8 Gays of Channukah

by | Jan 30, 2020 | Jewish Life at York, LGBTQ+

York University has been in the media a lot in recent months. Often, what gets left on the cutting room floor is the voice of students, particularly Jewish students.

I think this is what I value most about my role as LGBTQ+ engagement intern for Hillel York- that I get to speak directly for and to students, as a student myself.

In this position, I have had the pleasure of meeting dozens of queer Jews from not only York, but all nine Hillel Ontario campuses. Some are openly queer, many are not. Many have never been to a Hillel before. Regardless, I welcome the opportunity to speak to them, find out what they need to feel welcome in a Jewish space, and relay the information back. We have hosted several successful events on campus before, from games (“gay-mes”) night to screenings of LGBTQ+ Jewish films like “Call Me By Your Name.”

This process of student-led discovery and practicing “radical welcoming” is how we came up with our blockbuster December event, which drew unprecedented crowds and reached new audiences. In consultation with queer Jewish students in October, it was clear that they wanted a large party in the historic Toronto “Village” neighborhood.

So, we came up with “The 8 Gays of Channukah.”

I knew early on that I wanted to involve Hillel Ryerson and Hillel UofT in this project, because I believe that the boundaries of the Jewish community go further than the walls of one Hillel space or another. At a time of increased anxiety about antisemitism, I felt that we needed to display a united front. We dubbed ourselves “Rainbow Jews,” a tri-campus initiative to provide programming for queer Jewish students. This was a bold and necessary position for Hillel to take: queer Jews are welcome here.

Hillel was supportive from the very beginning. They helped pay our talent fairly, made changes to the poster to ensure it credited the performers to our satisfaction, and when I was worried about security at the event, reassured me they were going to do whatever it takes to keep us safe. Hillel was with us one hundred percent, listening and learning as we went.

The event, billed as a “queer Jewish variety show,” showcased eight performers who identify as Jewish and queer. From drag queens to stand up comedy to live singing (in two languages!), we really had it all. There was standing room only, and smiles from ear to ear. Performers included Twinkie LaRue, Alissa Brink, Shardona, Jordan Pines, Yan Shvartsman, Amitai Zand and yours truly in drag as Gila Münster, Richmond Hill’s premier Israeli drag star (self-proclaimed).

I could not have asked for a better way to spend the first night of Channukah than with a bar full of fellow queer Jewish students and allies in the Village. Even though my feet hurt in the tight heels I was wearing (3-inch platforms!), I knew I would remember the night forever.

Written by: Gil Segev

The Sukkot Wellness Challenge

The Sukkot Wellness Challenge

I love the holiday of Sukkot and look forward to it every year. While often overshadowed by the High Holy Days, I find that it offers us a chance to relax after the intensity of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. For a week, we are invited to enjoy the outdoors, to celebrate abundance, and to express gratitude (going back to the holiday’s roots as a celebration of a successful harvest season). 

Yet, accessing the joy, the gratitude, and the togetherness of Sukkot seemed almost impossible given the challenges posed by the pandemic, and the fact that we as a Hillel community remain scattered across the GTA (and beyond!), spending most of our days connecting only virtually. 

At the same time, perhaps the most important word of our season has been “wellness.” We, students and staff, have been particularly attuned to the need to care for our mental, physical, spiritual, and emotional wellbeing. To state the obvious, it’s a tough time. As a Hillel community, we knew we had to try to meet the moment. 

Students from York, Ryerson and UofT gathered to brainstorm together: What did they need most right now? What did their friends, classmates, and peers need? How could we find a way to both celebrate Sukkot and care for ourselves across virtual time and space? 

What emerged was Sukkot Wellness Week, a menu of experiences that spanned the week of Sukkot, offering multiple ways to mindfully care for ourselves and each other.

First, there was a daily instagram prompt, alternating between thoughtful and silly questions about Sukkot, inviting students to think about their favourite fall comfort foods, Sukkah decorations, and what special guests they would welcome into their metaphorical (or actual) Sukkah. 

Second, we offered a different experience each day, focused on a different area of wellness.

  • Spiritual: on Tuesday, students joined me in learning Jewish texts related to the deep connections between Sukkot and wellness.
  • Mental: on Wednesday, students hosted a Wellness Wednesday check-in, a preview of what we hope will be a regular fixture in our Hillel calendar. 
  • Physical: On Thursday, a student prepared a meditation to offer us a chance to breathe and to pay attention to how we were feeling in our bodies. 
  • Emotional: On Friday, a student led trivia and other games as a way to destress from the week. Much laughter ensued.

By design, there was something for everyone. More importantly, Sukkot Wellness Week set the stage for an ongoing conversation about how we care for our full selves, and how this is deeply grounded in what it means to live Jewishly. Our work is far from over, and while Sukkot only lasts a week, it’s themes can help power us through the year ahead. 

Rabbi Ariella Rosen, Senior Jewish Educator

My LGBTQ+ Jewish Story

My LGBTQ+ Jewish Story

I was born and raised in Israel, where almost everyone I knew was Jewish. My paternal side has deep roots in Israel, and my maternal side had a Romanian Holocaust survivor. After moving to Canada in elementary school, my family maintained strong connections to Israel, and regularly attended synagogue, UJA’s “Walk with Israel” and Hebrew Sunday school. In high school, however, I gradually drifted away from my Jewish identity because I (mistakenly) believed it contradicted my emerging queer identity. I had no “possibility models” to demonstrate a balanced, successful queer Jewish life, and felt extremely isolated in my identity. While my peers were exploring the world of dating, I was struggling to figure out where I fit.

It took me going on the second-ever Birthright-Taglit trip to Israel in June 2018 that was catered to LGBTQ+ Jews to truly learn to live openly as a queer Israeli Jew in Canada. Meeting 40 people who shared parts of my identity and were living joyful, fulfilling lives inspired me to allow Judaism back into my life, while continuing to explore my queer identity.

After that trip, I was inspired to lead the third “Show Your Pride” trip in 2019, and worked at Machane Lev, Canada’s first sleepover Jewish LGBTQ+ summer camp. Before returning to classes at York University last fall, I also reached out to Hillel York to see if they were offering queer Jewish programming for me to get involved in. While they didn’t have anything at the time, they instantly offered me an internship to help them to build this community. They were incredibly supportive in the entire process; I had their ears on every issue that I brought up, and they generously provided any resources I thought were necessary. 

York is a diverse campus, and its Hillel community reflected that. I’m so proud that our “Rainbow Jews” initiative developed so quickly and began expanding across all Ontario campuses. From an all-drag Chanukah party to biweekly casual drop-ins and one-on-ones, we met students at the level that they feel comfortable in. We also began to implement systemic changes to make everyone feel safe and welcome in the Hillel community. It was a pleasure and an honour to meet all the beautiful queer Jews and their allies during this experience.

Now, as an alumni of Hillel York, I hope to take what I have learned and continue to raise awareness of queer and Jewish issues in Toronto and beyond. I also look forward to seeing “Rainbow Jews” continue to grow and become a resource for students across every campus.

Written by Gil Segev