Ariella Kimmel, left, and Sophie Hershfield at last summer’s Winnipeg Pride Parade. Hershfield has been on CIJA’s LGBTQ+ Advisory Council since its inception. In that capacity, she is trying to break down barriers and clear up misconceptions about Israel within the LGBTQ community. (photo from Sophie Hershfield)
As part of the Limmud festival that took place in Winnipeg March 18-19, LGBTQ activist Sophie Hershfield gave a presentation.
A student at the University of Winnipeg, studying English and philosophy, Hershfield became active in the LGBTQ community when she was at Gray Academy of Jewish Education. She has been on the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs’ LGBTQ+ national advisory council since its inception last year.
“The talk I gave at Limmud was largely on advocacy within LGBTQ communities, because a lot of them are hostile towards Israel,” Hershfield told the Independent. “Last year, for example, at the Chicago Dyke March and the fallout from that … it was apparent that the LGBTQ community was hostile toward Israel and often to Jewish Zionists within their organizations. At the Chicago Dyke March, people who were on the Pride side were actually told to put their flags away, because of their connection to Israel.”
Hershfield is trying to break down barriers and clear up misconceptions about Israel within the LGBTQ community.
“One of the most successful things I think we did last year was we had an Israel-themed float in the Pride Parade,” said Hershfield. “And we had Jewish people and Israeli people on this float. We actually won best float in the entire parade. People were associating Israel with fun and happiness and being inclusive, those positive connections. There were definitely some positive responses. There were people saying, it was so cool, that Israel is so fun. I didn’t see any negative pushback, just positivity.”
Hershfield is already working with a planning committee on next year’s parade in Winnipeg.
Through CIJA, Hershfield plans to continue her efforts to improve inclusiveness within Jewish communities across Canada and to do Israel advocacy in LGBTQ communities.
“Halifax’s Pride board was incredibly hostile toward Jewish people and toward pro-Israel people – to the point where there were death threats to people who were involved,” said Hershfield. “I wanted to be more preventative, by building positive connections instead of negative ones.”
Jonathan Lerner favours a similar approach. He is assistant director of the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre, and is also on CIJA’s LGBTQ+ Advisory Council.
“Vancouver is a very welcoming place for LGBTQ people, with a society that is very diverse and welcoming,” he said. “The annual Pride Parade draws 600,000 people or more, and there is a month-long celebration. The municipal government is very supportive of these events and, while discrimination still exists, Vancouver as a whole is very welcoming.
“I’ve had great experiences with Vancouver synagogues, including the Reform and Reconstructionist movements,” he added. “I can say that even the Conservative synagogue in Vancouver has sponsored our booth at the Pride festival.”
Still, Lerner feels there remains a disconnect between the Jewish and LGBTQ communities.
“There are plenty of LGBTQ Jews and they’re often involved in Jewish or LGBTQ communities,” he said. “However, I find that most choose one or the other – either they’re involved in the Jewish community or the LGBTQ community, but not necessarily both. Sometimes, one may feel a necessity to choose an identity. For example, if one is associated with LGBTQ organizations, they may be anti-Israel … and so, one may choose to hide one’s Zionism or even Judaism.”
Lerner said that, while CIJA and the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver have worked hard at increasing collaboration and sharing between the communities – with recent workshops, training and outreach – more is always welcome.
“It has been challenging at times for LGBTQ people to be out in the Jewish community, and also for Jews to be open about their religion and Zionism in the LGBTQ community,” he said. “I’d like to see that change.”
Meanwhile, in Winnipeg, there have been other initiatives to increase awareness and inclusivity. On Feb. 21, Shaarey Zedek Synagogue hosted at the Jewish deli Desserts Plus an event called LGBTQ Jews: Sexuality, Gender Identity and Judaism, with some 20 attendees. It was led by the synagogue’s Rabbi Anibal Mass.
“Our vision is an inclusive space, a nonjudgmental environment, where you can express your Judaism pretty much your way,” Mass told the Independent.
An LGBTQ group had approached the synagogue, said Mass. Some people from the group attend Shaarey Zedek and were concerned about the level of acceptance at the shul.
“I don’t blame them,” said Mass. “We’ve been changing … the last few years, and some people are unaware of all the changes we went through. We thought that it would be a good time to share with this specific group of people our vision and our values, for them to have it clear. If they have any doubts or questions, they can ask a member of our clergy – what we stand for, what we’re willing to do or not do, etc.”
Mass sees rabbis of the Talmud as examples to follow in regards to being nonjudgmental and inclusive. “They speak about compassion, about loving your fellow human beings,” said the rabbi. “We feel empowered by the works of the rabbis to embrace all these people in our synagogue and make Shaarey Zedek their home.
“I was expecting to have lots of questions [at the event]. I didn’t have too many. I guess maybe they weren’t expecting me to say how open we are. Maybe people thought I would come there and preach … and to say, ‘Yeah, we accept you, but….’ But there was never a ‘but.’ We do accept you, period. So it was a great event.”
At that information event, a gay male couple from the synagogue shared their story with the group, about how they were turned down for a wedding from pretty much every synagogue in town – until they arrived at Shaarey Zedek. The couple said they could not believe how welcoming the congregation was.
“We ended up celebrating their wedding,” said Mass. “Many times, people complain that synagogues don’t offer the answers. The problem is, sometimes we don’t have the questions. We want to know what people in the LGBTQ group actually want, and to make that part of our vision.
“We also detect there will be some challenges for the future that we don’t know how to handle,” he admitted. “For example, how do you serve people who define themselves as non-binary? Do they have a bar or bat mitzvah? Both terms are appropriate.”
To keep things moving forward, Mass plans to start by hosting a group at his house. He understands that it might take awhile for some people to feel comfortable coming to a synagogue. “But, that’s OK,” he said. “If they don’t come to the synagogue, the synagogue will come to them. That’s my philosophy.”
Rebeca Kuropatwa is a Winnipeg freelance writer.