Gays, lesbians take pride in their own Israeli birthright

A new organized trip to Israel for young Jewish professionals this summer aims to introduce participants to an Israel at the "forefront of gay rights."

gay pride jlem 224.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
gay pride jlem 224.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
Dancing at gay clubs in Tel Aviv and meeting with gay Israeli soldiers are just two items on the itinerary of a new organized trip to Israel for young Jewish professionals this summer aimed at introducing them to an Israel at the "forefront of gay rights." Organized by Young Judea Impact, the college and young professionals program of that youth movement, the 10-day luxury "Pride in Israel" trip planned for September will focus on Israel's advancement of gay rights both legally and culturally, the group says. Highlights will include meeting with gay soldiers, attending the Tel Aviv Gay and Lesbian Film Festival, speaking with activists and community leaders and learning about the many issues going on in Israel's gay and lesbian community today. Participants will also visit the Open House in Jerusalem which offers support to gay and lesbian Israelis and plant trees in the Pride Forest in the Upper Galilee. "You never thought a trip to Israel could be so gay, you never thought a gay trip could be so Jewish," boasts a press release. Though a first for Young Judea, the LGBT-themed trip is part of a growing trend. This summer numerous Jewish organizations, from the most mainstream to individual communities and synagogues, will be sending similar groups to Israel. To date, most mainstream Jewish organizations have organized LGBT missions to Israel, and the trend is growing. In 1995, the UJA sponsored its first such trip, and since then UJC, Hillel, and birthright israel have jumped on the bandwagon. Today there are also numerous travel agencies that organize private LGBT tours to Israel. A birthright israel trip offered by the Israel Experience of the Jewish Agency scheduled for July has a waiting list. "These are the participants most serious about going," said Rachel Russo, Taglit-birthright israel director for North America for the Israel Experience who hopes to run an annual LGBT birthright trip. "There is a lot of excitement around the trip." Lee Tetreault, a 20-year-old from New Jersey, chose to see Israel for the first time on the LGBT birthright trip so that he wouldn't be "the odd man out." "I wanted to get the whole Israel experience with that not being a factor," said Tetreault. At the same time, he is interested in seeing how other gay people "deal with being Jewish" in Israel, he said. "I don't know how it fits into religion, but the only way to find out is by going there and seeing how it works," said Tetreault. "I'm trying to find my place, see where I fit in Judaism." What he may find is that despite vocal opposition from Israel's Orthodox citizens, laws regarding gays are progressive, compared with those in the US. In 1988 the Israeli Supreme Court decriminalized sodomy. In 1992 it passed an equal opportunity law protecting workers against sexual-based discrimination. In 1993, the army rescinded its few regulations discriminating against gays and lesbians, and in 1994, the Supreme Court ordered El Al Israel Airlines to grant a free plane ticket to the partner of a gay flight attendant, as the airline had long done for heterosexual spouses of employees. Since then progress has been steady. The Society for the Protection of Personal Rights for Gay Men, Lesbians and Bisexuals in Israel, known as the Agudah, spearheaded these battles. Established in 1975, the organization hosts support groups, political forums and a prayer group. It maintains chapters across the country and is supported by the New Israel Fund. "I am really happy that this issue has become much more mainstream," said Bruce Temkin, director of the New York office of the New Israel Fund, an organization which has seeded and supported many of Israel's LGBT groups. "Over 20 years ago when we began funding these organizations, many considered it to be a fringe matter. But we've mainstreamed the issue, and I hope other organizations will step up and join with us in supporting these issues." Temkin attributes the growing number of LGBT trips to the mainstreaming of LGBT issues in America, and the emergence of a strong community in Israel. But while many of the mainstream Jewish organizations may be sending LGBT groups to Israel, they are less forthcoming when it comes to financially supporting LGBT organizations in Israel, said Temkin. "It's one thing if they are trying to encourage gay tourism in Israel, but if they are trying to show they are working on this issue, that's whole different story," said Temkin. "I know there has been some funding, but certainly not commensurate with the needs. It's minimal at best, and still hasn't captured the mainstream community." Nonetheless, the growing number of LGBT trips to Israel is a good sign, said Linda Rosenblatt, coordinator for YJ Pride in Israel. "I think the more Jewish organizations that start putting trips together shows support and where we are going in terms of religion and culture," said Rosenblatt. "To show progression is the whole point of Judaism. We don't just stick to what we know from the past, but we keep progressing forward."