Jonathan Lerner, left, Christine Boyle and Dan Ruimy were among the winners in the recent municipal elections. (PR photos)
Municipal elections across British Columbia brought numerous surprises and a number of defeats for incumbent mayors, notably in both of the province’s largest cities.
Ken Sim defeated Kennedy Stewart, Vancouver’s incumbent mayor while, in a far closer race, Surrey’s mayor Doug McCallum was defeated by Brenda Locke.
Most of the community members featured by the Independent Oct. 7 were not successful in their races, with two exceptions.
Jonathan Lerner, a Jewish community member who has worked with organizations including the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre, Hillel BC and Jewish Family Services, topped the polls on his first foray into elected office. He was elected to district council in Lantzville, which is north of Nanaimo.
Christine Boyle, who asked to be included in our coverage as part of a mixed family, was reelected to Vancouver city council as the sole successful candidate for the OneCity group, withstanding the onslaught of the overwhelming sweep by Sim’s ABC slate.
Former Liberal member of Parliament Dan Ruimy, a son of Jewish Moroccan immigrants to Canada, was elected mayor of Maple Ridge. He was inadvertently not included in our pre-election coverage.
As part of the Jewish Independent’s election coverage, we have traditionally profiled members of the community seeking elective office. And this year’s Oct. 15 municipal elections are no different.
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Christine Boyle, Vancouver council candidate (incumbent)
Christine Boyle was elected to Vancouver city council in 2018 representing OneCity. She asked to be included in the Independent’s coverage as a member of a mixed family.
Boyle, who describes herself as a community organizer, climate justice leader and United Church minister, is married to author and public policy researcher Seth Klein. They are raising two children in East Vancouver.
Boyle said she has spent her first term on city council “working tirelessly to strengthen tenant protections, and make it faster and easier to build social, co-op, nonprofit and rental housing in every neighbourhood of Vancouver.” Her other priorities include public transportation, safer walking and cycling infrastructure, increased funding for curb ramps, public washrooms “and other tangible improvements to access and community health.”
“I am running for a second term on council, alongside a strong team of OneCity Vancouver candidates, because of my deep concern about the housing crisis, the climate emergency and the toxic drug crisis,” she told the Independent. “And I’m running because I know there’s so much more we can do.”
“My husband Seth was raised in a culturally Jewish home, the child of a secular Jewish father and a spiritually rooted Jewish mother,” she said. “When we were first dating, I remember him asking if he thought our religious differences would be a problem for our families, and my response was that we had much more in common than not.
“Throughout my upbringing, my theological training and my time working in religious leadership, I have constantly sought out opportunities to connect across faiths on shared issues of importance, from climate, to discrimination and anti-racism, to Indigenous rights, and more.
“More than a decade later, these values continue to be core to my family. The ketubah [marriage contract] that hangs on our bedroom wall reminds us daily of our shared commitment to tikkun olam, the struggle to rebuild and repair the world, to find our shared place in the centuries-old movements for equality and interdependence.
“We have worked hard to instil a sense of awe in our children and a connection to the faith and cultural traditions of their people,” said Boyle. “Our kids have attended programs at Or Shalom and the Peretz Centre. I became a regular challah baker. And we reach out to friends and leaders in our faith communities as we navigate how to raise good kids in the world these days.”
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Ken Charko, Vancouver council candidate
Ken Charko is running as a Non-Partisan Association Vancouver candidate.
“I have always had a connection to the Jewish community,” Charko told the Independent.
In his capacity as owner of the Dunbar Theatre and as a director on the board of the Motion Picture Theatre Association of British Columbia, he has been mentioned in the Independent over the years. Noting that he was profiled by former Menschenings columnist Alex Kliner in 2014, Charko said, “I have always been supporter of the arts and their importance in our community and the special connection the Jewish community has with the arts.”
Charko has run for Vancouver city councilor three times as an NPA candidate and, in 2018, as a candidate of the now-defunct Coalition Vancouver party. He said his top policy priorities concern “public safety and crime, including hate crimes; housing, including co-op housing on city land; arts venues and small business.”
While he initially thought of running in a federal election, he said, “Municipal politics is ‘touch politics,’ you feel the people and hear directly what each community needs and is looking for in an elected representative.”
He still has a lot of issues at the federal level that he wants to champion, he said, including “support for Israel, strong foreign policy, taxation fiscal policy and support for Ukraine,” but that, locally, he “can champion those policies more effectively as an elected council candidate.”
Charko acknowledged that “almost everyone running in this election wants the same thing I have mentioned above, including reduced tax increases. The choice for voters is who can get these things done. I am that person. I have always done that. As the only independent movie theatre owner on the Motion Picture Association board, I was able to get things done working with others.”
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Jonathan Lerner, District of Lantzville council candidate
Jonathan Lerner is running for council in Lantzville, which is immediately north of Nanaimo.
“I grew up in the Jewish community in Vancouver, attending Talmud Torah, Temple Sholom and working for many Jewish organizations,” Lerner told the Independent. He has a degree in philosophy from the University of British Columbia and has worked with many nonprofit organizations.
“These have included many Jewish organizations, such as Hillel BC, CIJA, Jewish Family Services of Vancouver and the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre,” Lerner said.
“During my career, I have helped to uplift communities through the power of the charitable sector, including raising millions of dollars for employment services, food banks, immigration services, animal welfare, student education and scholarships, anti-racism initiatives, and more,” he said. “While I intend to continue my career in the not-for-profit sector, I hope to put my experience in finance, management and community development to use in helping Lantzville fulfil its slogan of being a ‘lovable, livable’ community.”
His top political priorities include bringing more services directly to the people of Lantzville, such as library book-mobiles, preserving Lantzville’s scenic landscape and natural beauty, expanding councilor office hours, public hearings and town halls, and ramping up emergency preparedness for earthquakes, floods, fires, landslides and other major disasters.
“My Jewish education and upbringing have definitely affected my community connections and outlook, while spurring me to get involved in politics,” said Lerner. “I believe strongly in the value of tikkun olam and the need to help those who are vulnerable become vulnerable no longer. This has been a major source of my motivation for community and charitable involvement. I sincerely hope that municipal politics will be the next step in the evolution of my work toward building a better world.”
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Ellison Mallin, District of North Vancouver council candidate
Ellison Mallin was born and raised in North Vancouver. He has a degree in political science and a record of volunteerism, which led him to his current full-time position as constituency assistant for MLA Susie Chant. Ellison has served on North Vancouver’s Rental, Social and Affordable Housing Taskforce and the Community Services Advisory Committee, acting as the chair in 2022. He has coached in the North Shore Inline Hockey League and also has worked in the music industry.
“Housing affordability is the number one issue for me in this election,” he said. “We are losing workers and our sense of community because people can no longer afford to live on the North Shore. This causes a chain reaction that leads to many of our other top problems, like traffic and public safety. Solving our housing problems needs to be done as a priority so that we may address other issues.
“I also have a dedicated platform on transportation solutions, better spending and planning, environmental leadership, improving civic engagement and improving the health of our community,” Mallin said.
“I am the great-great-grandson of Rabbi David Belasoff, who was the first full-time Orthodox rabbi in Vancouver,” Mallin said. “He led the B’nai Yehuda (now Schara Tzedeck). My grandparents, Lil and Lloyd Mallin, used to host amazing Passover, Chanukah and Rosh Hashanah dinners, but when they passed those did not continue. I did take my Birthright trip in 2016 to explore Israel and became more connected with the Jewish community in Vancouver as a result. Connecting to the community really did help me find my identity and gave me a lot of the confidence I needed to put myself out there in electoral politics.… I attend the occasional social events that I am available for, and I do go to some public events held by Har El in West Vancouver. For me, the biggest barrier to attending more events is the traffic and distance to them from North Vancouver and would love to see more Jewish community opportunities in North Van.”
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Carla Frenkel, Vancouver Park Board candidate
Carla Frenkel has more than a decade of experience in architecture, working on affordable housing, urban design, and environmental responsibility. She is running for park board with Vision Vancouver.
“Finding alignment with Canadian values, we decided to immigrate to Vancouver [from the United States] in 2014,” she said. “We found an amazing community in Strathcona, anchored around Maclean Park, our community centre and gardens. Since 2018, I have been president of the Strathcona Community Garden, where I coordinate hundreds of volunteers, leading stewardship of Vancouver’s largest community garden. There, I spearhead a wetland project, which manages storm water while improving biodiversity. A mother of three, I chair the Strathcona PAC’s school grounds committee,” she said.
“Today we face monumental challenges of aging infrastructure, climate change and reconciliation,” said Frenkel. “From this arises unique opportunities to create resilient parks and community centres that serve the diverse needs of residents.”
Frenkel’s identity and core values are intrinsically tied to being Jewish, she said.
“I grew up in a progressive Reform synagogue, which reinforced tikkun olam, interconnectedness, social and environmental justice and mitzvot,” she said. “In high school, I followed suit, joining NFTY [the Reform Jewish youth movement], actively leading, planning services and gatherings. In university, I worked at the Berkeley Hillel, where I met my husband. Today, we are part of the Or Shalom community, where we share these traditions and values with our children.”
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John Irwin, Vancouver Park Board candidate (incumbent)
John Irwin was elected to the Vancouver Park Board in 2018 with the Coalition of Progressive Electors and is seeking reelection with Vision Vancouver. Like Boyle, he is part of a mixed family and his spouse is Jewish.
He holds a PhD specializing in sustainable urban development, works as a lecturer at Simon Fraser University and Alexander College and also has worked as a policy analyst for the Tenant’s Rights Action Coalition (now the Tenant Resource Advisory Centre) and the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, B.C. office. He worked in fair trade retail from 1996 to 2006. He is a father of three school-aged kids and lives in the Fairview neighbourhood.
Irwin has served on boards including the Society Promoting Environmental Conservation, Friends of False Creek (now the False Creek Watershed Society) and the West End Residents Association. He was chair of the Henry Hudson Out-of-School Society and is an advocate for affordable childcare.
“I am running for reelection with Vision Vancouver as a park board commissioner, as I think that we have much more to achieve regarding the climate crisis, active transportation, ‘reconcili-action’ and accessible and affordable parks and recreation,” he said. “In my first term, I brought forward many successful motions: the Stanley Park Mobility Study focuses on reducing automobile traffic and promotes active transportation by increasing cycling, walking and public transit in the park while increasing accessibility for those with disabilities; a motion requesting the Port Authority give the park board the go-ahead to work with the local First Nations to plan and build an Indigenous cultural healing centre in CRAB Park; a recent motion asking staff to design fully accessible playgrounds for all children, which will help those with disabilities play with their peers in an active and inclusive way.
“I have also been a strong voice against discrimination of all types: antisemitism, Sinophobia and Islamophobia, etc.,” said Irwin.
“For many years, I have found the Vancouver Jewish community to be very welcoming,” he said. “Although I am not Jewish, many synagogues have welcomed me, my partner who is Jewish and my three children, who have all attended Hebrew school. Our children celebrated their b’nai mitzvahs at Beth Israel Synagogue, where we regularly attend as members. The practice of mitzvah has reinforced my activism to do my part in making our society in Vancouver socially just and sustainable. I am inspired by the practices of atonement and ecological consciousness, such as that found in Tu b’Shevat, the Jewish new year for trees.”
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Kyla Epstein, Vancouver School Board candidate
Kyla Epstein’s family left South Africa before she was born.
“I was raised in Toronto on the shoulders of my parents going to anti-apartheid rallies, marching in Pride protests, and attending public, alternative schools that were child-centred, social-justice-focused and showed me that public education and learning can take many forms,” she said.
“Over the past two decades, my curiosity and desire to build relationships have led me to work in a variety of sectors, including business, philanthropy and nonprofit (including two years in Guatemala) and labour, before moving into my current role doing government and stakeholder relations at BCIT [B.C. Institute of Technology].”
Epstein has served on many boards and was a trustee and chair of the Vancouver Public Library board. She is now on the boards of the Vancouver Writers Festival, the Laurier Institution and the National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation. She has served on school parent advisory council executives for more than 10 years and is currently pursuing a master’s degree. She is running with OneCity.
“High-quality public education is one of the best ways that we, as a society, can care for future generations,” Epstein said. “Funding for the public school system should appropriately reflect the value of public education, not just for students and families currently in the system, but for communities and society more broadly.”
If elected, she said, she will advocate for funding to ensure that students with a range of diverse needs can thrive and every teacher and worker has the tools and resources they need; address climate change; stand up against any form of discrimination in schools; fully implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples across the school district and develop reciprocal relationships with local First Nations for all planning decisions, especially those related to school board land; and improve Vancouver School Board governance by listening to people, being accountable and considering those who are most impacted.
“While not raised religiously, it is hard for me to untangle my identity from my being Jewish,” she said. “Many of my most special memories, or the moments that formed my sense of self, are grounded in Jewishness. Holidays such as Pesach have always been important to me because it is a regular reminder, through stories and songs, of the ongoing struggles for justice and liberation.
“I also feel a kinship with the emphasis on asking questions that is a part of my Jewishness,” she added. “The stories shared in my family about persecution faced by Jews have certainly contributed to how I see the world. Family stories of unwilling migration are regular reminders to me that everyone’s dignity and safety be upheld all around the world. My parents’ very difficult choice to leave South Africa and the activism I was raised with were rooted in the lessons of tikkun olam and I draw upon those lessons regularly.”
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Fred Harding’s diverse DNA
During the mayoral candidates’ forum held at Temple Sholom Sept. 7, Non-Partisan Association candidate Fred Harding made a brief reference that he could become Vancouver’s first Jewish mayor. (He couldn’t. David Oppenheimer, Vancouver’s second mayor, was Jewish.)
The Independent asked Harding about his roots after the meeting.
“My mother is from Germany – and my family was Jewish,” he said. “After she married my father, all my siblings were raised in Catholicism. My mother actually converted later on to Mormonism, so the Jewish faith was never practised in our home. The tragedy is that my family remained in Germany and so I never had a connection to the Jewish faith.”
At the age of 14, however, Harding traveled to Germany and met some of his great-aunts, who had been persecuted in the war and later received financial compensation.
He also has visited Congregation Har El.
“I had some very dear friends bring me to the temple in West Vancouver probably 12 years ago and that was my first experience,” he said. “I actually felt very, very welcome.”
He sees his family’s diversity as a benefit as he seeks to lead one of the world’s most multicultural cities.
“This is only a fraction of my DNA. I’m a German Jewish Catholic with a Mormon mother, a Christian father who came from Africa. I’m married to a Chinese lady, my granddaughter is Chinese, my eldest daughter is blonde and blue-eyed,” he said. “I feel the privilege of representing just about everything and I’m honuored for that background in my DNA.”
Voters across British Columbia choose local officials on Saturday, Oct. 15. Remaining advance voting days in Vancouver are on Oct. 8, 11 and 13 and vote-by-mail ballots can be requested until Oct. 11. For full details see vancouver.ca or your local municipal website.
The Independent asked candidates we profiled two additional questions: “Will you (or won’t you) use your position as a platform to discuss international affairs, specifically Palestine and Israel?” and “If so, can you provide a brief explanation of your perspective on the subject?” (image from Wikipedia)
Civic politics generally deals with maintaining roads and sewers, reviewing development applications and a vast range of close-to-the-ground issues. But municipal politics has also been a place where a vast range of other issues are discussed. For example, Vancouver city council voted in 1983 to declare the city a “nuclear weapons free zone” and, formally or informally, members of council have felt free to address topics of national and global concern.
During debate around the city’s adoption of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance Working Definition of Antisemitism – which a majority of council voted to refer to committee, effectively defeating it – critics of the definition warned that it could place limits on the right to criticize Israel, despite that the definition explicitly states that it is legally non-binding. While the condemnation of antisemitism is not an international issue, examples accompanying the definition included several relating to anti-Zionism.
Because of the history of using civic positions as platforms for international issues, the Independent asked candidates we profiled two additional questions: “Will you (or won’t you) use your position as a platform to discuss international affairs, specifically Palestine and Israel?” and “If so, can you provide a brief explanation of your perspective on the subject?”
Christine Boyle, the incumbent Vancouver city councilor who voted to refer the IHRA issue to committee, said that commenting on international affairs is not generally part of the role of a city councilor.
“And there are so many important issues and struggles locally that continue to be the focus of my attention,” she said. “But my practice on any topic is to listen to and engage with communities most impacted on an issue, always seeking to uphold human rights, peace and justice.
“I have spent much of my adult life actively engaged in justice work, including opposing and challenging hate and discrimination, and working to strengthen the human rights of all people,” she continued. “I am deeply committed to challenging antisemitism and ensuring that Jewish residents in Vancouver feel safe at home, at worship, and everywhere.
“When a motion came to council asking Vancouver to adopt the IHRA Definition of Antisemitism, council received hundreds of emails on the subject, with a diverse range of perspectives on the topic,” said Boyle. “Even my own Jewish family members didn’t all agree on the issue. What I heard clearly from the community was that, while there wasn’t agreement on this definition, there was absolutely a need for the city to do more to address antisemitism and racism. And so council referred the definition to the City of Vancouver’s Racial and Cultural Equity Advisory Committee, with direction for staff to continue working vociferously to address antisemitism and other forms of racism and hate. Since then I have worked hard each budget cycle to ensure our anti-racism and anti-hate efforts are well funded and supported, and will continue that work.”
Vancouver council candidate Ken Charko told the Independent, “Yes, I would use my position as a city councilor as a platform to discuss international affairs [and] yes support of Israel will be part of that platform…. I support Canada moving its embassy to Jerusalem and recognizing it as the capital of Israel. I would use my position as a Vancouver city councilor and federal Conservative member to outline why Canada should do that under the next Conservative government.”
John Irwin, an incumbent member of the Vancouver Park Board, switched from the Coalition of Progressive Electors last election to Vision Vancouver this election because, he said, “There was a disagreement with COPE regarding their lack of acceptance of the IHRA definition of antisemitism (which was accepted by the Canadian government).”
He added: “As a local politician, I generally use my platform to discuss local issues.”
Carla Frenkel, also a candidate for the Vancouver Park Board, said simply: “I have no intention to use the role of park board commissioner as a platform for international affairs.”
Kyla Epstein, who is seeking a seat on the Vancouver School Board, said that, to her knowledge, international affairs do not regularly come up at the school board table, nor is it generally within the scope of the role of a trustee to take a position on international affairs.
“What I do know is that I bring to the role a deep commitment to human rights and an opposition to antisemitism, Islamophobia, anti-Palestinian racism, anti-Black racism, anti-Indigenous racism, and all forms of discrimination, racism and hatred,” she said. “In addition, my approach to governance is to listen, welcome different perspectives and reduce barriers for public and stakeholder participation – on any issue. I will fight to uphold a public education system that is a place of learning, curiosity and questioning. I will, no matter the issue that comes to the school board table, reach out to communities, listen and learn, and make my decisions to uphold human rights and equality.”
Ellison Mallin, running for council in the District of North Vancouver, said, “I am always discussing international issues with people, as, in this increasingly connected world, events that happen anywhere can affect us here.
“I do not intend to use any municipal specific platforms, or my position, to bring up Israel and Palestine, and will keep discussions on the subject to appropriate venues. I do recognize that, given my religion, there will likely be comments and questions directed to me, which I will not shy away from,” he said. “I strongly believe in Israel’s right to exist. A safe place for Jewish people to live and to foster Jewish identity and culture is needed. Perhaps, sadly, it is needed now more than ever, as we do see a rise in antisemitism in many areas. On that note, I do not deny Palestine’s right to exist, and believe a two-state solution is needed. I would also like to see Israel stop building settlements in the West Bank, as this further creates divides and hostilities.”
Jonathan Lerner, council candidate in Lantzville, said he does not see Middle Eastern affairs coming into play in Lantzville politics. But, he added: “Everyone familiar with my work will know that I am a strong advocate for respectful dialogue on these issues.
“Where I think municipal governments can play a larger role is in diversity, inclusion and anti-racism initiatives,” said Lerner. “Many communities, including the Jewish, Muslim and LGBTQ communities, have been targeted by an increase in hate crimes in Canada. Municipalities have a key role to play in addressing this issue. For example, governments of all levels are considering adoption of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of antisemitism, as well as other racism classifications that help to define and address discrimination.”
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.”
Over the 11 days of the Vancouver Queer Film Festival, which ended Aug. 25, two directors withdrew their films from the program because the festival included an advertisement from Yad b’Yad, a Vancouver-based group that supports the Jewish LGBTQ community. The advertisement depicted an Israeli flag alongside a pride flag and wished VQFF mazal tov on its 26th anniversary.
“We formed a few months ago and decided to put ads out in the community to let people know we exist,” said Jonathan Lerner, chair of Yad b’Yad. “Our intention was to celebrate pride and congratulate the film festival on 26 years, and we used the two flags to show our solidarity with the community. The ad was not intended to be political.”
Patty Berne, director of the film Sins Invalid, was the first to withdraw from VQFF, on Aug. 14, stating she was “angered and disappointed” that VQFF accepted the ad. The ad, she said, “attempts to portray the state of Israel as a friend to LGBTQ communities, particularly in the current moment as the people of Palestine are living through hell and dying in staggering numbers daily.”
Can Candan, director and producer of My Child, withdrew his documentary a few days later because, he said in an open letter to VQFF organizers, the festival had not taken a “public and vocal stand against the Israeli government’s unacceptable policies.” He cited an obligation to join the BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) campaign “as filmmakers and human rights activists with conscience.”
The filmmakers’ withdrawal from the festival was disappointing, said Drew Dennis, VQFF executive director. “We had many conversations encouraging them to keep their films in the festival, so I was saddened that they withdrew, but we want to respect them for the decision they made for themselves.”
Dennis said neither of the two withdrawn films contained any content relevant to the Middle East and insisted that VQFF had no political stance. “We heard from a number of filmmakers who were voicing concerns about the ad, but the festival is a place where we bring people together and allow a diversity of viewpoints. Our mandate is pretty simple: to bring communities together and provide a platform for safe, open dialogue around those films.”
Mik Turje, another director who raised concerns but did not withdraw his film, also issued a statement, as did Queers Against Israeli Apartheid and the Simon Fraser Public Interest Research Group, a student-run centre. Their statements claimed that ads like Yad b’Yad’s attempt to “pinkwash” Israel’s image by focusing on the state’s gay rights rather than on its treatment of the Palestinians. Turje said although the VQFF has made it clear it has no position on the issue, “I believe that choosing neutrality in a situation of oppression is a form of complicity. The project of pinkwashing dehumanizes Palestinians in our name, it frames Israel as a liberal democracy in our name, and it fuels Islamophobia and racism in our name.”
After concerns about the ad were raised back in July, VQFF decided to donate Yad b’Yad’s $630 in ad revenue to Just Vision, an organization whose stated goal is to use film and multimedia to help foster “peace and an end to the occupation by rendering Palestinian and Israeli nonviolence leaders more visible, valued and effective in their efforts.” Dennis said there’s “concern, compassion for what’s happening in the region right now, but it’s not part of our mandate to look at this, so we chose to make the donation in an effort to contribute in a more productive way.”
That didn’t sit well with Lerner and members of Yad b’Yad. “By treating our ad revenue differently from every other group and ad, they essentially bowed to the pressure, succumbed to the bullies,” he said. “The gay community knows full well what it feels like to be alienated and excluded, but that’s what the VQFF is promoting by treating our ad revenue differently. They’ve made us feel unwelcome because of our religion and our nation of origin.” Lerner said Yad b’Yad was not given a choice about where its ad money would be donated. “I don’t know much about Just Vision, but we don’t support our money being donated. It’s not what we paid for,” he said.
Dennis said the VQFF board would be meeting in the fall to review its policies and practices, and that the controversy over this year’s film festival had raised the fact that “something as complex as this issue is not served by our policy. There wasn’t a large organizational decision around advertisements,” Dennis said. “We focus much more on the films than on the ads, but there’s an opportunity for us to look at that in the fall.”
Lerner told the Independent that VQFF has asked for public input on the issue be sent to [email protected].
Lauren Kramer, an award-winning writer and editor, lives in Richmond, B.C. To read her work online, visit laurenkramer.net.