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Thursday, December 25, 2014

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Toronto, Israel LGBT orgs to team up

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From left, Justine Apple, Anat Avissar and Michael Hamel

TORONTO — In what may be a watershed moment between Canada’s and Israel’s Jewish lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered (LGBT) communities, Kulanu Toronto and The Aguda – respectively Canada and Israel’s largest Jewish LGBT organizations – are teaming up.

Representatives of the two groups met for a first-ever in-person meeting last week in Toronto to discuss plans for joint efforts on 2012 Pride events, educational exchanges and support programs.

Michael Hamel and Anat Avissar, the chair and foreign policy director of The Aguda respectively, were on a trip through North America to meet with the Jewish LGBT communities in Toronto, Washington, D.C., New York, Denver, Los Angeles and San Francisco.

While here, Aguda members were hosted by the Consulate General of Israel in Toronto.

Justine Apple, executive director of Kulanu, said the prospect of working with The Aguda on cross-national initiatives was exciting. She said one of the groups’ main topics of discussion was the planning of a joint convention in Toronto on May 17, 2012 – the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia.

While the details are still being ironed out, Apple said, the conference would likely focus on “general women’s issues and not strictly on LGBT issues.”

The Aguda would send representatives to speak at the convention, and Kulanu would send a delegation to Israel at some future point to speak at LGBT events there, she said.

Also in the works is a cross-promotion of Kulanu and Aguda educational materials and souvenirs at each other’s booths and stations at the Tel Aviv and Toronto Pride parades next year, Apple said.

Hamel told The CJN his organization was also looking forward to working with Kulanu and sharing knowledge.

“We feel like Kulanu is a sister organization and we want to know them more,” he said.

Hamel added that The Aguda was also in town to meet with the First Narayever Congregation, which, since 2009, has helped sponsor the organization’s Barak Center Project in Israel.

“This is an LGBT high school drop-out program that gives [teens] an opportunity to get their Israeli high school diplomas and re-enter productive life. We identified that a lot of times – the LGBT issue is an integral part of the reason they dropped out,” he said.

The program is also funded in part of the New Israel Fund of Canada. Asked about how The Aguda responds to the now yearly attacks on Israel at Pride events worldwide – anti-Israel groups such as Toronto’s Queers Against Israeli Apartheid accuse the Israeli government of “pinkwashing” its treatment of Palestinians by focusing on the fact that it is the only gay-friendly country on the Middle East – Hamel said those attacks “have no basis.”

“I am far from saying Israel is a utopian place for LGBT people. There is no such place on earth. But when it comes to the Middle East, [Israel] is the only place you can be LGBT and be active. We are still the most accepting environment” in the region. He acknowledged that The Aguda does receive a “small amount” of funding from the government, but it is negligible.

“Like any NGO, we’d like to get more money. We’re a life-saving organization, regardless of ethnicity, religion, age or sexual orientation,” Hamel said.

LGBT Palestinians, Israelis, Christians, Jews and Muslims are all embraced by The Aguda.

Hamel said The Aguda acts as a beacon for LGBT people all over the region, fielding phone calls and e-mails from Ramallah, Qatar, Tel Aviv, Amman and Lebanon.

“People are knocking on our doors and we are trying to save lives. This is the essence of LGBT activity; not just in Israel but here in Toronto and everywhere. We care about people. These are human beings,” he said. 

Hamel harkened back to the Bar Noar massacre of 2009, when a gunman opened fire at the organization’s social youth club, killing two youths and injuring 15 others. The perpetrator has yet to be found.

The Bar Noar centre has since become The Aguda’s prime initiative, to “let LGBT youth just be,” he said.

Since the massacre, Hamel said, his organization has realized there’s a tremendous need for LGBT social services in Israel. Part of the trip to North America was to seek funding for this cause, he said.

For more information on The Aguda, visit http://glbt.org.il/he/.

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