UCLA Hillel recently held one of its first gay-themed programs in years. But with the initiator of the program about to depart, the effort to reach out to gay students may lose steam.
The program, Trembling Before God, presented a panel of Orthodox, Conservative and Reform rabbis to explore Judaism and homosexuality, drawing an audience of about 80 students and community members.
While UCLA Hillel's programs generally target specific groups of Jews, such as Persians or Russians, or Jews in fraternities or sororities, the gay community has often been left out.
"UCLA has quite an active gay and lesbian group, and a lot of the students there are Jewish. But [they] feel ostracized from the Jewish community for reasons that aren't really appropriate and ideas that aren't really Jewish," said Roee Ruttenberg, the UCLA graduate who put the program together.
Ruttenberg, who has worked part time at Hillel since he graduated last year, is planning to leave for graduate school next year.
"It's not that Hillel [at UCLA] is not supportive, it's just that there's no active outreach," said Ronni L. Sanlo, director of UCLA's Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender (LGBT) Campus Resource Center.
Panelist Rabbi Benay Lappe, one of the Conservative movement's first openly lesbian rabbis, said: "Too many LGBT Jews pass a synagogue and say, 'That's not my place ... because God says I'm not OK.' That's simply not true."
Orthodox Rabbi David Rue, senior justice of the Los Angeles Beis Din (rabbinic court) delineated an approach more tolerant than the standard Orthodox one. "It doesn't matter which commandments someone violates. It is viewed, as far as Orthodoxy, in the same way: There's no such thing as a person that doesn't violate at least some of them sometimes," he said. "The way Jews relate to someone that is homosexual should be no different from the way they relate to anyone else."
UCLA Hillel's director, Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller, told the audience, "Hillel is obligated to make all Jewish students feel comfortable ... and take them seriously, in spite of the fact that they have made some choices that are challenging to normative Judaism."
student Melanie Henderson said, "Rabbi Chaim really seems to want to be okay with us GLBT Jews. He was uncomfortable, but honest enough to do it publicly." Reform Rabbi Lisa Edwards of Los Angeles' Beth Chayim Chadashim (BCC), the world's oldest gay and lesbian synagogue, and Conservative Rabbi J.B. Sacks-Rosen of Congregation Shaarei Torah in Arcadia also appeared on the panel.
After attending the event, UCLA sophomore Adam Levy said he was "definitely more inclined to participate" in Hillel, because he felt welcome as a gay man and a Jew who is not very observant. "Jews know what it's like to be on the outside," he said. "It's important for Judaism to understand the frustration of the closet."
Since Ruttenberg is leaving, it's too early to tell if UCLA Hillel will build on its momentum; its new LGBT group is little more than an e-mail list. Next year, nevertheless, UCLA Hillel will add a seat on its student board for an LGBT community liaison.
"Of course we want to do more such programs, but some of it will depend on who's working here," Seidler-Feller said.
At USC, despite a rich history of programming with the LGBT community, Hillel also faces a similar leadership vacuum, and for the first time in several years it did not sponsor its annual "Queer Seder" during Passover this spring.
"I'm definitely not giving up," said Rabbi Jonathan Klein, USC Hillel director, who has met with other campus leaders to stimulate LGBT programming. "I think it's really important that we have it here."
"Trembling Before God," a new documentary about gay Orthodox Jews, will screen on Los Angeles July 19 this summer at Outfest, (323) 960-0636.