Outward and upward

A new group for gay olim was represented at this year’s Tel Aviv pride parade.

June 13, 2013 12:14
LGBT olim, Gay Pride Parade, Tel Aviv, June 2013.

LGBT olim gay pride521. (photo credit: Courtesy)

With Tel Aviv Pride fast becoming one of the most popular and talked-about LGBT events on the global calendar, it would appear that Israelis have a lot to be proud about in terms of gay rights and acceptance.

Tens of thousands took to the streets last Friday to celebrate, waving flags and carrying signs from the dozens of organizations that actively support the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community in Israel. However, there is a small subsection of Israel’s LGBT community that until recently has felt sidelined.

While the plight of certain minorities within the gay community, such as religious Jews and Arabs, has received widespread attention and formal groups are in place to help them, the status of LGBT immigrants is slightly more ambiguous. Many gay olim may not encounter prejudice and are free to live their lives as they choose, but still feel as if they are underrepresented in an official capacity.

New oleh Roy Freeman is on a mission to change the situation and after being in Israel for just over a year, has made significant progress on the issue – with his latest accomplishment involving official representation for the LGBT oleh community at this year’s Gay Pride Parade. He talks to Metro about his achievements as well as his plans for the future.

Freeman, who was born in the UK but moved to Sydney in 2001, made aliya from Australia in April 2012. He was involved in Dayenu, Sydney’s Jewish LGBT Community group, where he organized regular social events, as well as the group’s float in the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras each March and a communal dinner for around 120 people at Emanuel Synagogue on the eve of the parade.

With his background in LGBT community projects, Freeman was ready to dive straight in when he moved to Israel. However, he very quickly realized that this would be impossible until he was completely fluent in Hebrew.

“I wanted to meet LGBT Israelis, but other than the very well-advertised party scene and dating sites like Atraf, there were no opportunities for meeting people in a purely social way,” he explains. “Building a good network of friends can make the difference between a new oleh or ola deciding to stay in Israel or going back home.”

Freeman admits many straight olim also struggle to find their place in Israeli society, but for LGBT olim there’s “also the worry of coming out to people.” For many olim who were out and proud in their home countries, dealing with the issue of coming out to a whole new set of people in a foreign country can cause anxiety. “You never know what reaction you’re going to get,” he says.

As with most communities, the LGBT community in Israeli is strongly represented on Facebook with numerous pages and groups. However, Hebrew is the main language for these groups.

There are also a number of pages and groups for new olim, many of which are in English, but none of them focus on the LGBT community. “The LGBT oleh community is unique,” Freeman notes.

Realizing these problems, Freeman was quick to act. He started the Facebook group LGBT Olim back in April, and it already has over 300 followers. The idea behind it is to bring together LGBT people across the entire country who have made aliya, either recently or a long time ago, he explains. It is a platform to share information and experiences about aliya, with the goal of making the process easier for new olim. Members of the group also share information about upcoming events that might attract LGBT olim.

LGBT English-Speakers (ESG) is another social group that caters to members of the gay community. It focuses mainly on people in and around Tel Aviv and was started in mid-2012 by two psychology students at Tel Aviv University as a social and support group.

Freeman explains that an organizing committee was created by some of the more regularly attending members, including Arn (last name withheld), as well as Dar Harel, who organizes events for women. The group now holds around three events each month and welcomes LGBT English-speakers, whether they are olim, native Israelis or visitors.

FREEMAN HIGHLIGHTS the importance of these groups by stressing that people need support networks in their lives.

“Moving to a new country is difficult, more so when learning a new language is involved, so I believe it’s important for people to find a community in which they feel welcome and safe,” he says.

Tackling the notion that support groups such as these may force the LGBT olim community further away from Israeli society, Freeman responds by suggesting that “Israeli society isn’t purely about whether or not you speak Hebrew, so having groups like ours doesn’t mean that we are not integrating.” He says it’s unrealistic for Israelis to expect new olim to forget their heritage and simply fit in. “Many new olim move back home within the first three years of making aliya, so groups like ours can help increase the success rate for new olim.”

Freeman takes issue with the fact that while LGBT organizations in Israel provide a high level of service for the community, the majority of the material and communication is in Hebrew. On the other hand, he stresses that the various organizations in place to help new immigrants “haven’t even considered that a proportion of the people they help to make aliya are LGBT, and so none of their services cater for our specific needs.”

In a bid to raise the profile of the community, the LGBT English-Speakers and LGBT Olim groups were represented at Meir Park on the morning of the Tel Aviv Gay Pride Parade, during the more political and community-focused part of the day. Members of the group were on hand to tell people about the social aspects as well as the events on offer.

The group shared a stall with representatives from the Jewish Agency’s At Home-Together program, which aims to bring olim and native Israelis closer to help new immigrants better integrate into Israeli society.

The Jewish Agency’s representation at the event came about after Freeman was in contact with the organization and suggested that the its current support offerings at best ignore or at worst exclude LGBT olim.

Binyamin Levy, Tel Aviv coordinator of the At Home-Together program was at the Meir Park stand on Friday, and was proud to be there to help the LGBT oleh community.

As part of the new initiative, At Home- Together is looking to create a new group catering specifically to the LGBT community, connecting olim and Israelis.

“We are here today at the Pride event to look for people who would be interested in being a part of this group,” explains Levy.

JOINING THE dozens of the other organizations that were represented at the Pride parade, the LGBT English-Speakers and LGBT Olim groups held banners and marched proudly as a group as the parade made its way through the streets of Tel Aviv.

Representing the first official event hosted by LGBT Olim, there was also a social meeting in a gay-owned cafe after the march.

Aside from holding events, Freeman explains that the main goal of LGBT Olim is to bring people together, whether in person or virtually. “There are LGBT people who move to Israel and feel isolated – maybe because of their location or because they’re not completely out of the closet,” explains Freeman. “The Facebook page gives us a place to communicate with like-minded people, and I am hoping that many people will come from all over Israel to meet each other and make connections.”

He endeavors to build a community where people feel comfortable and welcome. “Making aliya can be very difficult, and people need friendships and support networks.”

Freeman also realizes that not all of the new olim from the LGBT community live in the Center of the country. He is trying to build an online community that doesn’t alienate anyone and includes people from Eilat to Metulla. “I don’t want the group to have too much of a Tel Aviv or Jerusalem focus, so it would be great to meet up in other parts of the country too,” he states.

Two members of the group present at the pride event who welcome this all-inclusive attitude are couple Allan Bernstein and Tony Bongo, who made aliya in December 2012 and settled in Nahariya. They explain that they feel somewhat isolated there, and the group gives them the opportunity to be involved in a community and stay abreast of what is going on.

“When we arrived there was nothing specifically for LGBT olim, so this group has really helped us socially,” explains Bernstein.

“This is our first pride event in Israel,” he says. “It’s great to see so many people.

I didn’t realize there were so many supportive people.”

Referring to a previous event involving LGBT olim and native Israelis, Bongo says that he really loves the group and is happy to endure the two-hour train ride down to Tel Aviv to attend events.

Keren Berkovitz, who made aliya in April 2010, says she was searching for the LGBT community ever since she arrived. Settling in Karmiel, she found it difficul t to link up with other members of the LGBT community.

Berkovitz explains that she grew up in an Israeli family in the US, so when she arrived, it wasn’t the language that stopped her – it was the lack of resources. “I wasn’t getting answers when I was making phone calls. It took a long time for people to return any phone calls that I made and when I finally did get speak to someone, I found out that in the North there really weren’t any existing communities,” she says.

When she found the LGBT Olim group online, it helped her enormously. “Instead of hunting online dating sites, there was an open community of like-minded people that I could connect with,” she says.

Berkovitz says that it’s the social elements as well as the networking that make her feel part of the community, something that she misses greatly. “When I was living in Philadelphia I was really involved in the community, but I now I don’t really do anything,” she says. “It’s something that is missing in my life. This group offers me a lot.”

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