Documenting Toronto’s LGBTQ+ Jewish community

The Ontario Jewish Archives (OJA) has been documenting the province’s Jewish history since 1973; however, it’s only been in the past five years that the OJA has made a concerted effort to document the province’s Jewish LGBTQ+ community. In 2018, I was hired as an acquisitions archivist, and I devoted much of that year to outreach work with the Jewish LGBTQ+ community to make sure its stories were documented in our collections (the OJA’s motto is “our stories are your stories”).

Members of the Jewish LGBTQ+ community started coming together as early as the 1970s. The first groups were composed primarily of gay men and, to a lesser extent, lesbians. Unfortunately, few records survive from these groups. (The ArQuives, Canada’s LGBTQ2+ archives, does have some records documenting Chutzpah, a gay-Jewish group active in the 1980s.) As a result, most of our materials date from the 1990s or later.

Congregation B’nai Kehillah of Toronto newsletter, Apr. 1978. Ontario Jewish Archives, accession 2019-10-3.

Above is a rare example of a textual record to survive from the 1970s. Unlike the secular Chutzpah that would emerge in the mid-1980s, Congregation B’nai Kehillah was a religious group that sought to “provide education on Judaism, homosexuality and lesbianism, both for ourselves and for the community in general.” Intriguingly, the congregation chose to meet at a church. This may have been because mainstream Jewish organizations were unwilling to rent space to an openly gay group, or it may have been because members were not out to the broader community and wanted to meet somewhere where they were unlikely to be recognized.

The first major acquisition I made as acquisitions archivist were the records of Kulanu Toronto. Founded in the year 2000 and incorporated in 2014, Kulanu Toronto was the main Jewish LGBTQ+ organization in the first two decades of the twenty-first century. The organization provided programming for LGBTQ+ Jews of all ages and affiliations and maintained a joyful presence at Toronto’s annual Pride Parade.

Kulanu Toronto marching at WorldPride, 2014. Ontario Jewish Archives, fonds 124, series 1-7, file 24, item 2.

Occasionally, the presence of both pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian groups at Pride could result in tension. This was the case whenever Kulanu Toronto and Queers Against Israeli Apartheid (QuAIA) attended Pride the same year. Complicating matters was the fact that QuAIA had Jewish members, some of whom accused Kulanu Toronto of pinkwashing Israel’s human rights record. Learning about this history as I processed Kulanu Toronto’s records reminded me that the Jewish LGBTQ+ community is no more monolithic than the broader Jewish community.

Kulanu Toronto dissolved in 2018. Some of its functions were taken over by a new group, LGBTQ at the J, which operates out of the Miles Nadal JCC (MNjcc) in downtown Toronto. When I reached out to MNjcc about acquiring records, they were kind enough to not only donate photographs of the group but to include a community needs assessment that was completed in 2018. The latter is fascinating for, among other things, revealing some of the challenges faced by LGBTQ+ individuals in the Jewish community. (Gay and lesbian Jews are more likely to be in relationships with non-Jews than their heterosexual counterparts, for example, which makes accommodation of interfaith couples a top issue for LGBTQ+ Jews.)

Members of LGBTQ at the J marching at Pride, 2019. Ontario Jewish Archives, accession 2019-6-6.

One heartening aspect of continuing to acquire records from and about the Jewish LGBTQ+ community has been seeing increased support from mainstream Jewish organizations. In the beginning, Jewish groups such as Congregation B’nai Kehillah of Toronto and Chutzpah operated with close to zero support from the mainstream Jewish community, whereas in recent decades multiple Jewish organizations have come out to show their support. Jewish Family & Child (photograph below) is one such organization that is committed to creating a safe space for LGBTQ+ individuals and makes a point of welcoming people of all sexual orientations and gender identities at its workshops.

Jewish Family & Child at Pride, 2019. Ontario Jewish Archives, accession 2019-7-3.

While it is encouraging to see genuine displays of allyship, this should not obscure the fact that for many years LGBTQ+ individuals and families were marginalized within the Jewish community. Moreover, some of the issues raised in the early 2000s, such as the adoption of inclusive language, continue to meet with resistance within segments of the Jewish community. The struggle for full inclusion of LGBTQ+ individuals and families within the Jewish community is, therefore, far from over.

Pro-LGBT sign at WorldPride, 2014. Ontario Jewish Archives, fonds 124, series 1-7, file 24, item 1.

Although the OJA has made progress in acquiring records from Jewish LGBTQ+ organizations in Toronto, there remain significant gaps. One such gap is LGBTQ+ families: most of the records documenting Jewish LGBTQ+ life tend to focus on groups or organizations. This is problematic, because the absence of these materials tends to reinforce a heterosexist idea of what a Jewish family looks like.

Jonathan Lau and Mark Drutz showing their wedding bands, 2000. Ontario Jewish Archives, accession 2022-4-6.

Just last month, I received a donation of photographs and other material documenting a gay couple, and I was faced with the question of whether to treat the photographs as the photographs of two individuals or as the photographs of a family (the Canadian archival standard Rules for Archival Description distinguishes between the records of individuals, families, and corporate bodies). This, in turn, made me reflect on my own thinking of what constitutes a family.

I often conflate the idea of family with the idea of having biological children. But this is arbitrary. Some families have biological children; some have adopted children; some have both. Some families have no children. Reflecting on my own prejudices, I was disconcerted to realize how narrow my own thinking had been about what makes up a “family,” and I wondered if my own narrowness of thinking might not have contributed to the dearth of family types represented in the OJA’s holdings—a troubling thought to say the least.

I have as much work to do as anyone in overcoming a lifetime of heterosexist ideology. At the same time, I’m proud—no pun intended—to have played a small part in diversifying the OJA’s collections and thus in making Jewish history more inclusive of people of various gender identities, sexual orientations, and family structures. And I am grateful to those individuals, whether or not they identify as members of the Jewish LGBTQ+ community, for donating their photographs, textual records, and other documents so as to preserve these stories for future generations.

Pride on Yonge Street, Jun. 2019. Ontario Jewish Archives, 2021-3-4.

Header Image: Rainbow flag with Star of David at Pride, [20–]. Ontario Jewish Archives, Blankenstein Family Heritage Centre, fonds 124.

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