I just returned from a transformational mission to Israel. The Jewish Federations of North America organized an LGBTQ Mission to Israel-"See Israel with Pride."
More than 100 gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender individuals from 17 North American communities joined this historic mission in June. We had a diverse group of backgrounds, professions, first-timers to Israel, and returning visitors with participants ranging in age from their 20s through their 60s. The group was filled with leaders from the Jewish community, the LGBTQ community, and in some cases, both.
The trip was formed to showcase Israel through an LGBTQ lens and provide an opportunity to directly see the impact our Federations make in Israel. A central goal of the mission was to build deeper bonds between participants, who have historically felt less welcome and connected to the Jewish community and Israel. I can report that the trip was a tremendous success!
We had unique access to Israeli luminaries. We were the first delegation of LGBTQ Americans to meet Israeli President Rueven Rivlin. We attended a sunset reception at the seaside home of Daniel Shapiro, U.S. Ambassador to Israel and Champaign, Ill. native, where he and his family warmly greeted us. We marched in Tel Aviv's Pride Parade alongside Amb. Shapiro and the U.S. Embassy delegation. I was moved to see both the Jewish Federations and U.S. government officials happy and eager to show their support for the LGBTQ community. We were also treated to a private concert with one of Israel's biggest pop stars, Ivri Lider, a prominent gay Israeli.
Through the trip's panel discussions and guest speakers, we explored some of the external and internal threats facing Israel. We discussed the challenges with religious pluralism. In particular, the Orthodox rabbinate conducts all Jewish marriages in Israel, which does not have civil marriage. While this policy bars same-sex couples entirely, it also impacts both same-sex and opposite-sex couples as well. Additionally we met with a number of LGBTQ leaders in Israel and learned more about the different organizations working to promote equality throughout all of Israel. Life for LGBTQ Israelis is not just a party in Tel Aviv, but like the U.S., there is still much work to be done. Now the community has more than 100 new allies in North America.
We visited a number of organizations and agencies who are direct recipients of Federation dollars. Some address inclusiveness and integration in peripheral communities. Some of these organizations are working with the Arab, Israeli, and Ethiopian-Israeli populations. Others focused on addressing religious pluralism in Israel. A great example of this is Net@ in Nazareth, which through a partnership with JFNA, the Jewish Agency and Cisco Systems, provides computer skills training for teens in grades 9-12 from Israel's social and geographic periphery. In much of Israel, students and citizens rarely get an opportunity to get to know people who are different from themselves. One of the unique things about this training is it helps bring together students from all over Israel to work together, both Jewish and Arab Israelis alike. They participate in hackathons and gather after school to eat, hangout, and help community members with their computer issues.
Even with all of the tours, access, and opportunities on this trip, the people were what made this trip incredible. We formed strong friendships. I now have a network of friends who are leaders across the country.
Ultimately, what I learned in Israel was that we, as LGBTQ Jews, need to be present and involved in our communities and Federation system. While institutions help facilitate our events and help build a welcoming space, it is up to us to truly make our communities inclusive to all. As we return to our respective homes, the real work must continue. We here in Chicago have made significant initial strides in opening our Jewish community to be more inclusive to LGBTQ individuals. In the past three years, we've seen 400+ unique LGBTQ Jews and allies come to our YLD Pride events. We have a leadership group promoting and planning YLD's LGBTQ events and programs, and we have LGBTQ leadership on the YLD Board of Directors. But I know we are only scratching the surface. I look forward to further building and strengthening our
On the week we returned home, I was shocked to see an attack in Sarona Market in Tel Aviv, and then the horrific shooting at Pulse in Orlando. I am still trying to process the range of emotions, but these both hit close to home. I felt attacked as both a Jew and as a gay man. It serves as an important reminder that there is still much hate in the world. Now, more than ever, we must come together.
Michael Oxman is the outgoing president of JUF's Young Leadership Division Board. He served on the Leadership Committee and as a bus captain for JFNA's LGBTQ Mission to Israel.
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