Pride Month is usually marked by parades and celebrations in major cities. Since the coronavirus has restricted large public gatherings, Hillels are leveraging Hillel@Home and social media to creatively engage students in virtual celebrations and learning opportunities instead.
Marisa Fernandez, program and engagement associate at Hillels of Westchester, was scheduled to co-staff the second Hillel International Pride Birthright Israel trip alongside Ira Kirschner, assistant director at University of Kansas Hillel.
Although the 10-day journey was canceled as the pandemic intensified, Fernandez and Kirschner decided to celebrate and elevate the identities of queer students online.
To help LBGTQ+ students and young professionals find their own spaces of worship, Fernandez is creating a Hillel@Home program called Let’s go synagogue shopping for LGBTQ+ congregations! The program, which is scheduled for fall, will bring together LGBTQ+ Jewish leaders from across the U.S. to discuss inclusive congregational life.
“I’m hoping that participants will walk away with tools to help them identify which synagogues may be the most welcoming to queer people,” Fernandez says.
Hillel@Home is also offering a two-part series with Ofer Erez, the first openly transgender officer in the Israel Defense Forces. Erez, who coordinated and led Jerusalem Pride Marches, will speak about his personal journey as well as the history of the LGBTQ+ community in Israel.
This program provides an opportunity for students to fully embrace each part of their identity, said Kirschner, who is organizing the dialogue with Erez.
“Although we come from different backgrounds and experienced different Jewish journeys, there’s a shared experience for many of us who are a part of the LGBTQ+ community,” Kirschner says. “From a young age, many of us felt we were forced to choose between our Jewish identity or LGBTQ+ identity. It’s important to show students that intersectionality is real.”
During a normal summer, when most students would be off campus pursuing internships and spending time with family, there would be a lull in Hillel programming, Kirschner added. But with many students cooped up indoors during the pandemic, Hillel is finding new opportunities to engage them.
Lauren Goldberg, executive director of Hillel at Ithaca College, also believes the continuation of Hillel’s virtual programming into the summer warrants the celebration of Pride Month.
She explained, “June is usually a quiet month for Hillel without students on campus. All year long, we try to celebrate our queer students, staff and community. Having a virtual platform has allowed us to enter into Pride Month celebrations.”
Hillel at Ithaca College hosted a virtual Pride Havdalah service as part of the larger Ithaca community’s virtual Summer of Pride event series. Goldberg hopes the Havdalah service encouraged students to consider their goals and actions as they continue building more inclusive spaces in their Jewish communities and beyond.
The Pride Havdalah event on June 20 aimed to be a sensory experience for students and celebrate LGBTQ+ identities in a Jewish space. The Facebook event gave students instructions on how to set up a Havdalah service in their own homes. Cantor Abbe Lyons of Hillel at Ithaca College led the service.
Max Kasler, the Hillel International Springboard Fellow at Ithaca College, organized the event alongside his colleagues and Hillel student leaders. Kasler wanted to find a way to celebrate Pride Month while building relationships in his new Hillel community.
“With Pride events being canceled worldwide, it feels really special to be serving the queer Jewish community at a time when we can’t be celebrating at Pride Events like we normally do,” Kasler says. “It’s an escape from our isolated reality to a place where we can celebrate the LGBTQ+ community the way we’re supposed to — together.”
Tali Abraham, a student leader who helped plan the virtual Havdalah, says she wanted LGBTQ+ students, including herself, to find comfort in reconnecting with students through a spiritual celebration during the pandemic.
Other Hillel programs will be available for students this week. The Ambassador of Israel to the United States Ron Dermer is hosting a nationwide, virtual Pride Month celebration on June 25. The event will be streamed on Facebook and YouTube.
Briana Garil, a student leader at WashU Hillel who is planning the event, says this event will provide speakers a platform to share their experiences and facilitate “an informed dialogue about various facets of the LBGTQ+ community.”
Shana Medel contributed to this story.