After eight years at the helm of Kulanu Toronto, the Jewish LGBTQ group she helped shape into a strong and visible force in the community, Justine Apple has resigned from the role of executive director.
Apple, 40, has passed the torch to Sheri Krell, 29, an active member of the Jewish LGBTQ community for several years.
Apple worked on a volunteer basis for six out of the eight years that she ran the 16-year-old organization, and admitted the transition out of the role has been tough.
“On an emotional level, it’s challenging for me to step down… That’s eight years of my life that I was totally dedicated to this,” she said, noting that she’ll be pursuing a career in digital photography.
The group now known as Kulanu Toronto was launched in 2000 at Hillel at the University of Toronto after a number of students expressed a need for a safe space on campus to meet fellow LGBTQ Jews.
In 2008, after leaving a career in teaching, Apple, who identifies as gay, stepped into the role of executive director.
Under her leadership, Kulanu Toronto, which acquired official not-for-profit status in 2014, took on a more robust presence in both Toronto’s Jewish and LGBTQ communities. This was in part attributable to Kulanu’s vocal opposition in recent years to the now-disbanded group Queers Against Israeli Apartheid (QuAIA) marching in the Toronto Pride Parade.
“I was able to engage the media significantly, and we gained a lot of traction. We’ve become more of a household name,” said Apple.
She said she came into the role committed to drawing more women to events and making Kulanu Toronto more accessible to LGBTQ Jews beyond “the university crowd.”
“Our mandate has been to include everyone… to draw people ages 18 to 75… We’ve also put more emphasis on welcoming partners who are not Jewish.”
She’s helped promote Kulanu Toronto as a social, educational and cultural group, one that has for years hosted semi-regular Shabbat dinners, Jewish holiday gatherings, social functions and speaker series.
Under Apple’s directorship, the group also recently became a resident of the Genesis Incubator, an initiative of UJA Federation of Greater Toronto’s Centre for Jewish Innovation. The latter has helped Kulanu forge stronger connections with other Jewish non-profits.
For the past two years, funding from private donors enabled Apple to earn a salary for her work as executive director. During the six years prior, she had to work part-time elsewhere to earn a living.
When the donor funding was discontinued last year, Apple made the decision to move on, and Krell will take over in a volunteer capacity.
“As a member of the LGBTQ Jewish community, I realize the value that Kulanu Toronto has in providing a sense of community to those who sometimes feel alienated from other organizations… who’ve faced similar challenges when coming out,” Krell said.
After working for a number of years as a leader in non-profit and community settings, in 2011, Krell was one of the co-founders of what was then called LGBTQ Jews, a Hillel-funded group that specifically engaged Jewish LGBTQ students and young professionals. It’s since been renamed KT Young Professionals and become an official arm of Kulanu Toronto.
She also organized Kulanu’s presence at this year’s Toronto Pride Parade.
Krell said she hopes to build on the foundation Apple established. In addition, she said she feels strongly that for the Jewish LGBTQ community to grow and thrive, Kulanu Toronto must pursue multiple and diverse partnerships with other organizations.
For example, her new executive team is hoping to create workshops on LGBTQ awareness for Jewish institutions such as synagogues, schools and summer camps.
“Our goal is to be seen as a resource for children, parents, counsellors and the larger Jewish community to rely upon when discussing these issues,” Krell said.
Apple said her parting advice to Krell was to “follow the needs of the community… You have my blessing to change the organization if it’s needed, just continue to make Kulanu Toronto a home for queer Jews, a place to feel comfortable being themselves.”