On a typical Shabbat at my campus Hillel, although people from every religious denomination pray separately, everybody eats the Friday night meal together. Every year, the Orthodox Student Minyan (OSM) holds an annual Friday night dinner, held in a different venue, for Orthodox undergrads. The vast majority of OSM members had no qualms about attending the dinner a few weeks ago. However, some Orthodox kids expressed their dislike of the concept, calling it exclusionary and claiming that it alienates Orthodox kids from the rest of the Hillel community.
These complaints reminded me of a previous conversation I had in regard to so-called “exclusionary” spaces after my college’s activities fair in September. “Why was there a whole section of the fair dedicated to clubs about gender and sexuality?” one person asked. “Why is a women’s-only club okay, but not a men’s-only club?” I tried to explain that there is legitimacy to a men’s-only club in certain contexts, but in general, women’s-only groups are necessary because the world is still dominated by men. Consequently, women sometimes need spaces where they can control and shape their experience without being subjected to patriarchal interference and the male gaze.
So too, I tried to explain to the anti-OSM dinner camp that sometimes, Orthodox kids just need a chance to share a meal with a group of people like themselves, who come from similar backgrounds and understand halakhic observance. Perhaps my desire for such a space stems from my more homogeneous background, but I really don’t think it’s personal. Every human being wants and needs to be with others like them for at least some of the time. It’s not like the planners of the OSM dinner are actively trying to exclude non-Orthodox students; on the contrary, they are just trying to foster a space for Orthodox students to thrive.
I don’t advocate that Friday night dinners should always be segregated by denomination. That would be extremely detrimental to ahdut (togetherness) and undermine the purpose of Hillel in the first place. However, I have no problem with an annual or even biannual OSM dinner. In fact, I would make the argument that it’s beneficial for the Orthodox community and Hillel at large to have small breakaway meals once a semester, because it fosters a better sense of intra-denominational ahdut.
I make this claim in the light of the fact that the OSM dinner ended before regular Hillel dinner even began, and that several of us went from the OSM dinner to Hillel dinner, thereby having the best of both worlds. To me, it is about having it all: being able to chill in a space where everybody understands why I only wear skirts, and then chilling in a space where it doesn’t matter what I’m wearing.
So I support and will always attend the OSM dinner, as well as other “exclusionary” spaces.