A group of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender UCLA students recently gave Queen Esther, Haman and Queen Vashti a radical makeover.
To jazz up the deliverance of the Jews from evil Haman, 10 LGBT undergrads staged "Purim for Divas." A bisexual woman donning a black cape, Mardi Gras mask and triangular hat played the evil Haman. A drag queen resplendent in tight sparkly skirt and heels appeared as Queen Vashti; Queen Esther was a gay man in a dress -- his long, brown hair flowing freely.
After the campy performance, the students drank and danced the night away. Women embraced women; men flirted with men. A good time was had by all.
The 100 or so revelers could thank the Los Angeles Hillel Council and a singular collection of "peer interns" for the memorable evening.
Nineteen students at UCLA, USC, Cal State Northridge and four other Los Angeles-area universities are part of the Jewish Peer Intern Program. They underwent training to learn how to generate excitement about Hillel and Judaism among Jewish students who are largely on the periphery of campus Jewish life.
The group's outreach efforts appear to have paid off: Hillel said 500 Jewish students have developed a deeper connection to the community through their participation.
Around the Southland, only about one in four Jewish college students is affiliated. And these students, including LGBT, interfaith and Persian students, are frequently underserved as well as uninvolved. Instead of trying to bring them to Hillel, Hillel is bringing Judaism to them through dinners, parties and lectures tailored to their interests, said David Levy, executive director of the Los Angeles Hillel Council.
"We want to stimulate Jewish life, create Jewish energy, anything that will strengthen the Jewish community," he said.
The program's personalized approach has resonated with Jewish students and has created a pool of tomorrow's Jewish communal leaders, said John Fishel, president of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.
"If you don't start now, there won't be anybody sitting in the leadership chairs at Jewish organizations in the future," Fishel said. The Federation contributed $100,000 last year to underwrite the program and plans to continue its support, he added.
Hillel recruited interns -- who earned $2,000 apiece -- by advertising in college papers, mass e-mailings and word-of-mouth. The strong response allowed the group to tap talented Jewish students with deep ties to various groups Hillel wanted to reach.
At UCLA, for instance, 25 students competed for three intern spots targeting the gay, lesbian, bisexual community; Jewish student leaders; and Jewish art students. Leah Weiner, a Jewish Campus Service Corps Fellow at UCLA Hillel, interviewed nine candidates in person before making her final selection, settling on the most personable, creative and connected, she said.
UCLA senior Ariana Mechik was chosen to reach out to unaffiliated Jews with an interest in politics. Mechik, a double major in political science and French, sponsored forums once every three weeks where students could listen to and ask questions of local Jewish political leaders about their careers and how Judaism had shaped them. Guest speakers included L.A. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky and Progressive Jewish Alliance Executive Director Daniel Sokatch.
Several who attended the lecture series and other Hillel-sponsored events later sought leadership positions in Bruins for Israel, an advocacy group. Going forward, Mechik said, she wants more Jewish students to run for student body political office to blunt anti-Semitism on campus.
"In general, there are some antagonistic sentiments toward Jewish students [at UCLA] because there's a lot of sympathy for the Palestinian cause," she said. "Israel, I think, doesn't have the best reputation at all times. But I think Jewish students -- who are actively Jewish -- becoming student leaders reflects well on Judaism as a whole here on campus."
For UCLA arts and culture intern Hana Meckler, the program reinforced her love of Judaism and Jews. The UCLA freshman said she forged several close friendships through myriad events she organized, including a visit to the Getty Museum and to a taping of "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno."
"When you have Jewish friends, it's so much easier to be apart of the Jewish community," Meckler said. "I feel that [this program] has done me a service as well as to the people I've reached out to."
Intern Razi Zarchy, 21, said he also personally benefited from the experience because his "Jewish side" had become relatively inactive since his bar mitzvah. The senior linguistic anthropology major had the job of outreach to LGBT students, who, like him, feared ostracism by the Jewish community.
Hillel's outreach into the gay and lesbian community helped UCLA students come out as Jews. It also made a difference for some closeted Jews, who publicly acknowledged their sexual orientation after seeing the strong response to "Purim for Divas," LGBT movie night and the Shabbat dinners Zarchy organized.
"All of this has made people have a positive association with Judaism," he said. "They now realize their religion isn't going to reject them or kick them out for being different."