College Students Need More Queer Jewish Representation

Representation matters, but I didn’t realize how badly college students craved it until I started working with them.

Shortly after graduating from college this past May, I landed my dream job working on college campuses with Hillel, serving as a guide for students on their unique Jewish journeys. These past several months of navigating the “real world” have been filled with things that I didn’t expect. Some of these include how hard it would be to make friends (because it’s truly a completely different world post-college) and how difficult it would be to have any semblance of a set schedule from week to week.

But what surprised me most of all was how much being open about my queer identity would impact the way that students saw themselves within Judaism and how they thought about entering the workforce post-college.

Representation matters, but I didn’t realize how badly college students craved that in the professionals they work with until Jason, a sophomore at Sarah Lawrence College, came up to me at one of my first Shabbats on the job and said, “I’m so glad that you’re here, and that you’re queer.” I went home that night and cried on the phone with my best friend because that was something I had never experienced before, and yet, it is something that continues to happen in the campus work that I do.

When I followed up with Jason about how it felt to have a queer Jewish person working with him, he told me, “[Your] presence as visibly trans and Jewish filled me with joy and a sense of community that I longed for. I started to wear a black kippah with multi-colored Jewish stars. Seeing [you] wearing one too reminded me that my transness and I are Jewish, still.”

For a majority of Americans, Jews look like those they see on television: Jerry Seinfeld, Midge Maisel, and Bernie Sanders. However, the fact of the matter is that American Jewry, especially the younger generations, deviates from the perceived white, heterosexual, wealthy (or at least upper-middle class), able-bodied Ashkenazi norm. Yes, shows such as Broad City and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend have helped to dispel some of the myths about how Jews act and look, but, for an overwhelming amount of Americans, many of the Jewish stereotypes that have survived for decades still stand.

When I reflect back on my time in college and my experiences with the small Jewish community there, I only had a couple of friends who were also queer and Jewish. We clung to one another so tightly at communal Shabbat dinners because the rest of our Jewish college friends seemed homogeneous at times. When they graduated, I created my own space within the community, recreating the Pride Shabbat that one of my friends had first pushed for.

Now, I am a Jewish professional and that seems to hold an inherent power. Students see me, an assigned-female-at-birth person who presents as outside the traditional gender binary, wearing a kippah, as representing some of the same identities they hold. And, while my mash-up of identities may not be exactly the same as theirs, they see that it’s okay to be Jewish outside of the box that society has told them to fit into their entire lives. The fact that I am a Jewish professional with aspirations to become a rabbi signals to them that there is room for them within the tent.

What I’ve experienced on the campuses I serve isn’t an anomaly. Mitchell Gould, advocacy coordinator at Hillel Ryerson in Toronto, Ontario, worked with a student leader last semester during their Holocaust Education Week to put on the classic film Cabaret. “This event made me realize just how many queer Jewish students are interested in queer Jewish events, but don’t necessarily feel comfortable entering a Hillel space,” Gould told me. “I have been reaching out to more of these students and highlighting my own queerness in my interactions with them as a way to understand what my Hillel needs to work on in order to put on programs and maintain a space that makes queer Jewish students feel safe and included.”

Having students see queer Jewish professionals is important not only because it signals to them that they are safe and free to be themselves, but also because they feel like they have an ally to collaborate with who truly “gets it.” One of my Sarah Lawrence College students Quinn recently said, “As a trans woman, no matter where I go, regardless of the environment, there are people who will speak over me, try to paint a certain narrative regarding my character, or discredit my ideas as ‘spoiled complaints.’ I have never felt that way around [you] and knowing that we can share [queer] solidarity with each other through the programs I’ve engaged in has helped me stay involved with Hillel.”

Over the past several months, it hasn’t always been comfortable for me to lean in to my queerness at work when I’m not with my students. Navigating meetings where I’m the first person to say my pronouns in an introduction or having things assumed about me based on my appearance isn’t always easy. I’ve got to admit that imposter syndrome is so very real, and there are often times when I question whether or not I actually belong in a certain space.

And sometimes, I genuinely don’t think I belong because the space I’m in wasn’t built with people like me in mind, not out of malice but rather by accident. But as a valued colleague has told me repeatedly over the past few months, I have to push through the discomfort.

Recently, I was asked by a mentor and dear friend to staff one of the only LGBTQ+ Birthright Israel trip for college-aged Jews and I was thrilled. That my “outness” had been recognized by someone else and that I was being encouraged to live authentically in the workplace was something that I had only dreamed about when I was applying for jobs. The fact that I was being seen as a whole being and not just an employee made me feel valued and respected in a way that I didn’t think was possible.

After signing on to the summer 2020 Pride Birthright Israel trip as a co-staff and my incredible encounters with queer students that I have already experienced on campus, I truly believe that there is a reason that I am here, working in the Jewish non-profit field. I know that I am making an impact every day in my work by continuing to live authentically.

Making way for others in the Judaic tent is important to the continued survival of our people, and I firmly believe that by expressing my queerness and other identities in a variety of ways, I can expand the minds of the people in the rooms that weren’t made for me. Because if I and others in the field are able to start chipping away at the box now, it will be that much easier for my students to enter those rooms, and the same will go for those who follow them. 

Image by Greg Baker/AFP via Getty Images

Marisa Fernandez

Marisa Fernandez works for Hillels of Westchester, where they hope to inspire each student to write their own Jewish story. When not on campus, Marisa can be found drinking too much coffee, writing poetry, and browsing bookstores for radical queer, disabled, and Jewish texts.

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