Standing at Jerusalem’s Western Wall last week, a smiling Sam Goldman looked around and saw 100 of his fellow gay and lesbian Jewish Americans welcoming Shabbat along with him.
“It was a beautiful moment,” said the co-chair of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation’s LGBT Alliance. “It was the launching point of this trip to learn, celebrate and be together.”
The trip was a weeklong mission sponsored by the Jewish Federations of North America, which brought to Israel approximately 100 representatives from Jewish LGBTQ communities across the United States, including 15 people from the Bay Area.
One of them was Arthur Slepian, founder and executive director of A Wider Bridge, a San Francisco-based nonprofit dedicated to closer ties between the LGBTQ communities of Israel and the Bay Area. Goldman served as the trip’s Bay Area chair.
Jewish Federations of North America sponsored a similar mission to Israel over 10 years ago. Since then, Israel’s LGBTQ community has made progress in terms of deeper acceptance across Israeli society. But as Goldman and his colleagues learned, there is still a long way to go.
“The fight for equality and justice is far from over,” Goldman said. “There are great strides being made by the people there, but in terms of politics, the current government has gotten in the way of advancing those efforts.”
The May 26 to June 2 itinerary took participants across the State of Israel, from a kibbutz in the Upper Galilee to the Old City of Jerusalem. It included meetings with celebrities and LGBTQ leaders, such as gay pop star Ivri Lider, as well as government officials such as Israeli President Reuven Rivlin.
In their meetings with community leaders, mission participants discussed such issues as the struggles of gay Orthodox Jews, transgender rights, where Israel’s political parties stand on LGBTQ issues, and LGBTQ representation in Israeli culture and media.
“We met everyday LGBT Israelis and talked about the issues they face,” Goldman said. They also discussed other social issues, such as “income inequality, racism and how expensive Tel Aviv is becoming,” he said.
Goldman also noted how Israeli society is expanding its outreach to the LGBTQ community, citing last month’s Miss Trans Israel competition, which was won by Ta’alin Abu Hanna, a 21-year-old Israeli Arab Christian. It was the first such contest in the Jewish state.
“We met with leaders who really need the support of the American Jewish community to elevate the issues they face,” said Goldman, “such as working toward marriage equality and working to make sure LGBT Israelis are safe from violence and bullying, issues we still fight in the United States.”
Mission participants met Knesset members, including Amir Ohana, the first openly gay member of the right-leaning Likud Party. He told them that he and his colleagues had introduced several pro-LGBTQ bills, but none became law because of opposition from religious parties, all of which condemn homosexuality, according to Goldman.
Though the mission ended June 2, many stayed on to attend Tel Aviv’s annual Pride parade, which this year drew more than 200,000 participants, including U.S. Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro. Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai gave the signal to start the parade, which featured a procession of floats and music, ending with a beach party in South Tel Aviv.
Goldman was struck not only by the magnitude of the crowd but also by the diversity, calling the parade “a big melting pot of Israeli society.”
Upon his return to San Francisco on June 7, Goldman said that he and other Bay Area mission participants are already planning follow-up actions to show solidarity with their Israeli counterparts.
For instance, many top leaders of Israeli LGBTQ organizations experience financial strain because they volunteer their time, Goldman said, and he and his colleagues hope to brainstorm ways to remedy this. He also mentioned so-called pinkwashing — the accusation that Israel holds up pro-gay policies to mask its unpopular presence in the Palestinian territories — as a problem to be addressed.
“It’s important to realize that a lot of the activists working on LGBT issues are also trying to see how to make society better for all people,” he said. “It’s easy to just highlight the amazing Tel Aviv Pride parade, but in reality the organizations are doing everything from mental health to homeless shelters to Orthodox gay youth. The work going on there is really necessary to make Israel a more just and equitable place.”