Justine Apple says it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that Kulanu Toronto has saved lives.
“Kulanu has and will continue to save the lives of many people, younger and older, who have nowhere to turn and are often rejected by their families and their friends,” says the executive director of the gay Jewish community group.
Founded in 2000, Kulanu Toronto, gives lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) Jews a place to connect with people who can relate to their experiences. It also seeks to educate the community and encourage people to fully include gay Jews.
“People need to open their eyes and realize that queer Jews need to be recognized,” Apple says. “Kulanu Toronto provides such a vital part of the fabric of the Jewish community.”
Apple says she came out as a lesbian to her family and close friends when she was 21. It wasn’t an easy task.
“I was struggling at the time because my parents were having a difficult time with the realization that their eldest daughter was gay,” she says. “At the time I felt very ignored in conversation, and I felt quite isolated.”
A woman she was dating suggested they try out a Kulanu event. There, Apple met other Jews whose ability to relate to her situation gave her a sense of belonging.
“It was mainly women who shared my struggles and my values and my interests,” she says.
“That’s what brought us all together.”
Five years ago, Apple was invited to join the executive committee for Kulanu, and within a year, because of her passion and leadership potential, she was asked to be executive director.
It’s a tough position, she says. It requires a huge time commitment despite being a volunteer position. But she describes it as highly rewarding.
“I get to meet and work with amazing queer Jews of all ages and Jewish affiliations,” she says.
“I love to see our members developing friendships with each other. It’s beautiful to see.”
Despite the hard work, she says she continues to do it because it gives her the chance to help LGBT Jews feel a sense of belonging and comfort.
“When I came out 15 years ago – and it feels like yesterday – I was 21 and I felt lots of backlash,” she says. “I spent months and years feeling very isolated, very guilty, very ashamed.”
She continued to attend her Orthodox synagogue throughout her 20s but she avoided discussing her sexual orientation especially with the rabbi who, at the time, refused to acknowledge the LGBT members of the congregation.
But Kulanu helped her realize there was nothing wrong with being both gay and Jewish.
“I was still the same special Justine I’d been before I came out,” she says.
Over time, she says, she even began to feel proud of her identity.
Eventually, Apple’s mother also grew more comfortable with her daughter’s sexual orientation, and she even began talking to friends and family about the situation, Apple says. Having her mother’s acceptance helped, and these days, her family is fully accepting of her – including her extended family members who identify as Orthodox.
Acceptance from the more observant parts of the community has been growing too, although there’s a still a lot of room for improvement.
This year representatives from Conservative synagogues joined the Kulanu contingent at the annual Pride parade, and the Toronto Board of Rabbis offered its support.
Oddly enough, the inclusion of an anti-Israel group, Queers Against Israeli Apartheid (QuAIA), in the Toronto Pride parade over the past few years has helped bring Kulanu into the public eye, Apple says.
Members of the media have asked Kulanu to respond to QuAIA’s actions. At the Pride parade, many people walking with Kulanu told The CJN that QuAIA’s presence, and support for Israel, did influence their decision to march.
Although QuAIA has ironically helped raise Kulanu’s profile, Apple says she’s hoping to shift the media focus back to spreading a positive and inclusive message, rather than focusing on condeming QuAIA’s actions.
To that end, she’s working on a plan to ensure that Kulanu’s presence at the international event, WorldPride 2014, which will be held in Toronto next summer, will serve to further the acceptance of LGBT Jews in Toronto. She says they’re even considering having a float in the parade.
Apple says she’s hoping the number of supporters will continue to grow, as well as the number of members of Kulanu.
Currently there are about 400 people on the group’s mailing list. Apple’s vision for Kulanu’s future also involves having a space for the group to operate.
“When they’re with us, they feel special and welcome and acknowledged,” she says, so having a permanent space would be very helpful.
“It’s people coming together in a welcoming, inclusive space where they feel comfortable to express their Jewish and LGBT identities.”
For more information about Kulanu Toronto, visit kulanutoronto.ca.