Let’s stay at the table

The last few months have brought immense pain to the worldwide Jewish community. We have witnessed the horrors unleashed in and against Israel and have felt the pain and devastation that came with the aftermath’s upsurge of antisemitism. The Jewish community is small, and each of us knows someone who knows someone who has been directly impacted by terror in the Middle East or antisemitism in the Diaspora. We are not OK, we will not be OK for a long while and even then, nothing will go back to how it was before. 

There has been no shortage of recent essays assailing diversity, equity and inclusion efforts. Given the ways in which Jewish perspectives — the grief, fear and anger we are feeling — have been shunted aside, that’s not without reason. Nevertheless, we believe that diversity and inclusion, both within Jewish spaces and in engaging the rest of the world, have never been more important. Our own experience leading Hillel Ontario, which serves nine diverse universities, demonstrates the value of inclusive community. 

At Hillel Ontario, we have spent the last three years deeply invested in celebrating the full diversity of our Jewish community, and our dedication has provided an understanding that each Jewish person experiences antisemitism and processes pain, fear and anger in different ways. Our vision imagines generations of empowered Jews who are joyful, passionate and resilient, have an enduring relationship with Jewish tradition and Israel and feel a sense of belonging in Jewish communities. If we are to take the word “empowered” and “belonging” seriously, it is essential that we cultivate virtual and physical spaces in which the full diversity of Jewish life is celebrated and where students with marginalized identities are fully welcomed as their whole selves. Even if our strategies and approaches will move forward in a different manner, none of these goals will be altered by the events of Oct. 7. 

As we grapple with this moment of pain in our communities, we must stop to think about individuals from marginalized Jewish communities and recognize that these students carry multiple and intersecting identities that lead them to process the tragic events in Israel, and the everyday struggles that have come after, in particular and unique ways. 

For example, LGBTQ+ Jewish students may be in more general spaces that have not been particularly welcoming or friendly to them as Jews and are less so now. With groups like Queers for Palestine on the rise, these students may feel forced in such spaces to hide or compensate for being Jewish. In contrast, queer Jewish students should feel that no choice among different identities is necessary in supportive Jewish communities, making this the time to open our Jewish communities to LGBTQ+ students and offer them space to grieve, to process and perhaps even to mourn the loss of other venues that have shunned them.

Similarly, Jews of color are experiencing erasure at the hands of Israel’s critics. Regardless of how other Jews identify or are identified, being told that Jews uniformly are white or white settlers erases their identity; it also makes them have to explain that yes, they are Jewish, and yes, they stand with Israel. They are told that they don’t fit into someone’s narrative of a white oppressor, therefore their story is no longer valid. In reality, Jews of color, Sephardi, Mizrachi, Beta Israel and many other vibrant ethnic communities have long histories and ties to Israel; and their ancestry is an inconvenient truth to those who deny their existence. This means that Jewish spaces that welcome Jews of color and others are important, now more than ever.

We also turn our attention to interfaith and intercultural Jewish students, whose intersecting identities afford them the opportunity to employ different lenses through which they can see and experience this moment. One part of their identity may be seen, another part hidden or suppressed; one part may be in conflict with another. The way this moment plays out across their identities and their families may be complex and challenging. Where is the space in our Jewish communities that can support and hold this conversation?

Finally, Jews who have been active in social justice circles may recently have awoken to the frightening fact that friends and allies who rally for equity and progress do not see Jewish inclusion as integral to their world view or the fight against antisemitism as a legitimate priority. Alone and isolated, many individuals are looking for ways into Jewish community but fear shaming or ostracism. There are certainly ways to welcome them without compromising our firmly held principles and love for Israel; and our obligation as those whose place in the Jewish community is comfortable and secure — even as our collective situation in the world is more precarious — is to develop creative ways to do so.

Of course, none of this – neither our challenging collective circumstances, nor the importance of internal Jewish communal work – negates the importance of engaging and supporting non-Jews who hold marginalized identities, both on principle and in practical terms. There certainly have been disappointments since Oct. 7, but we’ve also seen ways in which our earlier bridge building with other groups that experience marginalization and discrimination spurred allies to condemn Hamas and take action in support of Jewish students. To lay the groundwork for similar and stronger responses in the future, diversity and inclusion work can’t stop at the borders of the Jewish community, but must extend across campus.

Hillel Toronto Metropolitan University (TMU) students of different backgrounds light a candle for International Holocaust Remembrance Day 2024. Photo by Leo Citrin

To that end, we will continue to pursue justice by lifting up the voices of our students whose stories and narratives aren’t as prominent as others. We will continue to offer spaces to allow people from these marginalized communities to come together and have opportunities to process what they are experiencing. We will not forget our communities on the periphery. We did not before, and we will not now. 

The work we do in our Jewish community is as essential now as it has ever been. At a time where we stand as a strong community together, we must remember all the parts of our community and come together with open arms, open spaces and open doors. In doing so, we can shout Am Israel Chai with the confidence that it applies to kol Yisrael — all of Israel.

Judith Moses Dworkin is the vice president of campus life and DEI initiatives and Rabbi Seth Goren is the CEO of Hillel Ontario, a multicampus system serving nine campuses across Ontario.