By Alex Rose
Dozens of representatives from 14 Jewish organizations gathered at the Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre (MNJCC) in downtown Toronto on March 4 for a first-of-its-kind training on LGBTQ issues in the Jewish community hosted by Keshet, a U.S.-based organization that focuses on equality in Jewish life for LGBTQ people. The session was part of Keshet’s leadership project, which trains the heads of Jewish organizations to build a yearlong LGBTQ inclusion plan for their organizations, and the participants in attendance represented the UJA Federation of Greater Toronto, various Hillels, synagogues, care homes and more.
Cara Gold, manager of downtown Jewish life at the MNJCC, said that these organizations and institutions have realized for some time that LGBTQ inclusion work is important, but there has been a lack of specifically Jewish tools and resources for the proper training and support.
“I think a lot of organizations like to say that their doors are open and that they’re aware and welcoming of all. That’s a frequent mentality,” she said. “But the boots on the ground, day-to-day (work) of centring LGBTQ people in organizations – whether it be doing programming specifically for them, ensuring that they feel safe in the programming that’s already happening and, even bigger than that, having LGBTQ leadership as a part of the organization – is the way that we need to be moving. And that’s the next step of where we need to go as a community.”
The daylong training alternated between educational presentations and interactive activities. One of the Keshet representatives gave a talk about the history of LGBTQ Jews in Canada and another spoke about differences between sex at birth, sexual orientation and gender identity, both with input and questions from the audience.
Rabbi Micah Buck-Yael, director of education and training for Keshet, said that the organizations participating in the leadership project would check in with a Keshet coach five times over the next year to monitor their progress and to gain access to resources and support as they bring their idea of LGBTQ inclusion for their organization into reality.
“That looks different for each organization. We present a spectrum related to inclusive communities, and we help organizations understand where they are today and where they would like to be tomorrow, in six months, in a year, in 10 years. We envision a world in which all people are welcome to be their whole selves in the Jewish community, are treated with respect and sensitivity in all interactions and where communities have diverse leadership in all sorts of ways at all levels of leadership,” he said.
In terms of more specific goals, Rabbi Buck-Yael said centring the experience of transgender, gender non-conforming and non-binary people is a priority for Keshet, as those people are often not prioritized in many conversations about LGBTQ issues. He also said it’s important for organizations to think about the ways people’s overlapping identities will affect their lives. For example, a black woman will experience sexism differently than a white woman would and racism differently than a black man would. That kind of thinking helps organizations be more mindful of the needs of all of their members.
Rabbi Buck-Yael also stressed that Keshet does not try to tell people how to be Jewish, but rather to support different types of Jewish communities working through LGBTQ issues in ways that make sense for them.
“We don’t work to provide Jewish legal solutions for any particular community. Religious communities have their own rabbis for a reason,” he said. “What we seek to do is provide communities with information, both on what identities people are experiencing, and on what sorts of barriers people might be currently facing. And we help them take that information and then, within their own framework of what it means to be Jewish, understand where their work is.”