TEL AVIV — On May 31, 2016, Amichai Lau-Lavie posed for a photo at the Israeli President’s official residence in Jerusalem. Some 26 years earlier he had stood in the exact same spot, as a 21-year-old IDF paratrooper in an honor guard for Israel’s 42nd Independence Day.
For Lau-Lavie, the photo was highly symbolic. It signified the journey he has been on since 1990. Back then he was a closeted homosexual Orthodox Israeli Jew. Today he returned to the President’s Residence Tuesday an openly gay, newly-ordained Conservative rabbi and admired spiritual leader in the American Jewish community.
Lau-Lavie was joined at the President’s Residence by 104 fellow delegates to an LGBTQ mission organized by the Jewish Federations of North America. They were there to meet with President Reuven Rivlin, who gave them a warm welcome.
The intention of the week-long, densely-scheduled Israel trip was to build a bridge between American LGBTQ Jews and their counterparts in Israel — the kind of bridge that Lau-Lavie had already personally built and crossed by virtue of his particular life story.
The idea was for the mission’s participants — men and women of all ages from all over the United States — to see the country specifically through an LGBTQ lens during Tel Aviv’s Pride Week.
What they saw made them proud of recent progress made in Israeli society in terms of tolerance, pluralism and mutual respect. It also left them thankful they live in America and not in the Jewish state. They’re primed to help improve things for the Israeli LGBTQ community — but they’d prefer to do it from half a world away.
After hearing from individuals and organizations involved in promoting LGBTQ rights in the secular and religious spheres, as well as high-profile gay, lesbian and transsexual individuals from the Israeli media and entertainment worlds, JFNA mission participants said they were impressed by how Israelis have by and large become more accepting of sexual diversity and gender fluidity.
Still, Israel does not compare to the United States, where there is a constitutional separation of church and state, and where same-sex marriage is now legal nationwide, and gay and lesbian couples can legally adopt children in all 50 states.
Participants visited Nekudat Mifgash, a public meeting place for discussions about positive civic values in Jerusalem’s Zion Square dedicated to the memory of Shira Banki, the teenager killed by Jewish religious fanatic Yishai Schlissel at the 2015 Jerusalem Pride parade. The visit was a stark reminder that there is still incitement and violence against LGBTQ people in Israel.
“The thought did cross my mind that we could be attacked by Orthodox Jews here,” said Steve Rothaus, who reports on LGBTQ issues for the Miami Herald.
A momentous and motivating mission
“We are showing Israel as it is, not as we wish it were,” said Stuart Kurlander, former president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington.
Kurlander organized the mission on behalf of JFNA in partnership with Arthur Slepian, founder and executive director of A Wider Bridge, which builds bridges between Israel and LGBTQ Jews and non-Jews in the US.
‘We are showing Israel as it is, not as we wish it were’
The mission attracted 105 gay men, lesbians, and bisexual and transgender individuals from 17 Jewish communities, including large ones like New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, as well as smaller ones like Portland and Atlantic and Cape May Counties. Ranging from their 20s to their 60s, they represent a wide range of professional fields, from medicine and law to journalism and business. Some had never been to Israel before, while others had visited many times previously.
“Israel is a catalyst to become more involved in Jewish life,” said Kurlander.
The idea was to engage a sector which has traditionally not felt particularly welcomed by the organized American Jewish community with Israel, which is often a key to Jewish identity and identification for American Jews in general. For Slepian, the goal was also to motivate mission participants to become more involved with Israel.
“We are hoping to inspire these people to support Israel. We hope they will understand how much it takes to make Israel a good place for the LGBT community. Hopefully they will visit again and be part of the work here, helping to create and sustain collaborations between the US and Israeli communities,” Slepian suggested.
The momentousness of this mission was not lost on the participants.
Idit Klein, executive director of Keshet, Boston-based national organization working for full LGBTQ equality and inclusion in Jewish life, called the mission “a historic event.”
“Times have changed to the point where Jewish organizations are reaching out to the LGBT Jewish community because they want to show that not only are we welcome, but we’re welcome to lead the mainstream Jewish community. This is essentially what attracted me to this trip. The fact they want us involved in making decisions for the overall Jewish community and not just the LGBT one is sensational,” said Jayson Littman, founder of Hebro, a social start-up for gay Jews in New York and who was the mission’s New York chair.
A fresh look at gay-friendly Israel
For Klein and Littman, who lead Jewish organizations and visit Israel frequently for personal and professional reasons, seeing rainbow flags flying all over Tel Aviv as same-sex couples walked hand in hand along the beach boardwalk was not a revelation. It was, however, for participants like Moshe Rozdzial of Denver and Randy Weled of San Francisco.
Rozdzial, 62, and Weled, 64, were on their honeymoon, after having wed on May 5.
‘I wanted to enter Israel as husband and husband, to be visible and for people to know who we were’
“I proposed on January 1 because I wanted to be married before arriving in Israel. I wanted to enter Israel as husband and husband, to be visible and for people to know who we were. I wanted our relationship to be legitimate when we met with Moshe’s relatives,” Weled said, referring to his Israeli-born husband’s extended family.
Rozdzial had not been back to Israel much since emigrating at age nine (his last visit was 20 years ago), and Weled, who was raised in Hawaii, had never been to Israel before.
“I am very left politically, and I have had a lot of anger about Israeli politics and the Palestinian issue. This kept me distant from Israel for many years. I originally had a strong connection to Israel through Jewish summer camp and post-Six Day War pride, but that was when I was a kid,” Weled said.
Weled had only been in Israel a little over a week when he spoke to The Times of Israel, but he was adamant that what he had experienced and seen had changed him.
“I understand the issues better. I feel viscerally part of this place, as though I have come home. It used to be that I was gay first, then Jewish. Now it’s all melded together,” he explained.
“He’s having a Birthright experience,” Rozdzial half-joked about his husband, four decades older than the young people who come to Israel on free Jewish identity-building trips.
Notwithstanding Weled’s shift, as well as Rozdzial’s discovery that today’s Israel is not the Israel he left at the age of nine, the couple — both psychotherapists — are not about to immediately move their practices to Tel Aviv.
‘It’s harder to come out as a Jewish person, so we try to be invisible’
Yet, as members of the Stonewall generation, Weled and Rozdzial don’t feel totally comfortable as both Jews and gay men in America.
“It’s harder to come out as a Jewish person in the larger community because of anti-Semitism and anti-Israel sentiment. So, we try to be invisible,” Weled noted.
“We may be Jewish gays, but we’ll talk about racism, homophobia and sexism, but not anti-Semitism,” added Rozdzial, who co-chairs the National Organization for Men Against Sexism.
Although moving here is not in the cards for them right now, the newlyweds wouldn’t rule out the possibility of retiring to Israel in the future.
“In Israel I feel safe as a Jewish person and accepted as a gay person,” Rozdzial said.
Israeli government’s attitude to LGBT issues is ‘archaic’
For Josh Mann, a 29-year-old food service entrepreneur from Minneapolis, moving to Israel is out of the question, despite the fact that his father is Israeli and he was brought up to be an ardent Zionist.
The fact that he wouldn’t be able to marry his boyfriend here is a major deterrent. (Though an encouraging new poll conducted by Israeli civil equality advocacy group Hiddush indicates that 76% of Israelis support same-sex marriage or civil unions.)
In addition, domestic adoption and surrogacy are not options for gay Israelis seeking to start families, as they are in the US.
‘It is really surprising how entrenched religion is in Israelis’ lives’
“It’s true that Israel is more modern and more Western now, but the government’s attitude to LGBT issues and individuals is archaic. The power the Haredim have is a major problem. It is really surprising how entrenched religion is in Israelis’ lives,” he said.
Feeling absolutely no discrimination in the US, Mann, raised Conservative, would be unwilling to become “a second class citizen” in the Jewish state.
Unlike older people in the gay community like Weled and Rozdzial, for whom the personal is the political, Mann maintained that he has always been able to separate his being gay from his politics. Overall, he is proud of all things Israeli and plans on raising a Jewish family with a strong Zionist identity.
He has no patience for pinkwashers, or people who claim that Israel promotes its gay-friendly (at least relative to all other Middle East countries) atmosphere only to deflect attention from its occupation of the West Bank.
“Pinkwashing is a travesty. It’s thinly-veiled anti-Semitism for the 21st century,” he asserted.
Helping from afar… for now
Retired eye surgeon and progressive activist Dana Beyer worries about American Jewry drifting increasingly farther away from Israel, especially “apathetic and anti-Zionist millennials” — the type vulnerable to the rhetoric of pinkwashers.
A transgender woman and the first out trans graduate of the Senior Executive Program in State and Local Government at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, Beyer said it is important for Israeli LGBTQ people to know that members of the American Jewish LGBTQ community see and care about them. She suggested that American mentorship of Israeli LGBTQ initiatives and organizations would be a good way to give direct, specific support.
Beyer, who is active with J Street, has lived in Israel and wouldn’t rule out returning to live here at some point. But she absolutely would not come now.
“If you are committed and want to make change here, then you should come. But to make aliyah now? No!” Beyer exclaimed. “Not under this government and as long as the occupation continues.”