have not traditionally felt accepted in Jewish spaces or Hillel spaces … can show up however they are, in whatever part of their journey they’re at,” Waldman said. “Here, people get to be themselves, whatever that means to them.”
Littman agreed: “I really value opportunities to connect with others similar to me. The cohort provides me an opportunity to collaborate, learn, and connect with other Jewish LGBTQIA2S+ leaders and makes me feel like I’m part of a larger community.”
In addition to building community, cohort meetings are designed to teach attendees about the various experiences of Jewish LGBTQIA2S+ people. “We want this to be a space where people can learn about different topics,” Waldman said. Waldman told attendees that the topics will be different at each meeting, and that the discussion topics can be molded by their wishes or suggestions. The point of the cohort is to make sure the attendees are feeling supported, both personally and educationally, explained Waldman.
Waldman explained that this cohort is unique because it focuses on people who have struggled with acceptance in the Jewish community specifically because of their sexual orientation and/or gender identity. The next cohort meeting is this week, and Waldman also hopes to have more events throughout the year outside the monthly cohort meeting. They encourage LGBTQIA2S+ allies to attend upcoming events open to the entire Jewish community.
“The beauty of Hillel is we’re able to meet people wherever they are in their journey – their Jewish journey and their identity journey,” said Waldman. They said that, despite the newness, members of the cohort are already becoming friends. Waldman hopes that with more time, the community will only grow stronger. With the positive energy Waldman and other students bring to the cohort, it’s clear that the community is well on its way.
To get involved, sign up for the student cohort, or check out the Hillel@Home website and the Hillel International Instagram page.