Historic conference packs a punch and a party

Front from left: Jewish LGBT+ World Congress president Frank Giaoui, Dayenu president Kim Gotlieb and Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah with Congress members at Emanuel Synagogue. Photos: Shane Desiatnik

FROM a “queer tour” of the Sydney Jewish Museum and more than 20 small group seminars by 24 presenters from around the world, to capacity crowds at an LGBT+ led Kabbalat Shabbat service at Emanuel Synagogue and at keynote addresses by Jewish transgender icon Abby Stein and Australia’s first Jewish lesbian federal MP Kerryn Phelps – the 25th Jewish LGBT+ World Congress from March 21-24 proved to be a colourful celebration of inclusivity.

It also created history as the first event of its kind ever to be held in Australasia or South-East Asia.

The packed program – convened by Dayenu Sydney’s president Kim Gotlieb and a tireless organising committee – struck a balance between exploring pressing issues and inspiring personal experiences, while including ample opportunities to dance, laugh and shmooze.

Jewish transgender icon Abby Stein at the Congress launch.

Launch night on March 21 was a case in point.

It began with a board meeting of the LGBT+ World Congress, followed by an inspirational presentation at Emanuel shule by Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah from Brighton and Hove Progressive Synagogue, who in 1989 became the first “out” lesbian to be ordained in the UK, and the first lesbian to lead a mainstream Jewish congregation anywhere in the world.

“I was confronted with homophobia in my early years as a rabbi,” Rabbi Sarah said, “but I was determined to achieve change … and it’s wonderful to know that after 30 years, I have played a part in a transformation.

“Indeed, as of 2014, over 20 per cent of the combined liberal and reform rabbinate in Britain was LGBT+.

“Ultimately, each one of us is the arbiter of the Jew we want to be.”

A scene from ‘Feigele on the Roof’, with drag star Fifi Glamcox in the centre.

She was then presented with a cake celebrating three decades as a rabbi, by Rabbi Aviva Kipen from Melbourne, who was the first Australian-born woman to be ordained as a rabbi.

“You are my role model, Rabbi Sarah, and your personal courage was an absolute inspiration to me,” Rabbi Kipen said.

The Congress was officially launched with the lighting of rainbow candles, officiated by Gotlieb, who shed tears when reflecting on what the event can do to unite the LGBT+ Jewish and non-Jewish communities, in Australia and abroad.

“It’s moments like these that you realise the benefit of the act of stepping forward, and realise that you are not alone,” he said.

Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah speaking at Emanuel Synagogue.

Congress president Frank Giaoui, from France, launched the organisation’s landmark book Kol Koleinu (meaning All Our Voices), which explores the history, struggles and achievements of major Jewish LGBT+ organisations in 15 nations on five continents.

“Kol Koleinu is also the official theme of this event here in Sydney … and the whole point is to say that we have a responsibility – not only as LGBT+ Jews and as activists, but also as human beings – to look broader than our own minority.

“The challenge for us is to be at the forefront of building bridges between people and communities, because my feeling is that the world is not doing well in that.”

Then it was time for some fabulous entertainment.

A fun-filled Purim Spiel mischievously called Feigele on the Roof lit up the shule’s gallery room, featuring a cast including Gotlieb, Stein as Wonder Woman, and drag queen star Fifi Glamcox.

Fifi then performed, in character, several classic LGBT+ disco hits that kept spirits high for the remainder of the Congress.

Emanuel Synagogue’s CEO Suzanna Helia summed up the mood when she said “community is each and every one of us – that’s why it’s such an honour for our shule to have you all here and to host this Congress in Australia for the first time”.

For more information about the conference and Dayenu Sydney, visit www.dayenu.org.au.

SHANE DESIATNIK