Young, gay and religious in the Holy City.

Gayrusalem 521 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Gayrusalem 521
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
It’s easy to assume that gay life in Israel begins and ends in Tel Aviv. But what of the gay man or woman who wants to lead a more religious life, where the offerings of Jerusalem are more appealing, but the stigma remains. Does one have to choose? Surprisingly not.
“I came to Jerusalem seeking to live a life with a foot in each world, and I’ve found that it’s possible here. There is an opportunity to be both religious and gay; you don’t have to choose,” says Nurit Levine, a student and one of many lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender young adults that live in the capital. “We came here because we hold strong to our religious identities.”
As it turns out, there is a revolution brewing in Jerusalem. It’s happening quietly among the gay young adults who’ve made this city their home – and it’s called Gayrusalem.
There is the Jerusalem we see depicted in the news, in photographs of friends who’ve taken trips here, in movies and even in our own misconstrued conceptions; but then there is the real, living, breathing, complex city itself. Like those young people who inhabit it, Jerusalem defies definition, because it is capable of being so many things to so many different communities.
“I feel like Jerusalem is the up-and-coming alternative scene of Israel. There’s something very special about Jerusalem and the people who choose to live here that you don’t get in Tel Aviv. While most cities have a melting pot that leads to homogeneity, Jerusalem does not,” says Sarah Weil, founder of the Women’s Gathering events.
With new cultural initiatives from the mayor and other groups, the city is in the midst of a renaissance whose effects are still rippling out to every crack and crevice of white stone. There are more resources for Jerusalem’s gay citizens now than ever before, from a myriad of support groups, to community centers providing essential services, to nightlife and special events. The young adults who have in the past flocked to Tel Aviv in search of greener and gayer pastures, now have a viable option of making a life for themselves in Jerusalem.
There are only a handful of places in the entire world that have a religious gay community, and Jerusalem is one of them. Different people deal with the reconciliation of those two worlds in different ways.
“I don’t go to shul telling people I’m gay. My friends know, but I avoid speaking to the rabbi directly because I don’t want to have a bad conversation. I don’t need that. I want to go to shul and let him think whatever he thinks,” explains Yossi Brock, an artist.
For those who want to pray in a specifically gayfriendly environment, there is Kehilat Kol Haneshama, the first synagogue to celebrate a Pride Shabbat; it has also hosted events in support of Jerusalem’s religious LGBT community. As the saying goes, the gay community who prays together, stays together.
So, for those gay individuals seeking to live a religious life, Tel Aviv can’t hold a candle to Jerusalem.
“It seems like Tel Aviv has a lot of clubs and bars catered around the gay community, which is great, but I’m less familiar with the more religious aspect of Tel Aviv’s gay scene, or anything other than just a fun night out. I definitely feel that for someone who is gay and wants an integrated religious life, Jerusalem is the best place,” says Levine.
Like everything in the small and oft-watched city, gay Jerusalemites live life under a microscope. To be gay in Tel Aviv is akin to being gay in New York City; no one bats an eye because it’s simply par for the course.
But to be gay in Jerusalem, the holiest city in the Holy Land, is an act of daily defiance – and living an openly gay life in Jerusalem renders you the ultimate underdog.
The differences in the LGBT communities of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv can perhaps be best exemplified by the Pride Parades in each city. Tel Aviv’s parade is always much bigger and more extravagant, with more emphasis on flamboyance and partying than on social issues, or provoking change from the ground up. Jerusalem’s Pride is smaller in scale, this past year attracting around 5,000 participants (1,000 more than last year). The attendees march to the Knesset and peacefully protest the issues they would like to see brought to the forefront, and the change they hope will be implemented. While the atmosphere is still one of joy and celebration, the parade itself is a statement.
“Jerusalem Pride is a march, not a parade. It’s really a human rights protest. In other cities, there are naked people running around, but here you don’t see that. There’s a dress code and a pervasive modesty here,” notes Weil. In this way, Jerusalem Pride promotes Jerusalem values, specifically civil rights and equality. Once the parade reaches its destination, a small portion of people pray off to the side, as others dance and hold signs. Only in Jerusalem would a mix of LGBT individuals come together in such a way.”
As someone who has been to pride parades in Boston, New York and Philadelphia, attending this summer’s Jerusalem Pride for the first time was an eye-opener. In the past, upon leaving the parades, I was left with a feeling approaching depravity. It seemed that the vocal members of the LGBT community were so focused on the ability to express free love and unapologetic sexuality, they forgot all other issues.
Brock explains that while it is wonderful that gay people around the world have gained the visibility and freedom to be able to celebrate their pride in themselves, there are still many rivers to cross.
“I saw a poster for the 2013 Pride Parade that read, ‘The March for Pride and Tolerance.’ I realized what that meant to me was not the tolerance of others towards the gay community, but our tolerance of them. The word ‘tolerance’ in Hebrew also means patience. We need to have patience and remember that we’re not alone here. Before, when we hit with a boom, we got hit back hard.”
Since the inception of the Jerusalem Pride Parade 10 years ago, participants have been met with contention and sometimes even violence. In 2005, three people were stabbed by a religious extremist. “I don’t think the rabbis understood that was going to happen. As far as I know, none of them advocated for violence. When they saw that outcome, they changed their policy.
Before 2005, they were making tons of noise about the gay community, but after, there has been silence. I think they also realized that in making so much noise, they had actually been drawing more attention to it,” says Weil.
Thankfully, during this summer’s parade, the worst thing to happen was a few stink bombs. The smell was worse than the cowshed of a kibbutz, but it was a welcome substitute for the violence of the past.
With haredim making up a large portion of Jerusalem’s population, it is truthfully no surprise that pride has been met with some ideological opposition. There are still protesters, but those who come to march no longer feel they are in harm’s way.
“Starting in 2007, the Jerusalem Open House initiated communication with the haredi community. Once communication lines are open, then understanding can be achieved,” says Elinor Sidi, executive director of JOH, the capital’s flagship organization for gay outreach.
Unlike other cities including Tel Aviv, Jerusalem Pride is a private event that is not paid for by the municipality – and the city’s pride march would not exist without funding from the Jerusalem Open House. The Pride March is the JOH’s star project, and they have gone to court to fight for it many times over the years.
JOH began as a community center 16 years ago, sponsoring hiking tours, bike trips and basketball teams; over the years, it added many services to respond to the unmet needs of Jerusalem’s LGBT community. When it became clear that city physicians were not welcoming discussions about safe sex and sexual practices, the JOH responded by opening an HIV testing clinic and hiring a physician. In response to the mental health services in Jerusalem, which are not LGBT-friendly, the JOH added a social worker to their staff.
“You can argue what’s better: if the municipality should have given these services, or a private NGO – but the fact is that someone is now giving them. So the gay community in Jerusalem is now receiving crucial services that they weren’t receiving before,” notes Sidi.
Another staple group for Jerusalem’s LGBT community is the Women’s Gathering, a production company that hosts monthly events catering to lesbians. Weil started the Women’s Gathering two years ago, after unsuccessfully trying to find what she was looking for in Tel Aviv.
“What I found was because I’m religious, my values are a bit different than the Tel Aviv value system. I’m not saying one is better than the other, but that’s just how it is. I met interesting people, but I couldn’t connect in Tel Aviv.”
Weil decided to create these connections herself with the Women’s Gathering. She expected a modest turnout, but when the results exceeded her expectations, she knew she was on to something. The Women’s Gathering events are free and open to anyone who wants to come. The idea is to create an artificial majority of lesbians and friends of the LGBT community, but not an exclusive environment. The variety of venues that have hosted the group’s events in the past are a testament to the wide array of gay-friendly businesses in Jerusalem.
“When these places allow us to come and have our Women’s Gathering, they’re essentially saying they support Jerusalem’s gay community. I think it’s a kind of subtle activism that brings people together, rather than being divisive. It’s non-confrontational, and I think that’s the kind of activism that this community needs,” says Weil. The Women’s Gathering umbrella has expanded to include the eVe dance party and Lilith events, which showcase women’s creativity through music and art.
Meanwhile, Havruta and Bat Kol are two organizations that are tied to both Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, catering specifically to Israel’s religious gay community.
Havruta was established in 2007 by alumni of Jewish religious institutions to provide resources and support for gay Orthodox men living in Israel. They hold monthly meetings in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, and also sponsor trips and various other events.
Bat Kol was established in 2005 as the voice of change and equality for Orthodox lesbians living in Israel. It holds regular meetings and hosts activities to support Israeli lesbians who want to live open religious lives. “Generally, Bat Kol is geared towards an older crowd. I feel a sense of family and protection with Bat Kol, whereas the Women’s Gathering is more to meet other young people. It’s good to have both because it provides a nice balance,” says Levine.
As surprisingly varied as the support is for the gay community in Jerusalem, the nightlife is sparse to say the least. One could say this is reflective of Jerusalem itself, which places more importance on moral values, social issues and religious practice than it does on the party scene.
The capital’s one and only destination for gay nightlife is the Video Pub. When it first opened in 2012, there was another gay bar, Mikveh. But since Mikveh closed its doors a few months ago, Video Pub is now the only game in town. “We get a lot of different types of people coming in: students, tourists, soldiers, above 18, under 100,” enthuses Ofir Margalit, 28, Video Pub’s bartender. “I love my job. On top of it all, it’s the honor of working at the only ‘escape place’ that a lot of people have here in Jerusalem.”
Despite all the improvements that have been made in Jerusalem culturally and socially, there is still a persistent problem of young people leaving the city.
“In my experience, the trend is still that gay people are leaving, but at least now, they’re doing it with the awareness that they’re leaving something behind,” says Weil. “[Mayor] Nir Barkat, along with organizations like the Jerusalem Season of Culture’s initiatives to bring more cultural events into the city, have been great for the gay community because wherever there is art and music, there are gay people.”
While the Gayrusalem renaissance is a team effort of both the straight and gay communities, it remains to be seen if it will be enough to keep the young members of the LGBT community living here.
“There’s a complete layer of society that’s missing here. Once they get into their 30s and start a family or have careers, some of them do come back, but there is an entire age group missing. The LGBT community is no different,” says Sidi.
By all accounts, the migration from Jerusalem is slowing down, but it is still an issue for those young adults in the LGBT community who choose to stay. The reasons for this problem are unclear. It could be that, for some, the bright lights, big city feel of Tel Aviv is too tempting to resist, even if it is a mirage to some extent.
Indeed, though Tel Aviv markets itself as the gay paradise of the Middle East, there are still violent incidents occurring there.
“The shooting in 2009, where two people were killed, happened in Tel Aviv in the very heart of Israeli liberalism. All the incidents of gay bashing that I know of in the past few years have all been in Tel Aviv. So the reality is different than what the PR companies would have you believe,” notes Sidi.
Although anti-gay violence has subsided in Jerusalem, another reason why young gay people have traditionally left the city is that they suffer from a different kind of discrimination: Reparative therapy is something that still goes on here. There are rabbinic and spiritual leaders trying to “fix” gender and sexual identity, along with psychologists and professionals who try to work with people to change their sexual orientation. As far as Jerusalem has come, there is still a long road ahead.
Yet the Gayrusalem revolution is happening now – in the streets, coffee shops, community centers, and synagogues that make this city what it is. It is the beat of a different drummer ushering in a new age.
“I feel like I belong much more now than I did before; I feel like I have a home here. My sexual orientation doesn’t alienate me from being part of this city; it gives me something unique to offer it,” says Weil.
The Gayrusalemite is not defined in black and white terms, and does not need anyone’s approval.
“My faith in God and my faith in Judaism as a way of life don’t contradict me being gay. Being gay is not my whole identity, it’s just a part,” says Brock.
Although it’s a tough city to live in, and even tougher for Gayrusalemites, those who love it know that it is well worth the hardship.
“You can see all different kinds of people walking down the street. The city is becoming more accepting of differences. It’s still hard to be a gay couple here and walk around holding hands, but in day-today life, we don’t feel the earth burning beneath our feet,” says Sidi.
Only time will tell what the full effects of Gayrusalem will be, but for the here and now, things are only getting better.