You Should Know …

Joseph Levin-Manning (Photo by Daniel Nozick)

Joseph Levin-Manning, 26, is not your average Jewish boy. Adopted into a non-Jewish family at a young age, he did not even know that he had Jewish roots until he  decided to investigate.

As a “gay Jewish man of color,” Levin-Manning got into community engagement and service because he was in a unique position to be involved in these different communities.

“The more I was involved in the Jewish community,” he said, “the more I found myself saying, ‘Yes, but what about this community or this community?’”

After earning his bachelor’s degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in political science with a minor in music, Levin-Manning soon came to Baltimore to work for Hillel at University of Maryland, Baltimore County. Now studying as a graduate student, he serves as the graduate director of LGBQT programming at UMBC and is a community connector at Charm City Tribe.

How did your upbringing influence you?

I was adopted by a non-Jewish family when I was about 8. I went to church until I was 14. I didn’t find out about Judaism and my Jewish roots until I started talking to my maternal grandfather. In college, I went to Hillel and had an engaging conversation about what it means to be Jewish. I began to participate in services more often and even worked up to co-leading services. Eventually I went on Birthright.

One influential event was an alternative spring break trip in which I went on to Nicaragua with the American Jewish World Service. It was an amazing experience because I learned about the Jewish philosophy on human dignity and how much value is placed on that, and that really resonated with me. I decided on that trip that I wanted to learn to chant Torah and have a bar mitzvah, and I thought that would make me feel connected to the community.

I also attended a summer program called the Brandeis Camp Institute. It was a cool, interesting experience. You go away for 26 days and experience Judaism in a new way, through service projects, Torah studies and Jewish exploration through the arts. I did my bar mitzvah at BCI, I actually learned my Torah portion in two weeks because it was meaningful to me to do it there. I also took Hebrew name.

How has discovering Judaism later in life affected you?

In a lot of ways, I do feel that in some capacity I have to be more religious than I actually would want to be, just because I don’t have the history of practice. It takes a little more effort for me to remember these things or to know the right thing to do at the right time because we’re all about ritual — if it doesn’t come second nature, it’s something that you have to think about.

I never commit to something unless I believe in it fully, and I would say that the same thing is true with Jewish law. I subscribe to the things that I believe in and that I think make sense, and for those that don’t, I struggle with it just like every other Jewish person does. I try to  rationalize it in a way that makes sense in my life, whether or not I choose to observe it.

Can you tell me a bit more about your work?

I am essentially a one-stop shop to support and bolster the community on campus. I work with the administrators, faculty and staff on the different policies that we have and how we can make them more  inclusive and friendly to the LGBQT community. We have lots of Jews of color, lots of LGBQT students of color, LGBQT students who happen to be religious or of a specific faith — they all have a very different experience. I help to support them and make them feel that they can still be their authentic selves on campus. I did the same thing when I was working for Hillel. I made it a point to make sure that everyone felt welcomed and affirmed, and as a result, we saw lots of other people in the Jewish community come out and become comfortable with themselves. One of the things that I’ve  always loved about Judaism and a reason why it really resonated with me was the community  aspect. You’re Jewish first; people don’t care about rich or poor, black or white, gay or straight.


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