Hamilton Jewish community hosts its first LGBTQ+ festival

The film Unsettled will be shown at Hamilton's first LGBTQ festival, May 30, 2021.

Singer, wife, mother, Jewish educator.

Lesbian.

All those words have described Laura Wolfson during the years she has been a leading light in Hamilton’s Jewish community. That last word, however, will be front-and-centre during Hamilton’s first Jewish LGBTQ+ festival.

Wolfson conceived and organized the event, which runs May 30 to June 13, along with the Hamilton Jewish Federation and Jewish Community Centre.

It’s an effort, she said in an email interview, to help people bridge the sometimes difficult gap between being themselves and being accepted by their community. One of the sparks for the event was a letter she received a few years ago from a former student struggling with her identity.

The student, Wolfson said, “shared with me an all-too-familiar story: as a developing teen with a growing awareness that she was `different,’ she had wondered whether there would be a place for her as an adult in the Jewish community.”

The student wondered if she would have to choose between Jewish and lesbian in order to fit in?

She found comfort when Temple Anshe Sholom hired Wolfson as education director. Wolfson married her long-time partner as soon as it was legal to do so and had a family.

“This made my student feel that she could be herself as a lesbian and that she could have a future in the Jewish community. The reason I am telling you this story is that although I was thrilled to know that I had made a positive impact on someone’s life, I was sad that the letter still needed to be written. Her fears were the same fears I had felt as a young person, and I was sorry that with all the progress we have made in Canada and especially in Jewish communities, this was still an issue.

“This is why I think there is a place for the J-LGBTQ+ Festival in our community. When the LGBTQ+ experience is fully normalized in the Jewish community, then young LGBTQ+ Jews and their families will know that there is nothing to fear about being who they are,” she added.

In the past, she said, “coming out” was too often wrapped up in feelings of shame and disappointment about not fulfilling the expectations of family. Since the late ‘90s, when Wolfson arrived in Hamilton from Toronto, the environment for LGBTQ+ Jews has changed. Today there are LGBTQ+ rabbis, cantors and teachers, as well as congregations that conduct same sex marriages and welcome family membership for queer families.

The festival Wolfson is chairing is a truncated version of a larger event planned for last year and then shelved because of COVID. Three events will be featured: a May 30 screening of Unsettled: Seeking Refuge in America, a documentary about LGBTQ+  asylum seekers who fled persecution for the chance at a safer life in the United States. The screening will be followed May 31 by a question-and-answer session with director Tom Shepherd.

The festival wraps up June 13 with a panel discussion “LGBTQ+ in Jewish Families and Jewish Communities: Sharing Our Stories.” Participants include a Jewish trans woman and her mother, a married Jewish lesbian couple with children, and Jewish parents of a married Jewish gay son.

All events are open to the entire community.

Gustavo Rymberg, CEO of the Hamilton Jewish Federation, said the festival is part of an effort to reach out to a population that is sometimes invisible to the broader community.

Wolfson’s great-grandfather came to Canada before the First World War, fleeing pogroms in Europe. Knowing that history, she has always been sensitive to the struggles of the persecuted.

 “I am a Jewish lesbian, and I know that I am so fortunate that I am Canadian. The thought of what it might mean for me if I lived in a country that did not afford me the rights I have in Canada is mind-boggling.”

A modern version of that history is presented in Unsettled: Seeking Refuge in America, three stories of LGBTQ+ refugees seeking new homes in the United States. The film profiles two men from Syria and the Democratic Republic of Congo and a lesbian couple from Angola.

All now live in San Francisco where they are trying to build new lives.

Director Tom Shephard said the film grew from his experience volunteering at a refugee shelter in California that had just received a federal grant to help LGBTQ+ clients.

“I quickly learned that the refugee model in the U.S. is based on families, but LGBTQ+ refugees are not fleeing with their families, they are often fleeing from their own families,” he said. “I wanted to make a film that would humanize their lives and do some good.”

While none of the stories told in Unsettled are of Jewish refugees, Shephard said Jewish organizations invested in the project because it spoke to their historical experience.

Shephard praised his subjects for their courage.

“Many of these refugees fear for their own safety and that of family in their home countries,” he said. “These four were willing to open up and share their experience.”

For more information on the festival, contact Jackie at [email protected] or call 905-648-0605.

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