Notes from a Birthright trip: Why a gay program matters

When I registered to visit Israel with Birthright, I applied for only one trip: the LGBTQ Rainbow Tour, directed by Israel Experience. Well-meaning friends have asked why I chose an all-LGBTQ group — isn’t that sort of programming a form of segregation? But the opposite is actually true: This type of program is vital for engaging LGBTQ Jews, even in progressive regions like the Bay Area.

First, I truly loved the trip and learned a great deal. While I had heard that some Birthright tours present a Disney-fied version of Israel, I was deeply impressed by our guide, Chen Kazaz. She explored with us Israel’s many internal challenges and the complexity of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This nuanced approach is vital for those of us living in the Bay Area who wish to speak effectively on Israel’s behalf. Further, although I was well-informed about Israeli history and politics before the trip, it was wonderful to complement that abstract knowledge with personal, on-the-ground experiences.

That said, I believe my experience would not have been as positive if I had traveled with any group other than the Rainbow Tour.

Straight folks may not realize the strain that LGBTQ people can face on a daily basis, especially around new acquaintances. With each new person we meet, we’re back in the closet, questioning if/how/when to be open about who and what we are. Entering a new synagogue or office, meeting a new tour group — these situations instantly compel many LGBTQ folks to start analyzing ourselves and others: How can I gauge what this person thinks? Will my shirt, my voice, my hand gestures announce my gayness before I’m comfortable being “out?” Even if my group supports LGBTQ rights in the abstract sense, will its members really be comfortable with me as an openly gay person? And will they respect me as a three-dimensional individual, or expect me to the play the narrow role of the “gay best friend?”

Before the 2012 Tel Aviv Pride Parade, celebrants gathered in Gan Meir park listen to a speech by U.S. Ambassador Daniel Shapiro. photo/flickr-u.s. embassy, tel aviv

These questions are distracting. In a tour group with 40 unfamiliar peers, the strain of reading others and monitoring ourselves hardly makes it easy for LGBTQ travelers to relax and enjoy what Birthright ideally offers: a fantastic blend of community, religious and cultural self-discovery, and the simple thrill of traveling abroad.

On the Rainbow Tour, I could throw these tensions out the window. From carefree floating in the Dead Sea to challenging political debates on the bus, we 40 travelers were free to fully immerse ourselves in the typical highlights of the Birthright experience   

without having to negotiate for acceptance and respect.

Furthermore, alongside visits to the Sea of Galilee and the Western Wall, we learned from a variety of LGBTQ sites and speakers. For example, we heard from gay and lesbian parents about raising their children in Israel. We visited Tel Aviv’s LGBTQ Center to learn about youth support programs.

We even went out to gay clubs in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. These activities made it clear that our tour organizer, Israel Experience, had considered our needs and interests as LGBTQ participants — a much-appreciated feeling that is still rare for LGBTQ Jews attending Jewish services, events, and programs.

Equally important, the Rainbow Tour allowed us to connect with peers who had faced similar challenges to our own — including the challenge of integrating Jewish and LGBTQ identities in a culture that commonly considers gayness at odds with religiosity. Since our group also included six LGBTQ Israelis, these conversations were enriched by our cross-cultural perspectives on LGBTQ-ness, religion, and ethnic identity.

In sum, the LGBTQ Birthright tour provided a safe space in which we could enjoy an enlightening Jewish experience in Israel. The tour also demonstrated to us that many straight Jews are committed to seriously understanding our unique needs, and actively welcoming us into the Jewish community.

I think I speak for many participants when I say the Rainbow Tour touched me and has made me more likely to seek involvement with the Jewish community in the future and to maintain a personal connection with Israel and its people.

Jonathan Branfman
is office manager for the San Francisco office of the American Jewish Committee.