A young woman attends a sexual morality conference at the Student Union, listening intently.
In front of her, a panel of religious leaders discusses their views on gender equality, homosexuality, and transgender visibility. It’s an odd topic, to be sure, but one that she said she finds fascinating. She studiously takes notes throughout.
When asked why she was personally invested in the conference, her answer was simple.
“I’m gay and I want to be a rabbi,” she said. “So I want to promote a better cultural understanding within religion.”
Kayla Symonds, a sophomore religion and cultural studies major at UCF, is the president of BAGELS+, a club for Jewish members of the LGBTQ+ community. BAGELS+ (an acronym for Bisexual, Asexual, Gay, Exploring and Lesbian Students) is a part of Central Florida Hillel, a Jewish cultural center for college students in the Central Florida area. As president of BAGELS+, Symonds plans events such as celebrations of Jewish holidays and scriptural readings.
“There’s a lot more of us than you’d think,” Symonds said.
According to Central Florida Hillel’s mission page, UCF has the third largest Jewish student population outside of Israel, with an estimated 6,000 Jewish students attending. UCF is also well-known for its LGBTQ+ inclusive environment – it’s the only Florida school to make Campus Pride’s Top 50 LGBT-Friendly List as of 2014. The combined support from the Jewish and LGBTQ+ community made UCF the perfect environment for BAGELS+ to flourish.
Symonds began working at Central Florida Hillel as a community engagement intern. She found her niche in the Jewish LGBTQ+ community after recognizing the need for more involvement.
“I’ve always found the struggles of the Jewish community and the LGBTQ+ community linked,” Symonds said. “Anti-Semitism and homophobia are two issues we still face today. And being a member of both communities means being a minority within a minority.”
Sam Friedman, director of community relations at Central Florida Hillel, also recognized the importance of BAGELS+.
“One of the things we’re most proud of is forming BAGELS+,” Friedman said. “We pride ourselves on being a center for the community, and the community means everybody.
For Symonds, Judaism is the foundation of her identity. She keeps her diet kosher, has a mezuzah (a scroll with Hebrew verses from the Torah) on her door, and observes Shabbat. A common misconception, she said, is believing that her religion conflicts with her sexuality.
“When people find out that I’m gay and Jewish, they ask, ‘do you really believe in it [Judaism]?’, and the answer is yes. Yes, I am gay. Yes, I am religious. And yes, I am observant.”
Homosexuality is a divisive issue within the Jewish community. The more conservative Orthodox Judaism generally disapproves of homosexuality, while Reconstructionist Judaism and Reform Judaism are more tolerant. Central Florida Hillel is firmly LGBTQ+ friendly.
“Some Jewish organizations say that homosexuality is expressly forbidden in the book of Leviticus,” Friedman said. “But Abraham, the first Jew, was known for welcoming every guest that came to his tent. You can’t be like Abraham if you’re not going to welcome everybody.”
“In Judaism, we have an expression: two Jews, three opinions. So a lot of different people will say a lot of different things,” Symonds said. “I firmly believe that it is up to you to interpret the text, and for me, the text embraces my identity.”
After graduating UCF, Symonds said she plans to spend a year in Jerusalem before attending Hebrew Union College to continue her rabbinical studies. The college has campuses in Cincinnati, Jerusalem, Los Angeles and New York, but Symonds said she’s not sure where she wants to study just yet.
“It depends on how things go with my girlfriend. We’re looking at schools near her,” Symonds said.
Symonds said her faith in the Jewish LGBTQ+ community was reaffirmed in February.
Symonds is active on Tumblr, and read the story of a German transgender woman who wanted to convert to Judaism. Her rabbi warned her that the beit din (a group of rabbis that oversee the conversion process) might require her to compromise her gender identity.
“I thought that I might be able to help, so I emailed a friend who works with French Jewish LGBTQ+ organizations,” Symonds said. “My friend ended up forwarding the email to Frank Giaoui, the president of the World Congress of GLBT Jews. And he emailed the former president. One thing led to another, and they found a beit din that would help her convert.”
“Seeing so many people respond was affirming,” Symonds said. “We have another expression: he who saves one life saves the world entire. I truly believe that.”