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

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