By the light of a single flickering candle, David Cavill DIV ’02 surveyed the faces of more than 70 gay and lesbian Jewish students who had come out of the closet and into the synagogue to claim a millennia-old ceremony as their own.
Standing arm and arm in the darkened chapel of the Slifka Center for Jewish Life, they chose the havdalah ritual, which marks the end of the Sabbath — distinguishing the sacred from the mundane — as a setting for their own declaration of difference.
The traditional Hebrew formulae were followed by an addition conceived at a discussion of homosexuality and Jewish ritual a few hours before. A glass was placed beneath a cloth in the center of the room. Then seven students who had recently come out stepped into the circle of their peers and trampled the glass beneath their feet, a symbol of mourning in the midst of happiness that hints at the Jewish wedding ceremony, something that none of them may ever have.
The sound of shattering glass gave way to a resounding cheer of “Mazel Tov,” as the onlookers rushed forward and broke into a spontaneous hora dance.
“There are very few times in my life when I am moved to tears,” said Cavill, co-director of the fifth annual conference of the National Union of Jewish Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Students.
The conference, which took place at the Slifka Center this weekend, was billed by its organizers as the largest gathering of homosexual Jewish students ever. More than 80 students from Canada to California gathered for the three-day series of sessions aimed at reconciling their identities as homosexuals and Jews, the product of months of effort by a small cadre of dedicated activists.
“It became my obsession for weeks and weeks to find new schools, Hillels, LGBT groups,” said David Sands, a graduate student at Georgetown University, who served as the director of outreach for the conference committee. “It seemed like people were coming out of the closet from all over the country.”
Matias, a recent New York University graduate who asked to be identified only by his first name, said “a lot of queer Jews, alone in their respective communities think ‘I have this Judaism — I can revoke it or take it all.'”
“This is an attempt to find a middle ground, to establish an institution that addresses both the Jewish and the gay sides of the story,” said Matias, whose teenage years were spent in yeshivot, institutions devoted to the study of Jewish texts. “When I was realizing that I was gay and coming out to my parents, I thought they hate me, God hates me, and thought I was breaking some kind of covenant,” he said. “But all the teachings of Judaism — I just couldn’t chuck them away. The rest of the world still saw me as Jewish.”
Matias was accompanied by his boyfriend Peter Lopez, the sole gentile in the group.
“I came to have a better understanding of the Jewish religion and a better grasp of who he is,” Lopez said.
The annual conferences were the brainchild of Jason Klein, now a rabbinical student in the Reconstructionist Jewish movement, who watched the conference unfold with undisguised delight.
“The enthusiasm is contagious,” he said. “You know the adage about having two Jews in a room and three opinions? Once you add queer identity to the mix, the range of passions involved is simply incredible.”
Those passions were fully on display in vigorous discussions throughout the weekend on dating in the gay Jewish world, creating gay friendly permutations of Jewish ritual and finding an understanding of Jewish religion compatible with homosexual identity.
The organizers were especially concerned with tailoring the conference to meet a variety of religious needs and convictions.
“We worked hard to be inclusionary of everybody, to both teach people about Jewish ritual and make it a safe space for cultural, not religious, Jews,” conference co-director Rachel Marcus said.
Many members of the group brought a fair amount of Jewish background to the conference, holding and participating in several services as well as breaking into Hebrew songs after meals.
At such moments, Sands, a self-described atheist, looked on with mixed feelings.
“I had a good time, but when I get a chance I seek out the company of other heathens,” Sands said. “I have a weird sense that I was denied something in childhood because I don’t know the songs and the prayers. Listening to them, I felt a sense of loss.”
The spiritual and the sexual were never far apart during the event, which included a drag performer billed as Rebbetzin Hadassah Gross who delivered an affectionately ribald homage to Hasidic traditions, with a distinctively homoerotic twist.
But a haunting vulnerability hovered over a Sunday morning reading by two writers of gay Jewish erotica, whose work had been featured in an acclaimed anthology titled “Kosher Meat.” Daniel Jaffe read from his soon-to-be-published novel “The Limits of Pleasure,” in which a 40-something Jewish man infuses his pursuit of “bris boys” with elements of Jewish ritual in an attempt to spiritualize his sex life.
Although his protagonist is fictional, Jaffe said, he “deals with issues that I have dealt with in the past. He deals with them differently, but they are issues central to my identity.”
His words and those of fellow writer Allen Ellenzweig appeared to strike a nerve among the assembled students. Some audience members stared at the speaker, others at the ground. Some tittered in response to funny lines, while others seemed transfixed.
The conference was not without its humorous notes. The conference organizers expressed amused bafflement Sunday morning at the boxes of Saran wrap, latex gloves, lubricants and condoms arrayed on the table where the Sabbath buffet had stood the day before, apparently the remnant of the previous night’s dance party. One more prosaic-minded attendee put the Saran wrap to good use, covering his sandwich.
The evaluation forms even employed what their designer called a “queer Jewish system,” rating elements of the conference on a scale of “pu pu poor” to “fabulous.”
Rachel Edelman, a junior on leave from UMASS Amherst who led a workshop which used theater games to explore issues facing homosexual Jews, cited the conference’s sense of community as its most important feature.
“This is the purpose of this conference — to support each other loudly,” Edelman said. “When we focus on fighting [oppression], sounds of support get further away from our consciousness.”
That sense of community was a family matter to Davi Bernstein ’03, who was the only Yale undergraduate on the conference committee. Bernstein’s brother, Jonathan Bernstein ’01 attended the conference, even though he himself is heterosexual, “to support friends and family.”
Although there were few straight men in attendance, Bernstein said he felt that there “was no reason to be uncomfortable.”
“It was lovely of him to come and take an interest in the issues,” Davi Bernstein said. “He was very supportive.”
“A lot of the conferences that people go too are purely political,” Bernstein said. “This one’s aims are educational and religious, but fundamentally it’s a personal experience, a place where you feel at home.”