Queer Jewish Community Remixed: Organizing without a Critical Mass

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January 3, 2011

On Friday, October 23, 2009, over 50 Columbia and Barnard students crowded into a small seminar classroom on the Barnard College campus. They gathered to make kiddush, eat kosher Indian food, and hear four panelists speak on the subject “Gender, Sex, and Sexuality in the Jewish Community.” The dinner was organized by Gayava, Columbia/Barnard’s LGBTQ/Jewish student group, and the attendees were affiliated with each of the eight Jewish and queer student groups that cosponsored the event, including the transgender club GendeRevolution and a Hillel club focusing on “Jewish law and modernity” called Lalekhet.

This scenario is becoming more and more common on some US college campuses. Like Columbia/Barnard’s Gayava, there is Hamsa at the University of Maryland, Shalem at Brandeis, Bagels at Harvard, and Ga’avah at Cornell. And, of course, it’s not possible to talk about LGBT Jewish campus organizing without mentioning NUJLS—the National Union of Jewish LGBTQQI Students.

Putting the Jew in the Q

LGBTQ Jewish student organizing is one instance of a larger trend on college campuses (and beyond). In response to the limitations of identity-based liberation movements , much emphasis has been placed recently on “intersectionality,” the notion that identities are intertwined and mutually influencing.

Through the lens of intersectionality, it becomes apparent that it is insufficient to base liberation movements on the empowerment of one single identity at a time. Firstly, marginalization is experienced multiply by someone with multiple minority identities. A queer Jew experiences marginalization within mainstream society both as a queer person and as a Jew; moreover, ze most likely also experiences marginalization as a Jew within LGBTQ community and marginalization as a queer person within Jewish community.

Secondly, rather than each identity being “overlaid” and separable, such identities are co-constituted: a queer Jew experiences queerness in a particular way due to being Jewish, as well as Jewishness in a particular way due to being queer. For example, an effeminate gay Jewish man’s relationship with his own effeminacy likely develops in the context of the history of Jewish male gender performance – the history of Jewish masculinity as being defined through scholarship, and the stereotype of Jewish men as being physically weak.

Neither a Jewish empowerment movement nor an LGBTQ empowerment movement adequately addresses these issues. As a result, LGBTQ Jews have begun finding each other and building their own movement, a movement that speaks more thoroughly to their integrated experience of being both Jewish and queer.

Critical Mass

Anyone who is organizing at the margins of any institution or community is familiar with the challenges of critical mass – the difficulty of creating lasting change, or creating a sustainable organization, when only a few people share a certain identity or face a certain challenge. In the Jewish context, I have seen similar issues play out in several other areas, from LGBTQ inclusion at the congregational level, to ending racism and Ashkenazic dominance across Jewish communities, to creating pluralistic worship spaces in contexts in which one denomination or practice is substantially underrepresented.

As you might imagine, achieving critical mass in queer Jewish student organizing is not easy. Jews themselves are usually a minority on college campuses – how significant of a minority depends on the college. LGBTQ students are also a minority on campus—and, depending on the campus, may not be very visible. LGBTQ Jewish students, especially LGBTQ Jewish students who are interested in exploring both of these identities in a public way, are nearly non-existent.

I experienced these challenges as an undergraduate student when I participated in Ga’avah, Cornell University’s Jewish LGBTQ student group. The existence of Ga’avah was one of the factors that inspired me to attend Cornell. As a high school senior living in a small town, a queer/Jewish student group seemed to me to be unbelievably specific. In Los Alamos, NM, neither the Jewish nor the queer community could boast a critical mass of participants, much less the intersection of the two. I didn’t know what I wanted out of college, exactly, but I figured that a college that had a queer/Jewish student group would probably have anything else I could ever want. So off I went in August of 2004, unsure of what awaited me.

Unfortunately, when I arrived at Cornell, Ga’avah was a dying organization. This was clear to me at first glance because I had just spent two years single-handedly trying to resuscitate another dying organization – my high school’s Gay-Straight Alliance. I was disappointed at the state of Ga’avah – I had hoped that as a freshman, I would have the luxury of being a follower while upperclassmen led. But no – not even a year passed before the outgoing president asked me to be her successor.

At the time I said no. But a year later I said yes. And then, for the next couple of years, I worked with a very small team—two graduate students and our advisor, who was an openly lesbian Hillel staff member—to bring speakers, to organize queer Shabbat dinners, and above all, to try to forestall Ga’avah’s perpetually looming dissolution.

The first and obvious question we had was: Where are all the queer Jews? (One Ga’avah member made a Facebook group bearing this question as its title. Unfortunately, it did not succeed in drawing any mysteriously invisible queer Jews out of the woodwork.) According to the Cornell Hillel website, approximately 20 percent of Cornell students are Jewish, with the result that about 3500 Jews frequent the Ithaca campus. The rough estimate that one in ten people is queer (leaving aside for the moment the possibility that universities, and Cornell in particular, might attract a higher or lower proportion of queer people) would place the estimate of Cornell queer Jewish undergraduates at 350. Um, what? Because we were getting about two to three attendees at our events.

Expanded publicity didn’t work. (Not too surprising – we had already been flooding targeted publicity channels, such as queer and Jewish email lists and event calendars, so our only avenue for expansion was untargeted flyering – a strategy that I have never seen work.) Scaling back from big lectures to small, warm social events sort of worked – people enjoyed the events, and the preparations weren’t as labor-intensive for the leaders – but our Shabbat dinners didn’t unearth or inspire any new leaders. One point for community building. Organizational sustainability: still nil.

I was out of ideas. I was also realizing that we weren’t alone in our frustration: progressive groups across campus were struggling to attract a bare minimum of participation. (In the realm of fraternity and sorority parties, on the other hand, business was booming.) Foiled in my attempts to improve attendance by changing our strategies, and heartily sick of hearing “But this is a liberal campus!”, I was ready to look at the bigger picture.

Identity Politics and Reductionism

As I described above, the LGBTQ Jewish movement has been built as a response to the limitations of the single-identity movements. And far be it from me to deny the necessity or importance of LGBTQ Jewish organizing. Nearly every aspect of my life, from professional involvement to social and spiritual community, has been heavily influenced by my involvement in the LGBTQ Jewish movement. There is no doubt that I would be living a completely different life if it were not for my organized involvement with other LGBTQ Jews. On the other hand, the above description of the challenges that Ga’avah (and, based on my conversations with other students, many other similar groups) faced should make it clear that the current queer/Jewish organizing model suffers from significant constraints.

Apart from a few major urban centers, most of them in the United States and Israel, sheer demographics make it nearly impossible to create and sustain a viable queer Jewish presence on a local level. (By viable, I mean one that is self-perpetuating and enriches rather than drains its members – whether the primary focus of a particular group is social, political, or spiritual, or all three, matters less to me.) This problem becomes even more extreme when one considers the slippery slope of intersectionality-based movement-building – if the LGBTQ movement can’t adequately address or speak for the needs of LGBTQ Jews, can the LGBTQ Jewish movement adequately address or speak for the needs of LGBTQ Jews of color? How about Sephardi LGBTQ Jews? How about LGBTQ Jews with disabilities?

How, then, is it possible to continue to develop the richness of LGBTQ Jewish community, while simultaneously overcoming, on the one hand, the logistical challenges of organizing a demographic minority, and on the other hand, the political challenges of making an identity-based group diverse and inclusive in its own right?

A Different Approach

To answer these questions, I want to offer three strategies that, in my experience, make it more possible to organize sustainably in a sub-critical-mass context.

Think smaller

Thanks to the increasingly pervasive corporate model for social change, many of us have a tendency to imagine only one prototype for a “successful” movement or organization: the corporate nonprofit. This model raises all kinds of expectations – we have to have a board of directors, we have to have a constitution, we have to lobby the government, we have to hold public events and lectures, we have to write grants, we have to qualify as an “official campus group,” we have to have a representative on the synagogue steering committee. First and foremost, this model overlooks and devalues many alternative modes of organizing, and privileges organizers with certain types of access based on class, race, normative gender presentation, etc. But beyond that, not every community or association is well-suited to build that type of heavily structured, highly public presence. In the absence of a demographic critical mass, it is often more appropriate to focus on other strategies and goals.

● Identify your dreams, goals, and resources.

The most important way to get beyond a preconceived notion about “success” is to take the time to think clearly, and collectively, about your specific context and goals. What do you and your team wish were possible? What do you think is realistically possible at this point? What, at the root, do you hope to get out of organizing? What do you hope you and your team will be able to provide for others? What opportunities and resources are available to you? Answering these questions can help you come up with realistic goals and a realistic strategy – and, that process may alert you to possible resources that you would have otherwise ignored.

● Build community.

An organization that may be too small to host public events is often large enough to create a sense of much-needed refuge for its few members. Even if the organization is involved in public work, community-building is still an essential defense against burnout. Get together and get to know each other. Go see sights, take hikes, celebrate holidays together. Keep in mind questions of access – who is able to come to these events and who is not? Who is comfortable and who is not? Varying the context and type of gathering over time can help to balance the needs and preferences of different participants.

● Create and enjoy art.

Especially in the internet age, even if we don’t live near many others who share our identities, we can usually access their writing, music, and artwork. Creating art is an important way to articulate experiences, and it’s also a good way to alleviate feelings of invisibility and isolation. Engaging with others’ art can remind us that we’re not alone, and sharing our own art can help us feel more visible and acknowledged, while also giving others hope. Zines are a great, low-budget form of activist art. Newspapers and web-based newsletters are other ways to share resources and connect.

Think bigger (geographically)

For a statistical minority, a demographic critical mass is easier to find when working within a larger geographic area. Consider connecting with a larger-scale organization, or starting one of your own. Even anonymous webgroups and forums can offer opportunities for connection and resource-sharing. Although organizing on a regional, national, or international basis can mean less facetime and more phone-time and email-time, as well as travel costs, it can also mean more collective energy and less burnout. If you don’t want to give up on local organizing, a hybrid small-scale/large-scale structure provides a happy medium – multiple local organizations can share ideas and resources, whether through the internet and the mail, or at an annual or biennial meeting.

Think bigger (politically)

At first glance, the goals of organizing may seem self-evident. We want supportive communal infrastructure, we want to develop a sense of empowerment, we want to promote pluralism. However, there are a variety of ways to achieve these goals, not all of which are obvious. Simply getting together with others with the same combination of identities and plowing ahead is not always the best approach.

● Build coalition (where possible).

You may be the only out queer Jew in your synagogue, but you’re probably not the only person on the margin. Are there Jews of color in your synagogue? Interfaith families? People with disabilities? Sephardic, Mizrachi, or Ethiopian Jews (if your synagogue is Ashkenazi) ? If you’re willing to work with others who are struggling with their role in the community, you have a much more likely chance of reaching critical mass.

Another important reason to build coalition is that all struggles are interconnected. Just as LGBTQ Jewish organizing arose out of the recognition that neither LGBTQ organizing nor Jewish organizing adequately addressed the challenges facing queer Jews, LGBTQ Jewish organizing does not, by itself, address all the many issues faced by members of the diverse LGBTQ Jewish community. Supporting LGBTQ Jewish survivors of domestic violence means working to end domestic violence. Supporting LGBTQ Jewish people with disabilities means working for access for all, not only in our own programming and spaces but in all spaces. Supporting LGBTQ Jewish people of color means working to end racism.

It is important to note that coalition-building has limitations. Don’t try to coalesce with someone who doesn’t want to be in your coalition! At Cornell, Ga’avah proposed to merge with Mosaic, Cornell’s club for same-gender-loving students of color. The leaders of Mosaic said no: even though they too struggled with reaching critical mass, it was extremely important to them to have a space dedicated specifically to queer people of color. Similarly, you and your team may not always be interested in doing coalition work. Sometimes it is really important to be able to spend time in a group of people who share a certain identity, and to say “Outsiders keep out, for now” – even though, of course, just because two people share an identity does not mean they see eye to eye on everything.

Also, if you’re working in a coalition, take responsibility for your side of it. You want other coalition members to get on board with your issues, so get on board with theirs. For example, if you’re a white person working in coalition with people of color, or a cisgendered man working with people of other genders, your collaboration skills are probably limited by your privilege. This may manifest in a variety of ways, including thinking your issues are more important than your teammates’, that you know more about their issues and experiences than they do, and that they have nothing to teach you. Cut it out!

● Push for inclusion.

In a world that constantly devalues us for being “different,” developing connections with others who share our identities is an important way to develop a sense of our own worth, as well as clarity about our needs. As a result, it can be incredibly rewarding to set up alternatives to traditional communities and institutions that are “built by us, for us.” However, especially in the absence of a demographic critical mass, this type of organizing is not always viable, and we may decide to try to find a place for ourselves in larger, more mainstream communities and institutions. Unfortunately, it can be extremely draining to engage with communities and institutions that may be hostile towards us, or at best consider us “a bit strange, but I’m a tolerant person, as long as they don’t ask for any special rights.”

When doing this type of work, two strategies can help lessen the sensation of “begging for my dignity.” First, consider working in coalition with others who are also seeking inclusion. Leadership structures will be more inclined to pay attention if it becomes clear that multiple people, from different backgrounds and with different interests, believe that the space is not inclusive. In addition, coalition members can support each other and provide each other “reality checks” in the face of obstacles. Second, consider identifying allies and encouraging (and training!) them to advocate for inclusion. In general, allies (people with normative identities who are deeply invested in the empowerment of those with “othered” identities) are often better situated to do this kind of work – they often have easier access to the corridors of power, more resources in general, and a bit of extra insulation against attacks and setbacks.

● Last but not least, keep in mind that it’s really not your problem.

It’s easy to feel like you’re responsible for an issue because you’re the only person around who has a given identity or outlook. This has a name – it’s called tokenism. Just because you happen to have an unusual identity doesn’t mean that you should have to – or that you’re able to – put aside all the routine aspects of life (work, self-care, intimate relationships) to “make the world safe for [insert identity here].” Everyone has stuff to do. So do you. It’s too bad if you’re not valued by a certain community – too bad for them, because you’re going to withdraw some of your energy before it all gets sucked out of you. You might even leave the community in favor of other groups or organizations that give you what you need without forcing you to beg for it endlessly. Dropping out is completely within your rights. Go for it!

The flip side of this is that when you’re in a position of privilege (as we all sometimes are), it really is your problem. If you find yourself wondering why your institution or organization doesn’t attract or retain a diverse population, it would behoove you to think about what you may or may not be doing to build a truly inclusive community.

Queer Jewish Community Remixed: An Integrated Anti-Oppression Approach

My hope is that these suggestions, when taken together, articulate amore sustainable vision for LGBTQ Jewish organizing (and any other kind of intersectional organizing) in the absence of a demographic critical mass. This is a vision in which we centralize physically, through transportation and communication technologies, while simultaneously questioning the tendency to centralize discursively, creating a new exclusive “normative narrative” for what it means to be queer and Jewish. This is a vision in which we acknowledge the specificity of the intersection of queer and Jewish identities, while simultaneously recognizing the diversity of experience that takes place at that intersection. This is a vision in which we take part in multi-issue organizing, both because we are affected by multiple issues and because we recognize, not only the inseparability and intersectionality of queer and Jewish identities, but the inseparability and intersectionality of all types of oppression.

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