Last February, B’nai Keshet was expelled from Ohio State University Hillel for participating in a fundraiser for LGBTQ refugees that was co-sponsored by 15 other organizations, including Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP)—a Jewish organization which supports the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. Yesterday, B’nai Keshet and Open Hillel publicly called for Hillel International and Ohio State Hillel to get rid of the policies that resulted in B’nai Keshet’s expulsion and reinstate the group in a move that was reported on by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, The Forward and Haaretz.
Elaine Cleary, a senior at Ohio State University and leader in B’nai Keshet, spoke with Amelia Dornbush, a one-time internal coordinator of Open Hillel who graduated from Swarthmore in 2015, about the challenges of student activism and the pain that accompanies feeling alienated from your community. The interview that follows reflects the personal experiences and perspectives of two activists who, two years apart, worked to make the Jewish community more pluralistic.
Amelia Dornbush: First things first. How are you holding up?
Elaine Cleary: You know, it’s a little exhausting. I really wish for so many reasons that Hillel had just let us do the fundraiser and stay in to begin with. I really hope that the national American Jewish community will heed our call to tell Hillel to let us back in.
AD: How would you describe what happened with B’Nai Keshet and Hillel?
EC: So, B’nai Keshet co-sponsored a fundraiser with 15 other LBGT community groups. Because one of the co-sponsors was JVP, B’nai Keshet was kicked out of Ohio State Hillel. This was very sad, because not only did we lose the logistical and financial support of Hillel, we also lost our connection to the Jewish community symbolically and physically. This is very troubling to me as a Jewish lesbian, because I believe it’s important to have strong visible presence of queer students on campus, and I don’t think people should have to choose between two identities.
AD: Can you expand on this idea of having to choose between identities?
EC: I think that when we’re asked to not do an event with the queer community because of this political hang up that Hillel has, we’re being asked to not be a part of the queer community and to be a part of Hillel instead. Their policy implies that we cannot work with any group that supports BDS on any event—the Muslim student association, for example, supports divestment, as does SHADES—which is the group for LGBT students of color, the OSU Coalition for Black Liberation, even the UNICEF group supports divestment.
AD: And to clarify, B’nai Keshet has no position on BDS?
EC: Correct. We have no position on any political thing ever. We watch movies; hang out and watch “Transparent.” We did a Shabbat dinner where we talked about famous gay Jewish people. I am pretty sure I am the only member of B’nai Keshet that is a member of JVP, but I don’t ask them what their political affiliations are. The group wants to do what the group wants to, which is hang out and watch movies. We aren’t really involved in political work because there’s no interest in it. And I think that’s fine, watching “Transparent” is just as important.
AD: So, I know from personal experience that doing this work can be exhausting. What made you decide to share your story publicly?
EC: I think a lot of queer people are very hesitant for a lot of reasons to publicly out themselves—not that I necessarily feel more comfortable, but I feel a strong sense of responsibility to all the LGTBQ people that come after to me stand up and say that this is not okay—that Jewish LGBTQ people deserve to be a part of the queer and Jewish communities fully. I don’t want just to be quiet and roll over and let this happen. There is going to be a lot of backlash, but gay Jewish people have just as many rights as straight and cis Jewish people do. Hopefully there will be a B’nai Keshet in the future, but if there isn’t, I want there to be someone who stood up and said there should be. Because I wish there was had been someone like that for me.
AD: I remember when Swarthmore Hillel first sent out our press release declaring ourselves to be an open Hillel, I threw up, out of nerves. Has the process of doing this been anxiety-provoking for you or the people you know?
EC: It’s been incredibly anxiety-provoking, not only for me, but for many people in our organization. The other leaders and I have been having trouble sleeping, we’ve been having anxiety dreams over this. You find yourselves pitted against the rabbis and the staff, and all of these people who are supposed to support you. It’s very painful to see them working against you, privileging Hillel International and the donors. It’s also been stressful to face the homophobia that accompanies this. It’s happened before, but you never get used to it. As hard as it is, that’s how you know you’re doing something important—if it scares you a little bit.
AD: Has this changed your relationship with Hillel staff?
EC: It has, yeah. I understand that Hillel staff and I have different political opinions, and I’ve never felt that should prohibit us from working together, from worshiping together, or having positive relationships in the Jewish community. But what’s really been painful in this experience is realizing that the staff members whom I previously cared about and respected don’t feel that way about me. They see us as political pawns. You spend two years working together to build this organization and you both have this shared mission of building Jewish student life on campus. And then you realize that’s fraudulent—they don’t really share that commitment. And it’s really painful to confront staff members and say this is what we need as Jewish students, and for them to say no, we can’t do that, because of this policy.
AD: What’s been the most difficult part of this experience so far?
EC: I think it would have been having to explain to each of our members what Hillel had done. When we called for the vote about whether we should continue to sponsor the event, we had to recount to everyone that Hillel had said we could not sponsor this event for refugees or they’d kick us out. It’s hard to go to them to say the community is against you.
AD: What about the most rewarding?
EC: I think it’s been very empowering to stand up against what I see as homophobia. It’s always empowering when someone tries to put you down and say you don’t deserve the same rights as everyone else, and you say yes you do.
The other thing has been to see the huge outpouring of support from Open Hillel, JVP, other LGBT students on campus. It’s really hard when it feels like the Jewish community is against you, especially because it’s getting close to Passover, but it’s been rewarding to see so many of our other communities stepping up and standing up for us.
AD: Speaking of Passover, do you think this event will this change the way members of your group experience the holiday?
EC: Yes it will. B’nai Keshet has had a Rainbow Seder in Hillel every year, in collaboration with Hillel staff. It’s been a huge event—Jewish and non-Jewish people come. The Rainbow Seder was a powerful coming out moment for me; it’s a very personal kind of experience. It will be held this year, but held outside of Hillel for the first time ever. And I really want to emphasize that we’re still having it. It will be great. But it is really sad that we won’t have the community support we used to have.
AD: What is one thing you hope that people understand about the experience of being a student activist?
EC: Just how much money and power there is against you and how high the stakes are. And how nothing is ever really a defeat, ever really a loss. By virtue of speaking up and standing out, you are creating ripple effects. There is no such thing as a stupid ask. The fact that you stood up and shook things up and the fact that you destabilized a status quo is a victory.
AD: Has this changed the way you feel about or look at the Jewish community in a larger sense?
EC: Yes and no. I’m really disappointed in certain institutions in the Jewish community like Hillel International. At the very least, they’re limiting Jewish life, and at worst destroying it. They’re placing limitations on how and where to build in Jewish community. In my opinion Jewish life is about equal rights for everyone, not just straight and cis Jews.
At the same time, the broader American Jewish community will hopefully recognize that and say OSU Hillel you aren’t speaking for the Jewish community, you’re speaking for yourself and Hillel International and the donors.
AD: What if they don’t?
EC: Well, then we’ll keep fighting. If B’nai Keshet is not re-admitted, we’re going to stay. And we’re going to continue demanding to exist as part of our Jewish community. And if they keep saying no, we’re going to keep on. We’re not going anywhere.
AD: When we declared Swarthmore as an open Hillel, we got emails comparing us to kapos. Have you been insulted or received any threats for the work you’re doing?
EC: Yeah, I was compared to the Nazis and to the KKK for deciding to work with Jewish Voice for Peace on an event.
AD: How does it feel?
EC: Incredibly painful and deeply ironic. My family was affected by the Holocaust. I’ve received death threats from neo-Nazis for activism that I’ve done in the past. Some of them were “Internet Nazis” and others claimed to be OSU students. I always report the threats to the University.
It’s even more painful because those groups are incredibly racist and homophobic, and the work we’re doing is explicitly anti-racist and anti-homophobic. I’m still very shaken from it honestly.
AD: My last question comes from my personal experience. How have you fared balancing schoolwork, non-B’nai Keshet commitments, and this?
EC: It’s really hard. I can only do it because I’m a second semester senior. My grades have suffered as a result of B’nai Keshet, I’ll admit. It’s not like we’re getting paid to do this work—we’re all doing this because we want to be Jewish. We’re doing this because we think it’s the right thing to do.
This conversation, edited for clarity and space, does not necessarily reflect the position of Lilith Magazine.