New Voices: Campus Report

Inside Hillel's Closet

By Carla Lancit

As the co-president of Hillel at Emory, Paul Entis was deeply involved in the Jewish community when he came out in 1991. Soon after, a member of the Hillel executive board set in motion an attempt to impeach him. There was no pretense. The move was based on the assumption that Hillel should not be represented by an openly gay Jew. Reaction in the community was mixed. Many members of the board and community immediately came to Entis's defense, but others supported impeachment.

Eventually Entis did stay on, and his challenger was tossed out, but the memory of how mean-spirited and divisive the issue became stays with him. It wouldn't be surprising if, after all this, he decided to distance himself from the mainstream Jewish community. But Entis is now the interim director at USC Hillel.

Although there have been great strides in the past few years, he feels that many Hillels are still uncomfortable with, and unsure of how to deal with the gay community. "Hillel is supposed to be a welcoming place. I think that we need to acknowledge that even in 1997 many Hillels still have work to do in order to create an environment that truly embraces people of all sexual orientations. Unless Hillel staff and students are intentional in their efforts to create a welcoming atmosphere and climate, gay Jews will continue to remain on the periphery of the Jewish community if not be entirely excluded from it."

Some campuses have succeeded in creating a warm environment for gay Jewish students. Josh Sonnen, a 21-year-old USC junior from El Paso, Texas, got a phone call from the campus rabbi before he arrived at school. She had called to welcome him to the school because she knew that he was gay and wanted to make sure that he was comfortable once he arrived.

Entis and Sonnen, however, are rarities. Faced with an unorganized gay Jewish community, and Jewish professionals who don't quite know what to do with them, most gay Jewish students are left to find their own places in both the gay and Jewish communities.

"Tamara Levy" was a varsity athlete at an Ivy League school when she first identified herself as a lesbian. "Most of the women on my crew team were queer, so I found this amazing community of women and I felt that I was like them in some ways, but none of them was Jewish."

Frustrated by the gender roles in her synagogue, Levy had rejected her traditional Jewish community as a child. "I came out within the context of a lesbian community, and all of a sudden I was Jewish and it became very important to me to find a Jewish queer community as well."

During her search for a way to blend her Jewish and lesbian identities, Levy used a research grant to spend a summer interviewing Jewish lesbians. She found that while some of the women were angst-ridden and felt alienated, many had successfully integrated these two parts of their lives.

"Coming out shatters your assumptions of who you are. Itšs a radical reevaluation of how you view yourself. If you fit into the usual bar mitzvah, day school, Jewish wedding pattern, you can go through your whole life without really thinking about it. But if you don't, you have to decide to either reject it or make something meaningful for yourself within Judaism."

The idea of reexamining one's identity is echoed by "Shauna Richler," a student at York University. "I wasn't very Jewish-identified when I was coming out, and it didnšt seem like a conflict to me because I wasn't religious and I was pretty fed up with mainstream Judaism anyway. I came back to caring about Jewish culture because I had to fight for my sexuality; it made me think about other privileges and oppressions I had."

Other students who have tried to reconcile their Jewish and gay identities have faced incredible resistance. Chana Rothman, a 21-year-old Oberlin student, tried unsuccessfully to start a gay Jewish group on her campus. One student she approached said "being gay comes up in my everyday life, being Jewish doesn't." This type of response hit her hard. "I didnšt know how to deal with people who were proud to be queer but not proud to be Jewish. It took me a long time to realize that I couldnšt count on queer Jews to give me support. I could count on Jewish friends to give me Jewish support, and queer friends to give me queer support, but those two were not going to meet."

While there are certainly many Jews who have specific recollections of homophobic experiences growing up, the major stumbling block for young Jews trying to reconcile their gay and Jewish identities seems to be the virtual invisibility of homosexuality in the Jewish community. For Entis, "the fact that this was a taboo topic certainly sent a message that there was something wrong with being gay and that the community was not about to embrace or welcome gay Jews into its inner circle."

Jerry Janoff, a 25-year-old student at NYUšs law school, recalls that homosexuality was simply not discussed. In fact, though he went to synagogue and afternoon Jewish school on a regular basis, spent summers at camp Ramah, went to Israel and was active in both USY and BBYO, he can remember only one brief mention of homosexuality during a sexuality discussion at a USY regional weekend. "The main reason that I waited until 22 to come out was that I didn't see being gay as being an alternative."

Melanie Kohler, a 22 year old grad student at Columbia University, also grew up in USY and even served as a USY advisor. "Had there been gay and lesbian role models when I was in USY perhaps my experience would have been different. If there had been a positive role model of an out gay or lesbian, that might have been something I would have considered. It would've made the coming out process easier." Many of Kohler's friends left the Jewish community when they came out, a fact that she attributes in part to the community's reluctance to acknowledge the issue of gay and lesbian Jews. "I think gays and lesbians have been invisible in the Jewish community for too long. Since itšs now easier for people to come out younger in their lives, it's important for the Jewish community to address it so we donšt lose people. Youth groups and Hebrew school and all the messages we were given were based on a heterosexual model, so it's taken people a long time to reconcile their gay and lesbian identity within the heterocentrist, patriarchal Jewish community."

Finding a way to be gay in the Jewish world is only half the battle. These students must also find a way to be Jewish in the gay world. Though the gay community is traditionally liberal and accepting of difference, anti-Semitism still exists. Centuries of persecution in the name of God have made many members wary of organized religion, and others have brought with them the biases of their upbringing. The gay community is essentially a microcosm of larger society and therefore anti-Semitism, racism and sexism are alive and present.

Most of the problems encountered by Richard Sobel, a 21 year old Brandeis student, are from the larger Jewish community and not the student population. A key issue for gay Jews is not overt homophobia or anti-Semitism, but a sense of being overlooked. Sobel cites two major scheduling problems in this year alone: the annual gay pride march is on a Saturday, and National Coming Out Day is on Yom Kippur (Oct. 11).

Of course, gay and lesbian Jewish students are also dealing with the 'Who am I, and how do I want to live my life?' kinds of identity questions that plague all twenty-somethings. Like their straight peers, issues of interfaith dating are a concern among queer Jewish students, and they tend to have the same, varied, responses. Some will only date Jews, others say they will date non-Jews but want their life partner to be Jewish, and many simply donšt care. Some, like Sobel, feel that dating Jews will make their parents more accepting of their gay lifestyle. The common thread is that the gender of one's romantic partner should not affect one's choice to date Jews. "As Jews therešs a lot of pressure to grow up, marry a nice Jewish boy, and have a lot of kids," noted Tamara Levy. "I can still have kids and lead a very Jewish life. I didnšt realize that I had that option. It is important for me to end up with a Jewish woman."

Merging gay and Jewish identities is a continuous, arduous process, but for those who are successful, it can be extremely rewarding. In the words of Josh Sonnen: "I've had a wonderful experience being a gay Jew. I recommend it for everybody."

Carla Lancit is the Editorial Assistant at Moment magazine.