WINNIPEG — Arthur Blankstein and Paula Parks, co-chairs of the 21st World Conference of GLBT Jews, believe it was bashert that Winnipeg would be the first Canadian city to host the world’s largest regular event for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered Jews.
Parks and Blankstein attended the 2010 conference in Los Angeles. “We thought that some day, it would be great to bring this international gathering to Winnipeg. Well, that ‘some day’ is here,” Parks said.
“With the [expected opening] of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights here next year, we thought that this conference would be a great way to promote Winnipeg as the place to celebrate diversity.”
Organizers expect some 250 people to attend the event, which runs July 5 to 7 at the Winnipeg Convention Centre.
““We have people coming from England, South America, Europe and Israel in addition to Canada and the United States,” 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.”
Event partners include the World Congress of GLBT Jews (also known as Keshet Ga’avah), Winnipeg’s Anakhnu Jewish GLBT Group, the Rady Jewish Community Centre, Congregation Shaarey Zedek and Temple Shalom (Winnipeg’s Reform congregation), with funding provided by the Asper Foundation, the Jewish Foundation of Manitoba, the Winnipeg Foundation and the City of Winnipeg.
The Jewish Federation of Winnipeg, Gray Academy of Jewish Education, Hillel Winnipeg, Jewish Child and Family Service, the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, Tourism Winnipeg and Keshet have also signed on as community partners.
The first gay and lesbian Jewish organization in the world was the Jewish Gay and Lesbian Group, formed in London, England, in 1972, Blankstein said. It was quickly followed by the first gay and lesbian synagogues in Los Angeles and New York’s Congregation, and by 1975, gay and lesbian Jewish groups were active in San Francisco, Boston, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia and Miami.
The first International Conference of Gay Jews took place in August of 1976, and in 1980 in San Francisco, the World Congress of Gay and Lesbian Organizations was officially born. Since then, it has changed its name several times and is now known as the World Congress of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Jews.
Its Hebrew name – Keshet Ga’avah – means “rainbow of pride” and reflects the importance of Israel to the organization. It has member groups worldwide, and holds annual board meetings, as well as regional and world conferences.
Its goal is to “nurture an environment where gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender Jews worldwide can enjoy free and fulfilling lives,” Blankstein said.
“The level of acceptance is much greater now for GLBT people than it was 40 years ago,” he said.
“In the ’70s, we were still considered pariahs by many people. That is still the case in some circles.”
Among the high-profile speakers to be featured at the conference is Joy Ladin, author of Through the Door of Life, in which the Yeshiva University professor, formerly known as Jay Ladin, takes readers inside her transition as she changed genders and, in the process, created a new self.
Also speaking will be former Winnipegger Rokie Bernstein, a rabbi, maggid and spiritual counsellor, as well as Joel Kushner, founding director of the Institute for Judaism and Sexual Orientation (IJSO) at Hebrew Union College-JIR; social worker and Jewish community worker Michael Waxman, and Chicago-area community worker and community leader Carol Goldbaum, who will be speaking about aging.
The latter issue is a serious concern for GLBT Jews, Blankstein said. “It’s hard enough getting older when you have a family support group,” he said. “Most GLBT people don’t have children to look after them in their old age, and many of us who were born more than 30 years ago were cut off by our siblings.”