Rabbi Becky Silverstein, left, and Joanna Ware facilitated the Keshet program held in Vancouver last month. (photos from northeastern.edu and Jordyn Rozensky Photography, respectively)
Last month, a group of Greater Vancouver Jewish organizations sponsored a Keshet program for members of the community. Keshet provides training and support for Jewish clergy, educators, youth workers, counselors, allies and lay leaders to ensure that LGBTQ+ Jews are affirmed, celebrated and included in all Jewish educational and community settings.
The Oct. 22-23 weekend of training had its genesis in the efforts of Shelley Rivkin of the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver and Kevin Keystone, a former board member of Temple Sholom Synagogue, who has since moved to Toronto.
After the Union for Reform Judaism passed a resolution affirming the rights of LGBTQ+ people at their biennial meeting in 2015, Keystone brought a motion to the synagogue board to pass a supporting resolution, and recommended bringing Keshet to Vancouver.
“One of the most important reasons to bring in Keshet,” said Temple Sholom Rabbi Carey Brown, “was to present this important inclusion work within the framework of Jewish values and to address specific challenges within Jewish language and culture.”
When Keystone approached Federation, he found a sympathetic ear in Rivkin, who had previously attended a Keshet program. After being approached by the Vancouver Police Department about declaring the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver an LGBTQ+ safe space, Rivkin had become interested in supporting just such an initiative as Keshet, which she felt was long overdue.
Temple Sholom and Federation met with representatives of the JCCGV, Beth Israel, Or Shalom, Beth Tikvah, Har El, the Jewish Family Service Agency, Yad b’Yad, Hillel BC, and the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs. An agreement was reached to sponsor a training weekend, with Federation committing to contributing a significant amount of the funding.
“One of the most heartwarming things was to see how many synagogues and institutions said, ‘We want to be there, we want to help sponsor it,’” said Brown.
The two-day program was facilitated by Keshet’s Rabbi Becky Silverstein and Joanna Ware. It featured five sessions, including Beyond the (Cis)Gender Binary, which focused on youth workers and others interested in supporting youth in a variety of settings; and (Not So) Straight Talk about LGBT Inclusion, which was for Jewish communal professionals looking to explore LGBTQ+ inclusion from a Jewish perspective, and how it applies to their work. On the last day, there was a lunch and learn with Keshet at Hillel House on the University of British Columbia campus, which was open to students, faculty and community members, and two evening sessions. The Tachlis of Inclusion was billed as a more advanced look at LGBTQ+ inclusion, focusing on how board members can make their institutions more inclusive and embracing of LGBTQ+ families and individuals – participants took home an institutional self-assessment resource for further conversation within their organization. The other session, held at Suite Genius Mt. Pleasant and open to LGBTQ+ members of all ages and allies, was titled Intersections: Sharing Stories at the Intersections of Queer Jewish identities.
The community’s response to the training was favourable, with a post-event survey garnering positive responses and many people expressing gratitude for the training, said Rivkin. “Moving forward,” she said, “one thing we want to do is figure out where organizations are on a continuum towards inclusivity, and we need to look at that inventory and see where we want to be and what are some steps we can take.”
Alicia Fridkin, who self-identifies as a Jewish, queer, white settler activist and works as LGBTQ+ counsel for CIJA, had positive things to say about the event. “It was important to make some space for queer and trans Jews in Vancouver to come together around their identities, and to see that communities are committing to having a space for them,” said Fridkin. “It was a good reminder that we all have work to do, and also that we all have come a distance. It is important to give the LGBQT+ community more visibility. Also, the different Jewish communities in Vancouver tend to operate in silos. This was a good example of people coming together.”
Participants in the program are hoping to carry what they have learned into their institutional and personal lives. A group for queer and trans youth is in the planning stages at the JCCGV. Brown said Temple Sholom has begun a review of its infrastructure and communal language, and noted how the synagogue has already made some changes, such as calling people up to the Torah for aliyot according to their preferred pronouns.
Fridkin celebrates those kinds of initiatives. “People are very interested in being in a religious place that is inclusive,” she said. She hopes that these communal discussions about LGBQT+ people can be a model for becoming more inclusive and progressive on other issues, such as interfaith marriage and Israel/Palestine.
“We need to be open,” said Fridkin, “to the experience of the hurt that people in the community have who have been excluded for any reason, and work to address that.”
Matthew Gindin is a freelance journalist, writer and lecturer. He writes regularly for the Forward and All That Is Interesting, and has been published in Religion Dispatches, Situate Magazine, Tikkun and elsewhere. He can be found on Medium and Twitter.