Israel’s gay immigrants are short on language but long on pride

Tel Aviv Pride Parade will include two new groups offering support for homosexual olim left behind by the Hebrew-speaking community

Debra writes for the JTA, and is a former features writer for The Times of Israel.

Tel Aviv's gay parade (photo credit: Liat Mandel)
Tel Aviv's gay parade (photo credit: Liat Mandel)

A few years ago, a gay English-speaking immigrant to Israel was standing in line at the post office for the very first time. Wary of using his limited Hebrew at the counter, the man, Phil, turned to a gentleman standing behind him and asked him if he spoke Hebrew and could help.

That man didn’t just speak Hebrew. He was also gay, and friendly, and within days of that chance meeting waiting in line for postage stamps, Phil found himself completely tapped into the LGBT community in Israel.

The problem is, says Roy Freeman, founder of a Facebook page specifically for Israel’s immigrant homosexual community, stories like Phil’s are rarer these days than handwritten letters. In fact, he believes, without kismet, gay olim are often left out in the cold.

“There’s a perception that the gay community here is very friendly, but I don’t think everyone finds it that way,” says Freeman, an immigrant from the UK who made aliya last April. While he concedes that there are great organizations for both gays and immigrants at work in Israel, including the Aguda (the Israeli Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Association) and the Jewish Agency, there is little focus on where these two categories — queer and immigrant — intersect.

“It’s almost as though they don’t realize they’re missing us,” he says. “They don’t realize they’re ignoring us, they don’t realize that we’re there. And yet at the same time, Tel Aviv and Israel is promoting itself worldwide as this gay mecca. And yet you come here and you say to yourself, ‘well, where do I go?'”

This Friday, as Tel Aviv Pride Week reaches its annual debaucherous climax, Freeman and a handful of other volunteers are hoping that gay immigrants to Israel, especially those from English-speaking countries, will realize that that feeling can change.

An LGBT Olim banner (photo credit: courtesy)
An LGBT Olim banner (photo credit: courtesy)

This month marks the one-year anniversary of the Tel Aviv LGBT English-Speakers Group, a social club of sorts for olim of all ages as well as Anglo-friendly sabras. ESG, as it is known for short, had an unlikely start last June when a pair of social work students studying at Tel Aviv University launched a psychotherapy group for the English-speaking gays of Tel Aviv. When their project was finished, they handed off the group to a few of its most active members, who have since shifted its focus away from therapy and toward pure recreation and community.

Freeman was one of those core members, and he says that ESG now holds two or three events a month, ranging from English-language lectures to picnics on the beach to organized dinners at local gay-run restaurants and cafés. They have a Facebook page with over 300 members, and they are hoping for a solid portion of those members to join them in marching from Gan Meir toward the beach on Friday in the annual Tel Aviv Pride parade, their new banner held aloft.

The group will gather at Gan Meir at 10 a.m. on Friday with the full spectrum of other Israeli Gay and Lesbian organizations for the annual Pride Happening of music, shows and speeches that precedes the parade itself. Following the color-drenched march to Gordon Beach at 1 p.m., English-speaking members of the group will set up shop at the gay-owned Judah café on Ben Yehuda street for a quieter, more air-conditioned alternative to the raucous afternoon party on the sand.

The café parley is intentional. Parties are great, says Dar Harel, a lesbian from Philadelphia who has been living in Israel for eight months and is on the organizing committee of ESG. But English-speaking gay immigrants in Israel, especially those north of 30, are more in need of community and a grounding bedrock than they are of rock-hard abs and Jell-O shots.

“I find that the dating sites aren’t very helpful because they cater to a certain need, and I don’t want that in my life,” she says. “I want meaningful connection. And I find that this group has that potential.”

Harel is also one of the administrators of a newer Facebook page, LGBT Olim, which Freeman started two months ago to further reach out to Israel’s newest gay residents. That page will also have a presence in this year’s Pride parade, with some of its 250 members marching with a banner that reads “We’re Queer and We’ve Moved Here!”

The point of both groups is to carve out a community specifically for non-Hebrew-speaking gays, who in addition to having to navigate the tangle of bureaucratic and cultural challenges that confront all new residents of Israel, are also searching for support that is sexuality-specific.

“If this group didn’t exist, I don’t know how I would have met anyone, to be honest,” Harel says. “Because this isn’t like Philly, where there’s a Gayborhood. Here, [gays] are everywhere. They’re not condensed into one area, so how do you find them? … It’s not like you walk down the street and go, ‘Oh, she’s a lesbian!’”

Both LGBT English Speakers and LGBT Olim have seen support trickle in at a slow and steady pace over the past few months, with members coming from as far as Nahariya and Jerusalem to join ESG events. Freeman, noting that there is zero mention of sexuality within the twisting maze of paperwork and background checks that precede Israeli immigration, has been holding meetings with the Jewish Agency to see if LGBT Olim could also play a role in new immigrants’ official absorption and support process.

Above all, the organizers say, they hope they are getting the word out to other gay olim that a nascent community is growing, and that gay culture in Israel can speak English as well as Hebrew.

One active ESG member, who prefers to be identified only as Aren, says that the group has really played a role in bringing meaning to the lives of LGBT English-speakers, in Tel Aviv and beyond. “They have a home now,” Aren says. “Not everybody has to use it, but now they know it’s there.”

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