WINNIPEG — The 21st World Conference of GLBT (Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgendered) Jews was by all accounts a rousing success.
“I thought it turned out very well,” said Paula Parks, who co-chaired the three-day July event at the Winnipeg Conference Centre with Arthur Blankstein.
This was the first time that the conference has been held in Canada. “The feedback was highly positive. The World Congress members who attended were surprised and pleased with how smoothly everything went,” Parks said, adding that support from the Jewish community at large was very helpful.
But it was not only financial and moral support that the larger Jewish community provided for the conference. Among the 150 attendees were several prominent members of the Jewish community such as David Cohen, former executive director of the Jewish Foundation of Manitoba, and his wife, Maurene.
“We looked at the website and we were very impressed with the quality of the speakers,” Cohen said. “They had very impressive academic credentials and they had done impressive things, too, from a Jewish point of view.”
The three keynote speakers were Joy Ladin, the author of Through the Door of Life, a recounting of the Yeshiva University professor, formerly known as Jay Ladin; Jay Michaelson, the author of God vs. Gay? The Religious Case for Equality; prolific author Leslea Newman who often writes about Jewish and lesbian identities and the intersection and collision between the two.
Both conference co-chairs said the keynote speakers were top-notch.
“Each brought us knowledge of our connection to God and Judaism and gave each of us – whether we were observant or not – an insight and interpretation in Torah,” Blankstein said.
The other highlight of the weekend was the screening of the Israeli-made documentary The Invisible Men, which shows the plight of gay Palestinians who seek refuge and freedom in Israel, where they are often harassed because they are Palestinian.
“The film and the appearance of filmmaker Yariv Mozer to answer questions gave us a new perspective of the dangers of life for Palestinians who are gay,” Blankstein said. “It’s no different than the plight of GLBT persons up until acceptance in North America, which has evolved in my lifetime.”
Parks added that many people attended expressly to see the documentary.
It was Blankstein and Parks who decided to bring the GLBT conference to Winnipeg after they attended the 2010 conference in Los Angeles. “We thought that someday, it would be great to bring this international gathering to Winnipeg”, recalls Parks. “Well, that ‘someday’ has come. With the development of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights here next year, we thought that this conference would be a great way to promoted Winnipeg as the place to celebrate diversity.”
The World Congress of Gay and Lesbian Organizations was officially born in 1980 in San Francisco. Since 1980, the organization has changed its name several times, and is now known as the World Congress of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Jews. The Hebrew name – “Keshet Ga’avah” – means “rainbow of pride” and reflects the importance of Israel to the organization. It has member organizations worldwide, and holds annual board meetings as well as both regional and world conferences to help fulfil its goal of helping GLBT Jews enjoy free and fulfilling lives.
“The level of acceptance is much greater now for GLBT people than it was 40 years ago,” said Blankstein. “In the ’70’s, we were still considered pariahs by many people. That is still the case in some circles.” Blankstein said.
“We are excited to show off Winnipeg’s famous hospitality and demonstrate our world-renowned reputation as a first-class host for international conferences and events,” he added. “We had people coming from England, South America, Europe and Israel in addition to Canada and the United States.
“We also exhibited to the community our cohesiveness – we had financial support from Jewish and non-Jewish foundations, Jewish and non-Jewish corporations and individuals – all tolerant and inclusive of the GLBT Jewish community.”