When he made aliyah from the United States 28 years ago, 47-year-old flight attendant Raz Goldman was confronted with the trials of Israeli bureaucracy, and the culture shock of the new society, all without the help of organizations such as Nefesh B'Nefesh to guide him through the labyrinth that is Israeli culture. And when he came out as gay, the only way to meet the "handful" of other English-speaking gay men in Israel was through word of mouth and mutual friends.
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For new immigrants in Israel today, the situation has changed. Tel Aviv has been voted the best gay travel destination in a survey conducted by GayCities.com and American Airlines. Israel is known internationally for its vibrant gay scene, at least in the beach-side metropolis. And, according to Goldman, Israeli society is "very, very open now to anyone" who identifies as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT ) - at least more than it was when he first moved here in the 1980s. Moreover, says Goldman, today the Internet makes it much easier for like-minded people to find each other.
With this phenomenon in mind, Goldi Yaillen and Matias Saragusti, American graduate students in social work at Tel Aviv University, set out to establish a group for Tel Aviv's English-speaking LGBT community. Neither of the students, both of whom are in their early 20s, say they identify as LGBT, but they note that the community and its needs are close to their hearts.
Yaillen and Saragusti say they identified the need for a new English-speaking LGBT forum after they began internships in November with the Israeli National LGBT Task Force - the Aguda - in Tel Aviv. While the Aguda, founded in the 1970s, provides individual psychosocial support services in English, the organization had never before offered group activities in English, they say. There had been unsuccessful attempts to set one up in the past, according to Shlomi Ingher, Aguda's head of psychosocial services, but until Yaillen and Saragusti came along the effort never found its footing.
Yaillen and Saragusti say they met with Ingher in December and set out to establish a forum for people in Tel Aviv to find support and socialize, although they stress that it is up to the participants "to make it what they want."
"There are a lot of people coming here from all walks of life, [new immigrants], immigrant workers. We wanted to provide a good service to the community," as well as "an alternative environment for people to meet" outside of bars and nightclubs, says Saragusti.
After carrying out outreach through Facebook and forums such as Tanglo, the group has met three times since starting in March. The weekly Sunday sessions have involved discussions of topics including Israeli attitudes to public displays of affection, and the immigration process. The 10 participants so far have included a mix of men and women from the U.K. and America, both new immigrants and people who have been in the country for a number of years, with ages ranging from early 20s to 60s.
Israel's immigrant communities are not homogeneous, however, and one of the biggest challenges is attracting a more diverse group, says Ingher, noting that the group is currently comprised primarily of immigrants with a generally high economic status, who are dealing with issues of identity or alienation. Reaching out to migrant workers who identify as LGBT is particularly difficult, says Ingher.
So far, the group seems to be shaping up less as a support group and more as an opportunity for its members to socialize.
One member - a 60-year-old who immigrated to Israel from the United States a year ago, because "the timing was right" - says he joined the group to meet new people. "Certainly at my stage in life, I don't need to run into typical venues where men meet on the gay scene. I don't need that as a conduit to connect with people," says the man, who asked not to be identified for reasons of privacy. "I had no interest in any support group," he added. "I don't need a support system in terms of my gay identity."
Ariella, a 26-year-old South African who declined to give her last name, joined a similar group that meets on Mondays at the Jerusalem Open House. After moving to Israel in January, she says she was looking for a way "to meet a Jewish woman" and make new friends. The Anglo LGBT community needs social forums, she says, particularly in a city like Jerusalem where the lesbian scene "is very small," and which, unlike Tel Aviv, "is far more closed," according to Ariella.
Ariel, a 29-year-old U.S. immigrant who declined to give his last name, and who has lived in Israel with his Israeli partner since 2008, says he thinks the new Tel Aviv group could be an interesting way to make friends, adding that he wouldn't want to limit himself to an LGBT-only social network. "I don't feel gay identity defines who I am at all," he says. "It's a part of me but its not a big factor. I have friends from all different groups - American, gay, Anglo, straight, whatever. I try not to stick myself into any category." When it comes to the immigrant experience, LGBT immigrants face basically the same challenges as everyone else, he says. "There is just as much need for LGBT support as there is for straight or other immigrants to have support when they come here," he says. The biggest difficulty for new LGBT immigrants is "getting the gist of the community."
Then again, Ariel acknowledges that some immigrants may need more support than others. "If I was in the closet and wanted help to deal with family in my language, then a support group would be crucial," says Ariel.
Yaillen and Saragusti say they hope the group will sustain itself after they are due to complete their internships in June and leave the Aguda. "We would love it if the group continues," says Saragusti, adding that, for now, "everybody is welcome."
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