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