CHERVINSKY: They came to erase us, we lived, let’s party — A Jewish Lens on Pride

Tom Chervinsky

As Jews, we understand the role of celebrations as moments of remembrance and learning. Our holidays commemorate the struggles and the victories. We memorialize the valiant victims and the fighters. We do this because we understand that collective memory is our best unifier and our key to survival.

As Pride season begins during this time of pandemic, our Queer Jewish communities are working hard to preserve the memory and celebrate the hard-fought freedoms we have achieved. Unlike other minority groups, most LGBTQ+ people aren’t born into a family that teaches and celebrates the important milestones of their queer identities. 

Larry Kramer z”l  – a prominent gay, Jewish activist who recently passed away after decades of leadership on AIDS and other LGBTQ+ struggles – once said: “I don’t think you can be a people until you have a history. I know our history, and maybe because other people don’t they feel not a part of anything.”

As Jews we understand this implicitly. Now, as the LGBTQ+ community re-envisions Pride, it is important that we reflect on our history, our victories, and the substantial work left to achieve.

Just 20 years ago, LGBTQ+ issues were almost taboo within Jewish institutions. At CHAT, Canada’s largest Jewish high school, the only sign of support for queer youth came from a single teacher who conspicuously wore a rainbow kippa and who suffered derision and backlash from Religious Studies teachers. Today, the world has changed and the Jewish community has changed with it.

Flagship Jewish institutions like JF&CS and major congregations are now a regular part of Pride celebrations across Canada. JCCs and Federations organize activities for LGBTQ+ community members. In 2017, CIJA, the advocacy arm of the Jewish Federations, founded its LGBTQ+ Advisory committee to build bridges between the Jewish and LGBTQ+ communities. The committee has put its weight and expertise behind supporting security protection of LGBTQ community institutions, enshrining hate-crime protection for trans* people in law, and reforming Canada’s discriminatory gay blood ban. 

Israel, too, has become a leader in LGBTQ+ rights by embracing trans* Israelis in the IDF and becoming a hub of tolerance in the Middle East. A cursory trip to Tel Aviv shows that, in at least some parts of Israel, LGBTQ+ life is thriving.

With all this progress it has become easy—too easy—for our community to become complacent. The reality is that while our community is a relatively friendly place for LGBTQ+ people, there is still a lot of work to do. From a leader’s continued advocacy for “conversion therapy”, to explicitly homophobic election ads in Israel, to the continued murder of trans* people and the rise of homophobic governments in Eastern Europe, Asia and across North and South America—we have a lot of work left ahead of us.

As a Jewish community, we rightly hold up Israel’s relative embrace of LGBTQ+ rights as a point of pride but, if we are to do so, we must also hold Israel accountable for its failures. Israel continues to lack civil marriage, continues to face battles with surrogacy rights, continues to discriminate against LGBTQ+ people in smaller communities, and continues to allow Ultra-Orthodox parties to use every mechanism to block progress on gay rights. 

As we celebrate Pride month, we would do well to remember that this celebration is like many Jewish holidays; Indeed it certainly embraces the philosophy of “they tried to erase us, we survived, let’s party”, but these occasions also must serve as a reminder of history and strengthen our resolve to build a better world. 

As we turn the calendar page from Jewish Heritage Month (May) to Pride Month (June), let us take the opportunity to celebrate, but also rededicate ourselves to the work ahead. 

Tom Chervinsky

Tom Chervinsky is an advocacy and communications professional in Toronto where he is an active volunteer with Ve’ahavta and CIJA. In 2017 he helped found CIJA’s LGBTQ+ advisory committee.

If you are looking for support or ways to become more involved in the LGBTQ+ Jewish community, check out the following resources as a starting point:

CIJA’s LGBTQ+ Advisory Committee – CIJA works to support and build bridges with the LGBTQ2+ community, whether on Parliament Hill, at Pride festivals, or in communities across Canada. –

Eshel Toronto – A community organization for Orthodox and formerly Orthodox LGBTQIA+ people and their families. –

Miles Nadal JCC in Toronto – LGBTQ at the J strives to be the heart of Toronto’s LGBTQ+ Jewish community, providing queer Jews opportunities to gather, celebrate and thrive. (Other JCC’s have occasional programming as well). –

Jewish Family & Child Service (Toronto) – JF&CS offers counselling, groups and workshops to individuals and families. –

JQT Vancouver – JQT Vancouver is a Jewish Queer and Trans* group dedicated to creating connections and seeking space to celebrate our intersectional identities by queering Jewish space and Jewifying queer space in Vancouver, BC. – Wider Bridge – North American organization working to create equality in Israel by expanding LGBTQ inclusion in Israel, and equality for Israel by cultivating constructive engagement with Israel. –