Inclusiveness conference draws queer Jewish students

In an unintentional show of unity, 13 queer-identified observant Jewish students were trapped in an elevator at a conference last weekend. The down time afforded them a unique opportunity to re-connect with their faith.

"There was a lot of Hebrew being sung, and even some davening," said Talya Kemper of Santa Cruz. "Most of it was done in jest, but it really threw some of the firemen for a loop."

Kemper, 21, was one of the organizers of the three-day National Union of Jewish Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Students (NUJLS) Conference. The elevator incident, which occurred Sunday afternoon at The Center, San Francisco's newly constructed home for the LGBT community, provided both levity and drama in a conference that already featured plenty of both.

More than 100 students from around the country came to hear a plethora of speakers address topics ranging from "Queer Perspectives on Jewish Weddings" and "Next Year in Queer Jerusalem" to seminars on political activism. The eclectic nature of the event was also reflected in the panoply of guest speakers, including academics dealing with race and class issues, S.F. Supervisor Mark Leno, and the more irreverent writer and co-creator of "Dr. Frockrocket's Vivifying (Re-Animatronic) Menagerie and Medicine Show."

Lest anyone think that Nomy Lamm, the aforementioned author and performer, was merely someone with a colorful tag line, another event organizer said Lamm's unwavering pride was inspiring.

"She moved people to tears during her performance," said Diana Polish, 22, of Santa Cruz. Lamm touched on some of the guiding tenets of the conference — pride and inclusiveness, said Polish.

The theme of inclusiveness, in fact, prompted a change in the sixth annual conference's title. Previously called the Jewish "LGBT" leadership conference, this year's acronym was "LGBTIQQ," with the last three letters standing, respectively, for "intersexed," "queer" and "questioning." (Intersex issues, referring to people born with ambiguous genitals that doctors cannot easily classify as male or female, have been on the transgender radar screen for the past half-decade.)

"We felt that some of the other events weren't really inclusive of bisexual and transgender issues," said Sharon Papo, 23, of Santa Cruz. "So we felt very strongly that we needed to incorporate those individuals into the program, as well as intersexed people and 'queer and questioning' people." The theme also extended to the spiritual makeup of the attendees, who identified themselves as everything from agnostic to Orthodox.

For San Francisco resident Eric Saddik, 27, who spent the better part of six months organizing the event along with the other volunteers, the conference marked his "coming out" in several ways. Saddik, a member of the Bay Area's Karaite community (Jews of Egyptian ancestry), said he wasn't raised in a strong Jewish environment, and hadn't come out yet to his extended friends or to members of his synagogue.

For him, the emotional highlight of the event came when he joined participants to smash glasses — signifying the completion of their coming out.

"It really brought things full circle," said Saddik, who felt that the campus Hillel at U.C. Berkeley, where he'd been a student, was unsure of how to outreach to LGBT students. Conversely, Saddik noted that a queer community dance and fund-raiser last fall was held on Yom Kippur, which he felt was insensitive to the needs of Jewish members of the LGBT community.

His opinions were shared by Polish, who became an activist in the queer community starting at age 15. "At that time, I pretty much stopped being active in the Jewish community and pursuing a Jewish identity," she said.

Polish experienced an epiphany of sorts when she attended a Hillel meeting at U.C. Santa Cruz. At the meeting, Polish said she felt horrified by her feelings of being an "outsider"– not due to any lack of recognition by the other Jewish students, but due to her own frayed ties to her religion.

"When I heard the Hebrew being spoken and the prayers being sung, something really spoke to me. It took me back to my roots, and it really felt like home.

"And that's why this conference is so important, because it's a safe way for people to come home again."