WHEN Arthur Blankstein travelled to Los Angeles to attend his first International Conference of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender (GLBT) Jews in the mid-1970s, he was one of only a handful of Canadian delegates.
When he returned to Los Angeles more than 30 years later for another International Conference of GLBT Jews, he was one of only two Winnipeggers in attendance.
Now he and that second Winnipegger, Paula Parks, are bringing the global conference to Winnipeg.
The 21st International Conference of GLBT Jews will take place the weekend of July 5-7. About 150 people are expected to attend. Blankstein and Parks began discussing the possibility of their hometown hosting the event after returning from L.A. They were confident Anakhnu, the local Jewish GLBT organization in which they were active, and its sponsor organization, the Rady JCC, would fully support the idea.
"The Rady JCC has been the lead agency in the community doing outreach to GLBT Jews for the last 10 years," Blankstein says. "Through their work with Anakhnu it seemed like a great starting point to start the discussion about hosting the conference in Winnipeg."
That discussion led to the creation of a committee and the submission of a formal proposal to the World Congress. The moment the proposal was approved -- granting Winnipeg the honour of being the first Canadian city to host the conference -- the committee, including representation from two local synagogues, began planning the weekend's activities.
"There has been a genuine interest in this conference by both the Jewish and general communities since day one," Blankstein says. "The conference is a significant opportunity for the Jewish, GLBT and general communities to work together."
The result of this working together is an event that promises to be uniquely enlightening and entertaining.
"There is a great lineup of speakers," Parks says enthusiastically. "Our keynotes include Joy Ladin, Jay Michaelson and Leslea Newman, all of whom are published authors and well known in the Jewish GLBT community."
Michaelson is the author of God vs. Gay, The Religious Case for Equality, and Newman is the author of the children's book Heather Has Two Mommies. Yeshiva University English professor Joy Ladin is the author of Through the Door of Life, a memoir recounting her experiences as the first openly transgender person to teach at an Orthodox Jewish institution.
Additional speakers will focus on synagogue inclusion, aging and ways of decreasing health and lifestyle risks among GLBT youth. "This conference is unlike anything that has been seen in Winnipeg before," Blankstein says. "No matter people's backgrounds or affiliations, they would find it interesting and relevant."
Importantly, the conference will also provide an opportunity for Winnipeggers to show off their city, their country and their shared commitment to diversity and acceptance.
The fact the conference is being held in Winnipeg says a great deal about both the Jewish community and also the community at large, Parks says.
"We are fortunate to have a very inclusive community," she says. "Since the inception of hosting this conference, we have not encountered any negativity at all. In fact, we have only seen great support."