As an out Jewish lesbian educator -- and the Executive Director of Gesher Chicago, a local LGBT organization -- I traveled to Israel in June with a delegation assembled by A Wider Bridge to better understand the country through the eyes of its Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender communities.
Founded in 2010, AWB connects LGBT communities in the U.S. to those in Israel through year-round programming, online resources, and by sending LGBT delegates from the U.S. to Israel on trips like mine; AWB recently received a grant from JUF's Breakthrough Fund.
It was the personal stories of those we met that impacted me most. There was Yiscah Sara Smith, a transgender Jewish educator and author born a male. She struggled with her identity into her 60s before finding a community that accepted her and her transition as she accept herself.
This resonated with the theme of a Shabbat service I later attended in Jaffa co-led by a trans Reform rabbi. Rabbi Sholom of Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem explained that the Reform seminary was seeing an increase in LGBT candidates, as it was the only seminary in Israel that would ordain them.
Acceptance was epitomized at the Jerusalem Open House, a struggling grassroots LGBT activist community center in Jerusalem. The House has organized a Jerusalem Pride Parade every year since 2005 and even hosted World Pride in 2006, but has only received government funding in the last year or so. There, I met Daniel and Ariel, a couple of 57 years who never officially came out but made a life for themselves in Jerusalem. They belonged to each other as much as they belonged to the city.
Our trip to the West Bank was eye-opening. Our Palestinian tour guide, Tamer, was a former social worker who had worked with LGBT clients, and now is a PR consultant for the Palestinian government. Tamer took us to the Security Barrier, a refugee camp, Bethlehem, Jericho, the Jordan River and Ramallah. He said, "It is hard to be gay in Palestine." We learned that while areas home to Palestinians, along with some neighboring countries, do not openly ban homosexuality, Israel is still the only country in the region that offers any form of comprehensive legal protections to the homosexual community.
On our way to Tel Aviv, we visited Hannaton, a Kibbutz with a growing LGBT community -- in this case, five families … up from zero five years ago.
The highlight of our trip was Tel Aviv. There, we attended a three-day leadership conference marking the 40th anniversary of Tel Aviv Pride. Along with more than 100 LGBT delegates from around the world, we attended panels on issues concerning the Israeli and global LGBT community. These ranged from the relentless persecution of closeted Arab youths to the controversy of "pink washing."
On the second day of the conference, we attended the inaugural session of the Knesset's LGBT Forum, where they proposed a law to define crimes against trans individuals as hate crimes. Although the measure ultimately failed to pass several days later, those who sat in that room sensed that equity for all was on the horizon.
We didn't miss the opportunity to experience Tel Aviv's nightlife either, taking in the bars and the myriad of parties celebrating Pride. I attended Arisa-- named for an exotic spice-- which catered especially to Mizrahi (Middle Eastern) Jews. I danced with 1,000 Israelis while Yekutiel, a popular drag performer, sang (OK, lip-synced) her greatest hits.
Finally, there was the Pride Parade, which began at the Gay Center of Tel Aviv. No floats, only people marching. No designated numbers or a preset order, either -- everyone just picked up their banners and began to walk forward. Drag queens, families, and activists all marched as one. The parade ended at a huge outdoor concert featuring Eurovision's bearded winner Conchita Wurst where over 200,000 Israelis and world travelers gathered to celebrate.
I am still mentally unpacking all my experience in Israel. A Wider Bridge exposed me to a variety of people and viewpoints that laid the foundation for me to define my own personal views.
Israel is a safe place for those that identity as LGBT, but battles with the government and the rabbinate are far from over. Israel is a complicated place, complicated further with each person you speak to, but that doesn't mean you should stop speaking to people or remove yourself from the conversation.
"Gesher" means "bridge" in Hebrew. Our mission is, we say, to "bridge the gap between Pride and Tribe." I fully plan to make Israel and all its complexities a part of that bridge.