My LGBTQ+ Jewish Story

by | Jun 29, 2020 | Jewish Life at York, LGBTQ+ | 0 comments

I was born and raised in Israel, where almost everyone I knew was Jewish. My paternal side has deep roots in Israel, and my maternal side had a Romanian Holocaust survivor. After moving to Canada in elementary school, my family maintained strong connections to Israel, and regularly attended synagogue, UJA’s “Walk with Israel” and Hebrew Sunday school. In high school, however, I gradually drifted away from my Jewish identity because I (mistakenly) believed it contradicted my emerging queer identity. I had no “possibility models” to demonstrate a balanced, successful queer Jewish life, and felt extremely isolated in my identity. While my peers were exploring the world of dating, I was struggling to figure out where I fit.

It took me going on the second-ever Birthright-Taglit trip to Israel in June 2018 that was catered to LGBTQ+ Jews to truly learn to live openly as a queer Israeli Jew in Canada. Meeting 40 people who shared parts of my identity and were living joyful, fulfilling lives inspired me to allow Judaism back into my life, while continuing to explore my queer identity.

After that trip, I was inspired to lead the third “Show Your Pride” trip in 2019, and worked at Machane Lev, Canada’s first sleepover Jewish LGBTQ+ summer camp. Before returning to classes at York University last fall, I also reached out to Hillel York to see if they were offering queer Jewish programming for me to get involved in. While they didn’t have anything at the time, they instantly offered me an internship to help them to build this community. They were incredibly supportive in the entire process; I had their ears on every issue that I brought up, and they generously provided any resources I thought were necessary. 

York is a diverse campus, and its Hillel community reflected that. I’m so proud that our “Rainbow Jews” initiative developed so quickly and began expanding across all Ontario campuses. From an all-drag Chanukah party to biweekly casual drop-ins and one-on-ones, we met students at the level that they feel comfortable in. We also began to implement systemic changes to make everyone feel safe and welcome in the Hillel community. It was a pleasure and an honour to meet all the beautiful queer Jews and their allies during this experience.

Now, as an alumni of Hillel York, I hope to take what I have learned and continue to raise awareness of queer and Jewish issues in Toronto and beyond. I also look forward to seeing “Rainbow Jews” continue to grow and become a resource for students across every campus.

Written by Gil Segev

Holocaust Education Week at Hillel

Holocaust Education Week at Hillel

Guelph Hillel

Guelph Hillel recently hosted Ted Comet and DOROT as part of our Holocaust Education Week (HEW). Ted’s presentation, unlike any I’ve ever seen before, centred around his wife Shoshana’s story,  and how she was able to cope with the pain and trauma of the Holocaust through artistic weaving.

There were so many elements of this event that impacted me. With each passing year, fewer and fewer Holocaust survivors remain to deliver first-hand accounts of their experiences. After his wife’s passing, Ted committed to continuing to tell Shoshana’s story by showing her artistic creations. The abstract shapes and colours woven into tapestries are threads strung together by Shoshana, labouring away to express how she views the world as a result of her trauma. It was a captivating display. This program provided the important opportunity for us to examine not only the atrocities of the Holocaust, but also one woman’s resilience and strength – and her healing process through the arts.

As the coordinator for Holocaust Education Week this year at the University of Guelph, my goal was to provide multiple resources for students to learn and engage with Holocaust survivors and their stories in different ways.

In particular, one of Shoshana’s tapestries created a most powerful discussion. Ted explained that the representation of God in her art was challenging for Shoshana to conceptualize. He explained that she considered where to place God, and how to envision God. As an artist myself, this stuck with me. Everything Shoshana created was intentional and deeply personal. My art practice is also made up of abstract paintings that convey traumatic or painful experiences from my life. And, though separated by many years from Shoshana’s experiences, one of my paintings also depicts a conversation with God. I understand Shoshana’s inability to place God; her inability to consider how to portray such a concept through art. I found myself overwhelmed with emotion when Ted described her physical reaction when stepping back from her work; something created from her subconscious mind loaded with so much pain.

Elena’s painting

It was an incredibly moving experience. And, an entirely unique and innovative way to speak about the horrors of the Holocaust. We are so thankful for Ted for joining us, and for keeping the memory of his beloved wife Shoshana alive through this amazing experience.

In all, our Holocaust Education Week programming reached over 200 students, faculty and univeristy staff – Jewish and non-Jewish alike. Of the program, Kathryn Hofer, University of Guelph’s Director of Student Experience said it best when she noted: “the entire week of Holocaust Education Week programming is one of the best ‘pivots’ I have seen this academic year.”

Elena Levy, Guelph Hillel


Hillel Ryerson

My name is Veronica (Roni) Lazebnik and I’m a Hillel Student Leader in my second year of study at Ryerson University. I’ve been involved with Hillel since I was in my first year, and have loved being a part of events centering around leadership. Hillel Ryerson has given me a safe space to connect and meet other Jewish like-minded students on campus, and I will forever be grateful for that.  Perhaps one of my favourite aspects of being active in Hillel’s leadership system has been organizing informative talks such as this. It facilitates ongoing discussion in a secure and inclusive atmosphere on difficult matters. I was thrilled to be a part of the planning of the events for Holocaust Education Week (HEW) 2021 at Hillel Ryerson.

This year, though virtually, Hillel Ryerson partnered with Hillel UofT and Hillel York, as well as our other sponsors, for three events dedicated to commemorating the Holocaust and the six million Jews who lost their lives during the war.

The first event, called Love Thy Neighbor: Holocaust Art in the Druze Community is where students sat in on a fireside chat and moderated Q&A with Israeli Druze artist Bothaina Halabi, whose work focuses on using art as a medium for education around the Holocaust. Read more about this program in the Ryersonian paper. The second event, called Bearing Witness: An Evening with Holocaust Survivor Hedy Bohm is where students got the chance to listen to Holocaust survivor Hedy Bohm, who has a powerful message for future generations. Finally, HEW ended with the event entitled Never Forgotten: The Enduring Spirit of Holocaust Victims’ Poetry, Art, and Music; a conversation about the various forms of art produced during the Holocaust, and the lessons we can draw from them for our time, hosted by Hillel’s very own Rabbi Ariella Rosen. On top of these three events, we shared content on social media, such as movies and educational pieces of writing to document information on other aspects of the Holocaust. Holocaust education week is crucial in many aspects as it allows us to understand the impact of history on our society, the impact of history on human beings and the impact individuals can have on history.

Ryerson, to my knowledge, has and will always be a diverse university, celebrating people from all over the world for who they truly are. This year Hillel Ryerson decided to partner with one of our sponsors; The RSU or the Ryerson Student Union. The RSU also has six Equity Service Centres: The Centre for Women & Trans People, The Good Food Centre, Racialized Students’ Collective, RyeACCESS, RyePRIDE, and the Trans Collective. These centers serve as a platform for students of different communities to work together and organize initiatives, activities, and initiatives for social justice and equality. Through my research, I was able to find a list of films and resources, that related to the Holocaust, while touching on each of the equity centers at Ryerson, and the link to those films and resources were available through our social media page. During these annual events, we attempt to advertise these events to all on campus, because like most of us, we feel that not only Jews should remember and commemorate the atrocities of the Holocaust, but as a community/campus, it is important to “reflect and remember, not just for Jews, but for everyone who needs to learn from the world’s injustices in order not to repeat them”.

Holocaust Education Week means many things to many people. To me, being born into a Jewish household, as well as being a granddaughter of two Holocaust survivors and two close relatives that had passed, I feel closely connected to this. These events are personal for all of us. I feel honored to be a part of Hillel Ontario, as I can commemorate and honor the atrocities of 6 million Jews while learning from our history, educating the public, and “never forgetting” what had happened before us.

Veronica (Roni) Lazebnik, Hillel Ryerson


Hillel York

Holocaust Education Week may have ended but the importance of the programs will remain. When I was approached by Lior, the Director of Hillel York, to run one of the programs, I immediately jumped at the idea. This led to a month of Zoom planning, WhatsApp messages, and various Instagram tagging to put together a comprehensive and engaging Holocaust Education Week.

One of the important aspects of this week was to educate others about the events of the Holocaust. Our first program was Non-Jewish Women Leaders in the Holocaust. In this event, we analyzed the profiles of various women who saved the lives of Jewish children during the Holocaust and taught the rest of the group about their lives. We also learned about the bravery of youth during the Holocaust and what it takes to be a leader. By having the participants engage with the material, I hope it will leave an impact on them and they will remember this for years to come.

One of the major aspects of Holocaust Education Week is trading stories and experiences through oral learning and word-of-mouth. As Holocaust survivors begin to leave us, it is more important now than ever that we make sure “Never Again” doesn’t become a cliché, but a reality.

I wish to thank Holocaust survivor Hedy Bohm who told her story and answered our questions and the producer of the movie ‘The Accountant of Auschwitz.” Lior also led the Cooking a Memory event, inspired by his grandmother. As he explained, it wasn’t about the food but it was about the memory of his grandmother.

An important quality we must have, or build – as incidents of antisemitism rise – is perseverance. This is why I am grateful to have Hillel across campuses in Canada to give us a community where we feel safe and comfortable. As we learned throughout the week, it is important to have allies alongside you in your fight.

I wish to thank all of our participants for taking the time out of their day to learn about the Holocaust. I hope that students learned something valuable during the week and continue to engage with Hillel during their time at York.

Hanna Feldbloom, Hillel York


Western Hillel

Growing up, Holocaust Education was very much a given; community-run speaker events throughout the year, memorial services in school, and regularly included in my school curriculum. Even as a kid, I knew that Holocaust education was important, but I don’t think I fully grasped why until I started Grade 7 at a new school in a new community. For the first time, I was surrounded by people and in a school that had no interest in Holocaust education.

When I was younger, Holocaust Education was important to me because it was how we, as a community, honour the victims and survivors and commit to calling out hatred and discrimination. But when it was time for Yom Hashoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) my first year at that school, I felt uncomfortable that they didn’t even commemorate ⎯ let alone acknoweldge⎯the day; it felt disrespectful.

The reasons that Holocaust Education Week (HEW) at Western Hillel are important to me are endless. It starts with what I knew as a child⎯having designated time to honour Holocaust victims and survivors and commit to being a more respectful community. But it’s also a week for me that signifies the culture of our community. HEW is a time for learning and listening⎯something we don’t actually do very often. It’s a time when our society engages with a chapter of its history when it acted deplorably by trying to understand the suffering that was caused.

As VP Advocacy, I am very proud of my Hillel and the amazing team of student leaders on my Holocaust Awareness Committee that put together an impactful series of events. We started with a virtual tour of Płaszów concentration camp led by Adam Schorin, whose grandfather was a survivor of the camp. Next, students experienced a virtual tour of a Jewish museum in Russia. We also invited Professor Eli Nathans to share his perspectives on Holocaust history and to reflect on how we talk about Holocaust history in society. Finally, students from all backgrounds had the opportunity to hear the survivor testimony of Judy Cohen as she shared her unique presentation on the experiences of women and gender issues during the Holocaust.

Chava Bychutsky, Western Hillel

The Sukkot Wellness Challenge

The Sukkot Wellness Challenge

I love the holiday of Sukkot and look forward to it every year. While often overshadowed by the High Holy Days, I find that it offers us a chance to relax after the intensity of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. For a week, we are invited to enjoy the outdoors, to celebrate abundance, and to express gratitude (going back to the holiday’s roots as a celebration of a successful harvest season). 

Yet, accessing the joy, the gratitude, and the togetherness of Sukkot seemed almost impossible given the challenges posed by the pandemic, and the fact that we as a Hillel community remain scattered across the GTA (and beyond!), spending most of our days connecting only virtually. 

At the same time, perhaps the most important word of our season has been “wellness.” We, students and staff, have been particularly attuned to the need to care for our mental, physical, spiritual, and emotional wellbeing. To state the obvious, it’s a tough time. As a Hillel community, we knew we had to try to meet the moment. 

Students from York, Ryerson and UofT gathered to brainstorm together: What did they need most right now? What did their friends, classmates, and peers need? How could we find a way to both celebrate Sukkot and care for ourselves across virtual time and space? 

What emerged was Sukkot Wellness Week, a menu of experiences that spanned the week of Sukkot, offering multiple ways to mindfully care for ourselves and each other.

First, there was a daily instagram prompt, alternating between thoughtful and silly questions about Sukkot, inviting students to think about their favourite fall comfort foods, Sukkah decorations, and what special guests they would welcome into their metaphorical (or actual) Sukkah. 

Second, we offered a different experience each day, focused on a different area of wellness.

  • Spiritual: on Tuesday, students joined me in learning Jewish texts related to the deep connections between Sukkot and wellness.
  • Mental: on Wednesday, students hosted a Wellness Wednesday check-in, a preview of what we hope will be a regular fixture in our Hillel calendar. 
  • Physical: On Thursday, a student prepared a meditation to offer us a chance to breathe and to pay attention to how we were feeling in our bodies. 
  • Emotional: On Friday, a student led trivia and other games as a way to destress from the week. Much laughter ensued.

By design, there was something for everyone. More importantly, Sukkot Wellness Week set the stage for an ongoing conversation about how we care for our full selves, and how this is deeply grounded in what it means to live Jewishly. Our work is far from over, and while Sukkot only lasts a week, it’s themes can help power us through the year ahead. 

Rabbi Ariella Rosen, Senior Jewish Educator

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