Recollections of a Long-serving World Congress Secretary

Jonathan Falk

This year I will be stepping down as secretary of the World Congress of GLBT Jews: Keshet Ga’avah, after serving in that position since 1993. That’s 25 years of history in an organization that itself has a very rich history, though many at BCC may not know much of it.

For me personally, linking up with the World Congress has been a kind of homecoming. Growing up in Canada in the 1970s and 80s gave me plenty of connection to the Jewish community, and some exposure to the LGBT world at the University of Toronto. But I found a community that reflected both parts of that identity only when I arrived at Beth Chayim Chadashim after moving to Los Angeles in the summer of 1986. A roommate brought me to BCC even before I bought a car, and I immediately felt connected to this community. I officially joined the congregation in 1988.

I heard about the International Conference of GLBT Jews to take place in Amsterdam in the summer of 1987, but there was no way I could afford that. A planned similar conference in 1989 in Chicago seemed more within reach, and I started planning how I could work Chicago into my summer vacation plans. I figured I could drive there with a friend from Toronto, and we did. The conference was fantastic. Meeting like-minded people from across the US, Canada, and the world was very exciting.

At that point, I had no connection to the governance of what was then the World Congress of Gay and Lesbian Jewish Organizations. But in 1990, the World Congress’s board meeting was to take place in Toronto, in connection with the Eastern Regional Conference. Stan Notkin, who had previously served as World Congress president and since then as BCC’s delegate to the World Congress board, mentioned to me that he would be unable to attend the Toronto board meeting, due to a commitment to attend a family bar mitzvah that weekend. Stan was very persuasive in asking me to represent BCC at the World Congress board meeting. Didn’t I travel through Toronto every summer anyway? Wouldn’t I like to be part of the planning for future World Congress events? And so on. I let Stan twist my arm, and sure enough I tried to fill Stan’s very high expectations in representing BCC there. Stan gave me a page of notes regarding BCC’s news from the year and issues I was to bring before the World Congress board.

In 1991 and 1992, I continued to represent BCC at the World Congress’s board meetings in San Francisco and Atlanta, and in 1993, even though I was unable to attend the International Conference in London, I agreed to run for the position of Secretary, as Jack Malick was about to step down from that position after three years. So I was elected in absentia for a two-year term as secretary that has extended into a 25-year run. (Lee Walzer, a vice president and good friend, said I was likely to be “secretary for life.”)

During those years as secretary, I served under a total of eight presidents, most for a couple of years, one – Scott Gansl – for five years:

  • Beth Cohen, Washington, DC 1993-94
  • Harvey Cohen, Montreal 1994-96
  • Jack Gilbert, London 1996-99
  • Scott Gansl, Trenton 1999-2004
  • Ra’anan Gabay, Israel 2004-2005
  • David Gellman, San Francisco 2006-2007
  • Howard Solomon, Boston 2007-2015
  • Frank Giaoui, Paris/New York 2015-present

Each had their own vision for the organization, while bringing various perspectives on where the World Congress should focus its energies.

The benefit of having one officer stay in the secretary position for such a long time has been to ensure consistent historical records (minutes of board meetings and steering committee meetings) and also communications with member organizations, in the absence of an executive director since 1997. And I should note that I had a brief hiatus from my secretarial position in 2006-2007, when Howard Solomon took on that task prior to running for president himself.

During the 1990s, physical meetings of the Steering Committee were held a couple of times a year, in addition to the board meetings. This typically meant a weekend trip to New York, or occasionally London, and it was quite exciting as a modest high school teacher to have this exciting, jet-setting life.

I was able to attend nine International (later World) Conferences of GLBT Jews over those years, in New York (1995), Dallas (1997), Woodcliff Lake, NJ, (2000), Tel Aviv/Givat Haviva (2002), Mexico City (2004), Los Angeles (2010), Winnipeg (2013)

40 Years of Pride in Israel (2015), and Buenos Aires (2017). Each conference was fun and memorable in its own way. New York was the largest of our conferences historically. I believe we had over 500 people show up for it, and it was very gratifying to see LGBT Jews from around the world take over the Manhattan Sheraton in midtown Manhattan. Mexico City and Buenos Aires were two of our most exciting venues, and of course the LA2010 Conference was rewarding for me, as I was honored to chair that event, with the help of a great conference committee and a charming venue at the UCLA Hillel building.

Running these regional and international conferences used to be the main achievement of the World Congress. It was very impressive to celebrate Shabbat together and hear inspirational speakers like Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum and former Tel Aviv City Councilor Michal Eden with hundreds of other people. Networking and socializing was a significant benefit of these conferences in a pre-internet era.

Around 2000 it became more difficult to plan such conferences. Burnout of volunteer conference planners – and in some cases, major financial issues – were problematic for conference hosts. Some dropped out of the World Congress, stopped paying dues, or declined to plan future World Congress events. At the same time, other organizations such as Keshet, NUJLS, Nehirim, JQ International, A Wider Bridge, synagogues, Jewish Federations, and some for-profit companies organized their own conferences, Israel trips, and more specialized events, all of which both complemented and competed with the World Congress’s efforts.

Regardless of the reasons, it’s clear that running conferences can’t be the only thing the World Congress does. We must focus our efforts on the continuing struggle for international LGBT rights, especially in the context of the Jewish world, while continuing to build community everywhere. I hope that our conferences and ongoing projects will continue to be an important part of that.

And, while I step down from my secretarial role at the World Congress, I am happy to talk to anyone at BCC who might like to take on the role of BCC’s delegate to the World Congress. It’s not a 25-year commitment, but you never know!

This year’s conference will be held in Rome, Italy on March 15-18. Registration is still possible. Here is a flyer with more information.

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