TORONTO - Of all the awards and the recognition Dan Heller has received as a student, nothing compares to the sense of accomplishment he feels being this year’s recipient of the Beth Tzedec Stephen Cooper Award.
The award, which is given through the Community Hebrew Academy of Toronto - the school from which Heller graduated four years ago - recognizes excellence in leadership and commitment to the Jewish community.
With a degree in history and Jewish studies from the University of Toronto, an acceptance to Stanford University’s eastern European Jewish history doctoral program (he hopes to become a professor) and his involvement with the Association for Canadian Jewish Studies (ACJS), Heller, 22, was more than qualified to receive the $700 award last month.
But one aspect of his Jewish involvement made him think twice about applying for it.
Heller is the founder and outgoing director of Kulanu, “Toronto’s queer Jewish social group.”
“I was really ambivalent about putting in an application because of the ambivalent relationship CHAT has with the issue of GLBT [gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered] students.”
Heller said he recalled one of his teachers equating homosexuality to bestiality.
“I remember that being a hurtful experience, however, the students called ... the teacher [on her comment], and I think that continues to be one of CHAT’s greatest strengths. It really is a place that fosters dialogue and Jewish pluralism,” he said.
He said that despite the skepticism he felt about his ability to win the award, he applied for it nonetheless.
“I really didn’t expect that I would receive the award, especially because of what Kulanu is. I think that receiving the award, it almost signalled the recognition that yes, Jewish gay students do exist in the community,” he said.
“It was a hallmark of my four years at university because for the first time, I felt like I could go back to CHAT.”
He said that when he graduated, he felt like he needed to take a break from all things Jewish. A year later, he came out of the closet.
“I think immediately after I came out I decided that I didn’t want to give up my commitment to Judaism and Jewish life. The first thing I did in university that was heavily involving Jewish life was the founding of Kulanu. The purpose of the group was to foster a positive Jewish environment for these people who felt estranged from Jewish life,” Heller said, adding that Kulanu helps to bring people back to the religion.
Heller added that his proudest moment came when a mother of a CHAT graduate and a Kulanu member told him how important Kulanu was to the both of them.
“She was just so thrilled that there was a place where he could continue to be excited about and express his Jewish identity.”
Heller’s involvement with Jewish campus life didn’t end with Kulanu.
He became the assistant program chair of the ACJS, which organizes annual conferences on Canadian Jewish history and culture, after he presented his research paper about Toronto Zionist summer camps from the 1930s to ’50s to the 2004 conference.
His research about the relationship between Canadian Diaspora Jews and the State of Israel and Zionism led him to become more interested in Canadian Jewish history and he continued his involvement with the ACJS the following year.
As the 2005-06 program chair, Heller organized a three-day conference that brought scholars from all over the world to discuss issues relevant to Canadian Jews, organized a klezmer concert, a dinner and a community panel called “The Futures of Yiddish Culture and Education in Canada.”
Although Heller said he is unsure about how Jewishly involved he will be as a Stanford student, he said he is pleased with all that he has accomplished in his 22 years, and has plans for the future.
“It’s great to be at a stage in your life when you continue to surprise yourself with the decisions you make. I’ve been very grateful to have supportive parents and a community that has been open to let me pursue all these different avenues.”
One avenue that Heller is eager to pursue is to become a father one day and raise a Jewish family.
“My number 1 goal in life today is to become a father. I really struggled with that. Even at a young age, at 13, that was the kicker. I thought it would have to be either/or.
“I feel blessed to be living in an era where doors are opening up, but there are still tremendous obstacles,” he said about becoming a Jewish, gay father.
Regardless of the obstacles, Heller and other Jewish gay people are sure to face, he is encouraged by the fact that he was recognized by CHAT as a contributor to the Jewish community.
“I’m deeply surprised and deeply grateful. I hope it is a signal that there is a place at CHAT to begin in a very serious fashion, in an open fashion, acknowledging that there were GLBT students and continue to be GLBT students, and to address the place that these students have in the Jewish community,” he said.
“It is really my hope that someone gay at CHAT, someone [at another] high school, will read the article and see someone they can relate to.”
For more information about Kulanu, visit www.kulanutoronto.ca