When I was 16, still in Ukraine, my grandfather, a Holocaust survivor from a Hasidic family, passed away, and I started going to a Hasidic synagogue to learn more about my family heritage. I spent some time studying in yeshivot in New York and in Israel. After I moved to Toronto, I attended Modern Orthodox, Litvitshe, and Chabad shuls, and actively engaged in planning, promoting, and facilitating their educational, social, and outreach programs. I valued their commitment to Jewish knowledge, as well as the warmth and mutual support in a community that felt like family. However, I did not share the dominant values and social norms of these communities. For years, I had to sacrifice big parts of who I was and what was important to me. I never felt that I fully belonged. When I hit my 30s, I “broke up” with Judaism, I left the community where I had spent almost a decade, and I came out as gay. It took me several years to reconnect to Judaism and to begin attending liberal synagogues. I was comfortable there, I shared their modern liberal values, I appreciated their openness and acceptance, but I was still longing for a sense of community that would also feel warm and heimishe, in addition to commitment to inclusiveness, social justice, and Jewish spirituality that would creatively synthesize the traditional and the new. I found this in Shir Libeynu and became a member several years ago. I was glad to offer several workshops on Jewish and gay cultures for Shir Libeynu members throughout these years.
I have an insider knowledge of Jewish and LGBTQ communities. My professional experience includes teaching, research, writing, editing materials for publishing, updating websites, developing new programs, planning events and doing outreach and educational work for Toronto Jewish and LGBTQ organizations and community groups. I have taught Hebrew language and Jewish history in Jewish schools. I have also taught Jewish history, religious studies, and gender studies at York University and Trent University.
In 2012 – 2015 I served on the executive committee of Kulanu Toronto in the capacity of Director of Education. I have also spent several years on Jewish Diversity Committee at Congregation Darchei Noam and on planning committee at University of Toronto Qu(e)erying Religion. In 2011, I organized and led Queer Academia Discussion Group on Meetup, Facebook, and at The 519 Church Street Community Centre. In 2013, I was a member of GLBTQ Jewish Forum at Miles Nadal JCC in Toronto. In 2014, I was a co-organizer of the panel “Toronto Queer Jewish History” at University of Toronto.
I hold a Master’s degree in Humanities from York University and a Graduate Diploma in Jewish Studies from Israel and Golda Koschitzky Centre for Jewish Studies at York. I am currently finishing my Ph.D. in the same program, with concentrations in Jewish studies and queer studies. My studies and research focus on Jewish queer culture and community. On this subject, in 2008-2017 I have delivered over 40 presentations and workshops at Jewish Studies conferences, universities, synagogues, JCCs, and Jewish groups and events across Canada and the United States. In 2017 my award-winning essay “The Jewish Queer Continuum in Yeshiva Narratives” was published in Shofar, an interdisciplinary journal of Jewish Studies. Another essay of mine, “Same-Sex Desire and Jewish Community: Queering Biblical Texts in Canadian and American Jewish Literature,” was published in Canadian Review of Comparative Literature the same year.
In my capacity of a Shir Libeynu board member in the past 2017 year, I worked on a variety of areas and issues, including the following:
• Serving as a liaison between the Board and the Education Committee, helped in planning our new programs for children and adult education programs.• Planned, organized, and coordinated Yom Kippur 2017-5778 afternoon workshops.• Delivered a Rosh Hashanah sermon on the meaning of community to about 300 shul members.
• Coordinated co-sponsoring of MNjcc LGBTQ Shabbat dinner series and partnership between Shir Libeynu and MNjcc on other projects.• Reached out to and engaged a number of new volunteers, new members, and potential new board members.
• Reached out to a grant writer/fundraising professional and coordinated a research of grant opportunities for Shir Libeynu.
• Participated in revising and defining the board policies and procedures.• Proposed new priorities in our 2017-2020 programming that supported the larger mission of downtown Jewish community, namely, community strengthening and serving underserved groups.
• Supported other board members and other volunteers.
• Collaborating with other board members, past board members and ex-officios, rabbi, and shul administrator, helped with planning, marketing and promotion of programs and events, and proposed new programs and new strategies that are in progress, such as establishing Community Engagement and Outreach Committee, LGBTQ Committee, project Mishpacha, and adult study sessions/groups.
I was looking for liberal synagogues at an early age where women and men are not separated during prayer. The first place I found in West Hollywood, California in Kol Ami Congregation. I really enjoyed services there with my friend. The second place was Shir Libeynu. For the first time in my life I really felt safe and welcome during the High Holy days. I am looking forward to serving the Shir Libeynu Community.
I grew up surrounded by the mixture of different cultures: Jewish, German, and Russian. At age 17, I moved to Moscow to study Chemistry at the Moscow State University and graduated in 2014 with Master’s degree in Chemistry. Later, I worked as a Researcher at the Department of Medicine, Ruhr University Bochum, Germany where I performed research and testing of blood, drinking water and other fluids. In the summer 2013, I worked on a project “Redox properties of Green Fluorescent Proteins” at the Chemistry Department, University of Southern California, USA. The summer of 2014, I spent at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot on a project in Computational Chemistry. In August of 2014, I returned to Los Angeles where I started my PhD program in Chemistry and worked as a Teaching Assistant. In summer of 2015, due to health circumstances, I moved to Toronto, Ontario where I am currently working as a Cosmetic Engineer / Production Manager as well as a private tutor in Math, Chemistry and Science. Since 2018, I am a co-founder of an Artificial Intelligence company AnneaLT.
In the past year I served as Vice-President and Secretary of the Shir Libeynu board. I also actively engaged new members and volunteers, proposed new strategies for Kiddush organizing, worked on new promotion materials and strategies, and represented the board at events, including MNjcc LGBT Shabbat dinners.
Valeria Ryrak likes to think of herself as someone who deals in matters of the soul. It has taken her a long time to finally find that yellow brick road, which led her to doing a degree in English Language and Literature at the University of Toronto, practising yoga, and writing both fiction and poetry. Her only real wish in life is to be able to continue her searching, writing, and questioning without too much interference.
What has brought me to Shir Libeynu are the people. My two good friends Shlomo Gleibman and Roman Konoplev-Esgenburg have spoken at length about the warm community of the Shir Libeynu congregation, and after attending a few events during the High Holidays, as well as running a workshop on the Mysticism and Poetry of Leonard Cohen, I confirmed my desire to serve the congregation by offering my services and thus running for a spot on the Board. I believe that I can make an excellent addition to the board perhaps taking on the role of secretary and/or other roles as decided by the board. I think the other board members will find my input helpful and informative.
I grew up in a very secular family in Burlington and came out to my parents when I started university. I completed a four year Bachelor’s degree in languages at McMaster, as well as an M.A in German to be followed by Ph.D studies at Queen’s. I was hired by the Toronto District School Board to teach French, German, ESL and Special Ed during the course of my career. I retired from North Toronto Collegiate in 2006 but have continued to supply teach since then as a way to both supplement my income and maintain a connection to my profession.
In addition to teaching I volunteer with the Toronto Lesbian and Gay Archives especially on special events and find it rewarding giving back to the community. I keep very physically active with the gym, pilates, yoga and biking. For the past several years I have volunteered for Sar El in Israel during the winter (Feb/Mar). We pack and sort medical supplies on an IDF base and I find the work a great way to do my part in helping to defend Israel as well as a way to meet others from other countries wanting to do the same. During my free time in Tel Aviv I take tours and socialize with a friend from Toronto who made Aliyah.
I have worked on the Boards of three LGBT Jewish organizations in the past and have served as both secretary and events planner. I have been a member of Shir Libeynu for the last 6 years and find that both the diversity and the close ties of the members to be important factors which set this Shul apart from many others. I feel that with my experience and energy I can give back to the community and also strengthen my connection.
I have now completed 2 years of my 3 year term on the SL Board. I also am running the SL film series once month at the 519 Community Centre. I screen 6 Jewish themed movies each season from October to May and I not only curate the series but promote it to our Shul as well as to other Shuls in the downtown community.
In addition in 2017, I curated our annual Holocaust Education Week event by screening the documentary ‘Germans and Jews’. It turned out to be a great success and I was very appreciative of so many compliments which made all the hard work worthwhile.
I’ve published essays on Jewish art in Images, C Magazine, Canadian Theatre Review, AJS Perspectives, and the Jewish Daily Forward. Current projects include a study of Jewish visual humor, and Critical Israel, an exploration of ‘edgy’ contemporary art in Israel. During the spring term 2017, I was a Fellow at the Mandel Center, USHMM, Washington, working on my book project, Art in Extremis, a study of images made by prisoners in ghettos and camps during the Holocaust.
I’ve been a member of Shir Libeynu for four years. I enjoy the inclusiveness of the service, and I was honored to speak this Yom Kippur about the difficulty of forgiveness —a challenge and chance for some focused soul-searching. For the past two years, I’ve served on the Education Committee, and have organized the lively Speaker Series following Shabbat services. Stay tuned for Anna Shternshis, Sara Horowitz and Bernie Farber to round out this year’s program.
I’d be pleased to serve on the synagogue Board, and to continue my active participation in the congregation.
Other Shir Libeynu Volunteers
Barry Birnberg: Shabbat Volunteer
Harriet Eisenkraft: Life Cycles Coordinator; Communications Director; Shiva Helpers’ Coordinator (Chevra Kadisha)
Eden Nameri: Holiday Celebrations
Vered Phillips: Choir Director
Dinah Rosen: Film Series Coordinator (with Terry Maiden)
Dorothy Rusoff – Co-director, Bikkur Cholim (Visiting/Helping Ill Members)
Jonathan Silin: Education Director
Bonnie Smith – Co-director, Bikkur Cholim (Visiting/Helping Ill Members)