LGBTQ+ at the J, based at the Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre, is the heart of Toronto’s LGBTQ+ Jewish community.
Launched in 2018, the initiative provides queer Jews opportunities to gather and thrive. We aim for the full inclusion and celebration of LGBTQ+ Jews across Jewish institutions and in Jewish life.
But the work is challenging.
Historically, the Jewish community has not been welcoming to its LGBTQ+ members; only in recent decades has that begun to shift. Still, many members face discrimination and exclusion. As a result, funding is sparse and LGBTQ+ Jewish people are not often prioritized in community spaces.
For decades, LGBTQ+ Jews have fought to find a home in Toronto’s Jewish community. It was not that long ago that Jews who wanted queer spaces often had to create them on their own (including Chutzpah in the 1980s, Shir Libeynu in the 1990s, and Kulanu in the 2000s) as more established spaces weren’t always the most welcoming or supportive. LGBTQ+ at the J is able to do our work because of those initiatives that paved the way. While it’s beautiful that people created the initiatives needed for the LGBTQ+ Jewish community to thrive, it’s unfortunate that queer Jewish folks did not have the support nor allyship in the wider community until recently.
These days, LGBTQ+ Jews still want to feel included in the greater Jewish community but also want safe spaces to connect. As such, LGBTQ+ at the J is the hub for Jewish events during Pride month. The initiative plans and/or partners on more than 10 programs with over 1,000 participants annually. Pride Shabbat, a key event (with many community partners), has welcomed close to 200 people in the last few years at The 519, and many others on Zoom during COVID. We’re proud at how far the community has come in celebrating LGBTQ+ Jews during Pride month.
Our work is also centered around empowering Toronto Jewish community organizations to take impactful steps towards LGBTQ+ inclusion. One of our most recent efforts was at the beginning of 2020, when we convened 12 GTA-based Jewish organizations to participate in the Keshet Leadership Project, a year-long training in Jewish LGBTQ+ organizational inclusion. We’ve gotten to see the outcome of this training with new initiatives such as UJA’s LGBTQ+ Division.
LGBTQ+ marginalization within Judaism has always existed and has meant the shapers, builders, and growers of Jewish community have not often included LGBTQ+ identified people. Our latest program Queer Jewish Incubator is aimed at shifting this history. We are investing in LGBTQ+ people as the visionaries, storytellers, guides, weavers, and disrupters currently missing—and needed—within our Toronto Jewish communal context. We will be gathering seven incredible LGBTQ+ folks to build deep connections with each other, and for each person to develop a project that expands queer Jewish community and identity.
We’ve also started convening community stakeholders, some of whom have been doing this work decades before us, to build deeper connections and partnerships with each other, and counter the often-felt isolation in community building efforts.
We can’t talk about our work without highlighting groups and individuals on the ground leading and growing LGBTQ+ centred community which include:
Danforth Jewish Circle, Congregation Shir Libeynu, Alex Richler -Community Builder, Aviva Chernick, Moishe House Maple Leaf Gardens, CIJA LGBTQ+ Advisory Committee, UofT Rainbow Jews/Hillel UofT, Machane Lev Camp, Gil Segev/Gila Munster, EshelTO, Queer Jewish Families and many incredible lay leaders who are integral to keeping this work alive.
Header image design by Clarrie Feinstein. Photos courtesy of MNjcc.
Cara Gold is a Jewish community builder, organizer and dreamer working at the Miles Nadal JCC. Cara sits on the board of Hashomer Hazair Canada and is an alumni of the Taproot Community Ritualist training. She holds an MBA in Social Impact and MA in Jewish Professional Leadership from Brandeis University.