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(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
There I was last Saturday night, just before Shabbat ended, in a conference room at the David Citadel Hotel in Jerusalem. There were 16 of us, our chairs arranged in a circle.
We were all participants in the first official lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) Israel mission organized by the Jewish Federation of Philadelphia.
Our group included lesbians and gay men from Philadelphia as well as professional staff serving the Philadelphia Jewish community.
At we sat around, each of us took a turn at sharing our thoughts, feelings and what we considered to be the highlights of our whirlwind visit. For many of us this was our first time in Israel.
Scarcely 10 days had passed since we had embarked on this journey during a time of war. Yet in that short period we had coalesced into a family-like unit together with our wonderful guide, Raya, security officer and driver.
A multitude of intense emotions emerged as each of us talked about the experiences that had resonated for most.
IN THE course of our visit we met with leaders of the Israeli LGBT community, learned of the work of the Jerusalem Open House, and of "Aguda" - The Association of Gay Men, Lesbians, Bisexuals and Transgenders in Israel. These organizations advocate for and provide services to lesbians, gays, and bisexual and transgendered people in Israel.
We swam in the Mediterranean at midnight in Tel Aviv and danced at a gay bar in Jerusalem. Our group met a teenager who had been rejected by her family when she came out as a lesbian and who found shelter through "Aguda" and was ultimately able to reconnect with her family. Naturally, we did what any visiting groups does - we toured historical and biblical sites, experienced the Dead Sea and prayed at the Western Wall.
AS WE travelled around the country we met with leaders in several small communities such as Hoshen to talk about sensitivity training and education in support of the rights of LGBT persons.
We learned of the work of the Gay Youth Organization in helping young gay Israelis understand that they are not alone in their orientation and providing safe places for them to interact. Our experience was informative on many levels. We were told about civil rights achievements for same-sex couples under Israeli case law, as well as about the absence of civil marriage in Israel for gays and straights alike.
With war raging in the North we toured the Palmach Museum and Independence Hall in the Tel Aviv area. It was at Independence Hall that we heard the heartfelt words of an Israeli mother about sending her children off to the army. It's a constant reality of Israeli life in both times of fragile peace and war.
At Givat Haviva we talked about Jewish-Arab coexistence, and witnessed firsthand the divide between Jews and Arabs. We visited the village of Barta and noted the proximity between Jewish and Israeli-Arab communities. And everywhere we went we were greeted by people thanking us for coming to Israel during this difficult time.
We visited the Mekorot Hayarkon National Park and saw the work of a summer camp providing safe haven and relief from life in bomb shelters for Jewish, Druse and Arab-Israeli children and youth from Northern Israel.
Throughout the entire experience we felt safe. And so when it was my turn to speak on Saturday evening, I talked about my hopes in coming to Israel with my life partner, and my wish that he would appreciate my connection to the land and people of Israel. I had dared to hope that he would share my feelings after being here.
And, finally, I discussed my belief that this trip would be a step to integrate my Jewish identity with my identity as a gay man. With a full heart, and through tears of joy and pride, I was able to say that my hopes for the trip had been fulfilled.
As the sun set outside the hotel, our group gathered arm-in-arm in a circle following Havdala and sang of our collective hopes for a peaceful week ahead, concluding spontaneously with "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" from The Wizard of Oz.
We came to Israel to build bridges and support local LGBT rights. Together with hundreds of Israeli LGBT persons we had gathered to talk, learn, worship and stand in solidarity at World Pride 2006.
Our group did not change the world but, like the characters in the Wizard of Oz, we were each changed for the better by the experiences we shared.
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