20 December 2017
January 1995 saw the formation of a social group for gay Jewish men in Melbourne. The group was called Aleph Melbourne, to be distinct from the now long-defunct Aleph Sydney.
The need for a separate men’s group was due to the existence of the Jewish Lesbian Group of Victoria, formed in 1992. It was JLGV’s desire to remain women-only, so Aleph filled the niche for men.
In the early years Aleph convened in private houses, had a committee, a meet-and-greet arrangement for new members, and a busy calendar of events.
Aleph was promoted through a small advert in the Jewish News, and also word of mouth.
I helped set up the first web page and email address for Aleph, both hosted on the then-popular Geocities service offered by Yahoo.
Due to a change in the group’s leadership in the late 1990s the committee decided to hold monthly drop-in meetings at the premises of the Victorian AIDS Council, then at 6 Claremont Street, South Yarra. The drop-in nights were a success for a long time, however dwindling attendance saw an end to these meetings in 1999.
Toward the latter half of 1998 the committee decided to apply for membership of the Jewish Community Council of Victoria, in an effort to increase awareness in the Jewish community of issues that gay and bisexual men faced. Such issues included social isolation, discrimination, HIV/AIDS, and the emerging awareness of negative mental health outcomes and suicide.
In May 1999 our membership application failed to receive the two-thirds majority vote required from the council’s membership. To say our application for membership was controversial was an understatement, as it attracted front-page news, heated debate and full letter columns in the Jewish News for weeks and weeks.
Aleph felt the white-hot anger of the Orthodox leadership for daring to stand up for our individuality and acceptance. We also discovered there was a ground-swell of acceptance from many socially inclusive organisations, most notably the Progressive Jewish community, along with a large number of high school students, Zionist youth organisations and university students.
The rejection of our application by the JCCV took a huge toll on our small group which led to the committee folding and the group going into hiatus. However I felt that the need for the group was still strong and maintained a vigilant telephone and email presence.
Operating on a shoestring budget, we continued holding functions in private homes and offered support as best as we could.
Around 2007 we felt that continuing on as a gay and bisexual men’s group was marginalising those in the community who were transgender and so after consulting our membership we elected to become fully inclusive, accepting anyone with a Jewish identity as a member, irrespective of sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status.
We also noticed a need to cater specifically to Jewish youth and so Young Aleph was formed in 2007. A dynamic leadership team and fun events saw packed attendances for weeks and weeks. Young Aleph was a hugely successful experiment that ran until approximately 2009.
The shooting at the Tel Aviv LGBT Centre on August 1 2009 was a turning point for Aleph Melbourne. The now-dormant Melbourne-based AJN Watch blog wrote some hideous commentary about this event, degrading and vilifying gay men in the process. As an advocacy group, Aleph Melbourne reached out to the JCCV and asked for their help to combat this intolerance.
Whilst no practical support was initially forthcoming, the JCCV eventually succumbed to strong pressure from Aleph Melbourne and in late 2009 formed a reference group to start investigating the needs of LGBTIQ Jews. The JCCV has since become an advocate for LGBTIQ inclusion and awareness.
Over the years Aleph Melbourne has attended Pride March, Mardi Gras, In One Voice / Concert in the Park, International Holocaust Remembrance Day events, and the Midsumma Festival.
We made a documentary in 2016 commemorating our 20 year anniversary (1995-2015). This short film has screened in many film festivals around Australia and overseas. Most notably it was included in the Belfast Human Rights Film Festival and the prestigious St Kilda Film Festival.
Whilst Aleph Melbourne has provided a safe space for same-sex attracted Jews for many years now, most recently we have seen an increase in the need for support for transgender and gender-diverse people.
Statements calling for respect for LGBTIQ people together with statements of support for marriage equality, from organisations like the JCCV, Maccabi Victoria and the National Council of Jewish Women, have paved the way for a greater level of acceptance for LGBTIQ people.
Aleph Melbourne continues to offer a home for those Jews who do not identify as heterosexual, who do not identify with the gender they were assigned at birth, or who may identify outside the gender-binary.
The tide has turned in the Jewish community. We have come a long way since 1995 and look forward to an exciting 2018 and beyond.
Co-Convenor – Aleph Melbourne