By Ezra Shelato
UIUC and Illini Hillel alumn Claire Katz-Mariani
Editors note: The Illini Hillel Centennial Blog will share student, staff, and alumni stories and interviews to help collect and display the vibrant and rich history and community at Illini Hillel.
Q: When did you start spending time at Hillel?
A: I started going a little in 2017, but I didn’t really know anyone there and I didn’t know if it was going to be my home yet. But at the end of 2018 I learned about the queer Jewish activism that was going on. There was just a general meeting that I went to, and that’s the meeting I came up with the name LGBTJew as what I thought was a silly joke, and people loved it. And after that I could not and did not want to extricate myself, so I became really heavily involved that year and from then on.
Q: Can you tell me about starting LGBTJew?
A: I started LGBTJew during my sophomore year. After that initial meeting, I sort of tumbled into it. I agreed to do the Purim Drag show, and that was that. It was such a huge event and I ended up taking on a lot of responsibility because I really enjoyed it. What made me want to start LGBTJew was knowing that it was needed, because there were people who were talking about it, about wanting a stronger inclusive presence at Hillel. And also having come from a theater background and being around a lot of queer people, the vast majority of whom were not religious, I felt really strongly about addressing the stigma when it comes to queerness and religion in general, and especially Judaism because I have always felt really connected to my Judaism. And so those were also factors that went into me being passionate about it, and then I found out that I really enjoyed the work.
Q: What is your favorite memory from your time at Hillel?
A: For me that’s an easy one because I had one central project that everything else revolved around, which was the Purim Drag Show. So when I attended the drag show after having managed it, that will always be my favorite Hillel memory. It was so moving, and I cried about it, for sure. It was amazing to see the community that I had helped build up and support, and to see people I didn’t know being affected by that.
Q: What is one word you would use to describe your Hillel experience?
A: The first word that came to my mind was “formative”. [Hillel] helped shape my career path and my passions and my priorities, both on a religious and spiritual level as well as on a professional level. Maybe “guiding”, maybe “mentorship”. Or “community”, because there’s a lot of people to look up to and learn from.
Q: What is one thing you’ve kept with you from your experience at Illini Hillel?
A: Well, a lot of things. But more than anything else, I would say my investment in not only my Jewish identity, but in Jewish peoplehood and community. I also found a passion for Jewish professional work and Jewish nonprofit work that opened a lot of opportunities for me in not only a professional but a mental way, because it hadn’t been something I had considered prior. And once I got involved with Hillel leadership it became really apparent to me that it was something I had a lot of passion about. I felt like it really suited me, and it made me realize the types of communities I feel comfortable in.
Q: What does Illini Hillel mean to you?
A: At this point in my life, Illini Hillel means foundation, in the sense of it being such a strong and consistent space to feel safe and to grow and to find community. To me, Illini Hillel means the structural soundness of identity exploration, of finding out who you are.
Q: How has Illini Hillel impacted you?
A: It’s impacted my career trajectory. I found a home in Jewish professionalism and social activism work. It’s also impacted the way that I interact with my family, and in specific with my dad, who has for a long time done social justice work at our local synagogue. It’s given me a deeper understanding of his work and his passion for it. It’s also shaped my career trajectory to include more options than I thought I would, and it’s taught me to keep an open mind. It has impacted my ability and my insight into specific professional skills, the one I’m thinking about being facilitation and conflict resolution. It’s grown my passion for Judaism and all the different sides and experiences of Judaism. It’s allowed me to keep an open mind and to listen to people I wouldn’t have listened to otherwise.
Another way that Hillel has impacted me is seeing new students feeling welcomed at Hillel, or knowing that Hillel is a safe space even if they’ve never been there. It’s great to see students who I’ve never met feeling more comfortable than I saw students being when I first attended. That’s invaluable.
Q: What is something you would want to tell future generations about Hillel?
A: Be open minded to and engage with as many people in the Jewish community as possible. Everyone who attends Hillel has something interesting and valuable to share, and the beauty of the Jewish community at large is how diverse we are, along with many other things. I would encourage future generations of students who attend Hillel to embrace that, to really seek it out, and really build up communities that foster deep conversation.
Q: Is there anything else you want to add?
A: None of it would have been possible without a uniquely supportive staff. I think that it’s always been a really collaborative process and it’s always required the participation of the Hillel staff on some level, but they’ve always gone above and beyond. People who have come and gone in the time I attended U of I and since then have been fantastic, and none of it would have been possible without them.
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