Penn welcomes LGBT Jewish students

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The University of Pennsylvania will play host next weekend to a conference that seeks to fuse the basic tenets of Judaism and LGBT life, as well as the individuals who identify with both communities.

The National Union of Jewish LGBTQQI Students will hold its annual conference at Penn April 3-5, the first time the organization has staged its event in Philadelphia.

Vanessa “Vinny” Prell, the organization’s executive director, said the group, which was founded in 1997, evolved out of a growing need for unity among individuals who “wanted an organization that’s always around and that can help build a community for LGBT Jews.”

“Before that time, LGBT Jewish students were starting to come out of the woodwork and say, ‘Not only am I a person who identifies as Jewish, but I also identify as LGBT,’” Prell said. “Students started getting together on their campuses and then slowly but surely it became a national movement.”

Prell noted that the first annual conference, held in 1997, as well as the organization’s events and conferences over the next 10 years, were entirely student-run; Prell came on as the executive director two years ago and helps facilitate the day-to-day operations of the group.

Although NUJLS doesn’t have a formal membership process, Prell estimated the organization has about 200 involved students.

Approximately 80 students have registered for the upcoming conference — 40 fewer than at last year’s conference at Columbia University. Prell suggested the decrease in attendance could be a result of the economic conditions, as some students may have struggled to pay the $80 registration fee.

The registration fee covers housing, which will be on Penn’s campus, as well as food and admission to the series of workshops, lectures and activities.

Workshop discussions will address such topics as how to integrate “traditional life-cycle activities” like weddings into an LGBT Jewish life and how to approach certain messages of the Bible from an LGBT perspective. Transgender author and artist Kate Bornstein will speak to participants about how she’s incorporated her own Jewish background into her life, and attendees will also have the chance to participate in a leadership training, as well as network with other students during a movie night and a dance.

Prell said there hasn’t been a major shift in the conference’s focus since the organization’s inception, although she noted the event is now more inclusive of transgender individuals and features discussions that cater to a more-informed audience.

“I think there have been some changes, partially because students are coming out younger and younger, so we’re able to offer more and more sophisticated workshops,” she said. “In the beginning, we had workshops like ‘Leviticus: How does the prohibition on homosexuality affect your life?’ and we’d look at the text from different perspectives. But now, a good number of these students come to the conference already having wrestled with that issue and made their peace. Now we can have more sophisticated discussions around life-cycle rituals and around prayer.”

Matt Feczko, a junior at Penn and co-chair of both Queer Undergraduates in Engineering, Science and Technology and Jewish Bisexuals, Gays & Lesbians, approached Prell during last year’s event and suggested Penn as a host school for the 2009 conference.

“I went to the conference last year and I just really loved it,” Feczko said. “I thought the people had great stories, and this conference was something I wanted to be a part of and contribute to because this is something that I’m really passionate about.”

Feczko said the administration at Penn has been particularly supportive throughout the planning process.

He noted that Hillel, the group that oversees all of Penn’s Jewish student organizations, assisted in securing meeting rooms for the NUJLS events and that the school rescheduled its planned cleaning and preparation of certain campus locations for Passover events next week so they wouldn’t interfere with the conference.

Feczko said he’s eager for NUJLS conference attendees to meet members of Penn’s wider Jewish student community during Shabbat services throughout the weekend.

“People are going to be going to services, and there will be 100 students at the conference walking around campus all day; I’m hoping for some good interaction between people at Penn and the students attending this program.”

Prell said she’s confident the event will have just as positive of an effect on this generation of LGBT Jewish students as it did for her.

“When I got to college, I felt like there was no place for me in Judaism,” Prell said. “But when I learned about NUJLS and attended the conference, I really found a community that was dynamic and learned and committed to building connections between these people. And for me, that made my Judaism whole again.”

Jen Colletta can be reached at [email protected].