Canadian, Jewish and Queer in South America

Dec 5, 2017 | Judaism

On October 23rd, we embarked on a journey that would change our lives. Along with 20 other participants from the US, Israel and South Africa, we—two Canadian Jewish queers—landed in South America to begin our seven-day journey.

The trip, Inside Jewish Argentina and Uruguay, was organized by JDC Entwine, the young professional division of the Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), an Jewish-American NGO that is a major actor in humanitarian aid, Jewish renewal and disaster relief, in some 70 countries.

JDC Entwine has run hundreds of immersive service and learning trips to more than 20 countries over the past 9 years, including this one. This trip, however, was unique. For the very first time, all participants were LGBTQ+ Jews. That’s where we come in.

As members of the LGBT-Jewish community and proud members of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA), we were honored to represent Canada and be part of this landmark event.

For seven days, we toured Uruguay and Argentina and met with different community organizations in both countries, exchanging ideas with the communities as well as the other trip participants.

Most of us were young professionals with a handful in grad school. We had all been on organized trips before. We were all involved and engaged in our local communities. But, this type of trip—LGBTQ+ themed and focused—was a first for us all, including the two staff from the U.K. and Israel.

The trip began in Montevideo where, over the course of the first three days, we immersed ourselves in Uruguayan culture; met with young Jewish professionals living at the Moishe House; visited Escuela Integral, the pluralistic Jewish daycare/elementary/high school; heard about the firsthand impact of the Tzedaka Foundation, which serves to provide needy community members with basic assistance and promotes a life with dignity; met employees from the Jewish disability department; and painted a mural at Hogar Israelita, a Jewish eldercare home.

Among the highlights of our visits that day was hearing from the principal, educators, and ten high school students of the Escuela Integral. The students, who were from various religious/cultural backgrounds and belonged to different tnuot noar (youth movements), spoke about Jewish Zionist life in Uruguay, community life, attachment to Israel, and everyday topics. The exchange was broad and meaningful, providing a remarkable glimpse into Jewish-Uruguayan community life and an example of inclusion and integration of the pluralism that Jewish community life represents. Everyone is welcome, everyone’s opinions and beliefs have a place at the table, and the community unity is strongly felt.

We would be remiss if we didn’t mention our morning at Hogar Israelita. After touring the facilities, we participated in a morning painting activity with the residents. Despite a language barrier, broken Spanish, and relying too heavily on Google Translate, we experienced sheer joy and happiness, as we painted a mural with our elders, shared stories, and sang Hallelujah and Hatikva.

The second part of the trip took us to Buenos Aires, where a stop along the way in Colonia allowed for some touring, group reflection, and bonding by the La Plata River at sunset.

According to our hosts, Buenos Aires, a city with a population comparable to all of Uruguay, has a Jewish community numbering 250,000.

Over the last four days of the trip, we met with several individuals and groups, such as Judios Argentinos Gay (JAG), a group of gay, Jewish Argentinians. We visited LeDor Vador old age home, where we toured the facilities, ate lunch with the residents, and some of us came out to an 102-year-old granny full of energy and wit. We also went to the Libertad Synagogue and were briefed by the Deputy Ambassador of Israel to Argentina.

One of the highlights of this segment was the Shabbat services and dinner at the NCI Emmanuel Synagogue, where the first same-sex Jewish marriage was held in Latin America. We experienced Argentinian Shabbat rituals firsthand, felt the warmth and welcome of the community, and enjoyed a festive Shabbat dinner with members of JAG and Rabbi Diego Vovchuck, the first openly gay rabbi to have been ordained by Seminario Rabbinico Latinoamerico.

The exchanges and conversations we had over the course of the week, with all the guest speakers and amongst the participants, were rich, engaging, uplifting and sometimes even heart wrenching.

The sheer diversity of the group itself allowed us to explore our Jewish and LGBTQ+ identities through different lenses—through our own eyes and those of our trip mates.

Each of us has our own story, our own struggles, our own achievements. It’s the very first time we could all fully be ourselves, as much in terms of our queer identities as our Jewish ones. Most of us had felt, from our community, our family or even just from within, that to embrace our LGBTQ+ identities, we would have to sacrifice most – or all – of our Jewish identities.

This trip proved us wrong. It reignited a sense of pride in our Jewish LGBTQ+ identity, a sense of community and belonging that had long been forgotten, a sense of family among 22 people who were strangers a week before, and a sense of duty to help those, within the group and elsewhere, within our Jewish communities and for the LGBTQ+ community members who don’t enjoy the freedoms we have in Canada.

We came back a week later, with a renewed sense of purpose, with hope, and with a desire to make our communities more inclusive, more integrated, and more open than ever before.

Sheri Krell is a 31-year-old Torontonian, Executive Director of Kulanu Toronto (Toronto’s LGBT-Jewish Organization), and a member of CIJA’s LGBTQ Advisory Committee.

Jonathan Assouline is a 34-year-old Montrealer, a member of CIJA’s Young Leaders’ Circle and an alumnus of CIJA’s Ambassador program. He also represented the Jewish Chamber of Commerce (Montréal) on this mission.

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