A Uniquely LGBTQ-Friendly Trip to Israel
Our Taglit-Birthright Israel trip began like any other group’s. After weeks of planning and anticipation, we finally assembled at the El Al counters at Newark Airport’s Terminal B. We completed the initial administrative tasks, checked in for the flight, and passed through security. While we waited to depart, we said Tefilat Haderech (the Traveler’s Prayer), got to know one another, and charged our electronics one last time. Finally, after what seemed liked the longest morning on record, we boarded our aircraft, named after the city of Haifa, and began our journey.
But our group was unique. We were – and still remain – 50 individuals who chose to participate in an experience designed for members of the LGBTQ community. Some of us identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, or questioning; others prefer the term “ally;” some of us chose not to label ourselves into any category. While we all had different reasons for participating in this program, the first of its kind sponsored by URJ Kesher, we came together in a way that none of us had ever envisioned.
The majority of our trip was identical to our counterparts following other URJ Kesher itineraries. We began our trip with a beautiful opening ceremony of sorts on the Haas Promenade in Jerusalem, and then visited the Old City. During the rest of our trip, we rode camels in the Judean desert, ascended the Roman Ramp of Masada for the sunrise, commemorated Israel’s difficult past at Har Herzl national military cemetery, and learned more about the modern national narrative at Independence Hall in Tel Aviv.
But along the way, we were able to experience some unique aspects of Israeli life. In Jerusalem, we met with representations of the Open House and Gan Meir, two LGBTQ community centers, and learned about the advances and challenges that the gay community faces. We learned about the creation of Tehila, Israel’s version of PFLAG (Parents, Friends, & Family of Lesbians and Gays). Conversations with a number of North American and British transplants who identify as LGBTQ allowed us to learn about the realities of life throughout the country. At Yad Vashem (the Holocaust museum), the “Pink Triangle” tour helped us to see the nuances of homosexual persecution in Germany and throughout Europe. On our night out in Tel Aviv, we had the opportunity to explore the legendary nightlife of Israel’s most gay-friendly city.
For most of the participants and staff in the group, the highlight of the trip was the Israeli participants who joined us for five days. Each one identified in some way the broader LGBTQ community and was able to share insights and special stories from their personal experiences. Atop Har Herzl, they reflected on the culture for gay soldiers in the military and broader society. But perhaps the most powerful moment came during a conversation about the 2009 shooting at the Agudah LGBTQ center in Tel Aviv. A number of our Israeli participants were directly connected to the incident, and they shared their firsthand accounts of the bigotry and prejudice which still persists in parts of Israel.
It was truly a pleasure to guide this group on an incredible journey of inquiry and discovery. While each of us will look back on our experience in different ways, what remains constant is our relationship with one another. We came together for our own unique reasons, but we formed a community that was unique and special. Our nuanced conversations, personal stories, and enhanced itinerary allowed us to explore aspects of Israel that were of particular interest to us. The connections that we formed – with one another and with Israel as a whole – will remain close to our hearts forever.
Barry Shainker is currently completing his final semester of the Masters program in Jewish Education at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York. When not staffing Taglit-Birthright Israel trips, he proudly serves as education intern at Temple Shaaray Tefila in Bedford Corners, N.Y. He looks forward to enhancing the Israel experiences of children and adult alike for many years to come.