Gay and Conservative, This Cuban Says Tel Aviv Is Safer Than U.S. for LGBTQs

Departures / Arrivals: A frat boy with a good heart reflects on volunteering with Israel's gay community | An Israeli nude model explains why a Catholic monastery threw out her 'Rainbow' family.

Ariel Castroman, 22, from Miami
Tomer Appelbaum

Ariel Castroman, 22, lives in Miami and flying there 

Hello, can I ask how you spent your time in Israel?

I was here for two months on a student program called Onward Israel. They give you an apartment and a multiple-use bus pass, and they host you for trips around the country.

Where did you live?

In Bat Yam. It was absolutely horrible.

How did you get to the program? Are you Jewish?

I am not Jewish. I was born in Cuba, but everyone here is really surprised when I tell them that. Because of my features, people speak to me in Hebrew, and when I say, “No, only English,” they think I’m putting them on. I can’t count how many times I told the story of how I got here, and how many times people said, “Why? You’re nuts!”

What is the story?

I am involved in the Jewish community on my campus. I’m studying tourism and hospitality management at the Florida International University, and I’m a member of the Zeta Beta Tau fraternity. There was a time when Jews were barred from membership in student fraternities. Zeta Beta Tau was founded in 1889 as the first Jewish fraternity, and it has nine branches.

Why did they accept you?

Since 1954 everyone has been allowed to enter, irrespective of religion but depending on character. I didn’t join the fraternity because of its Jewish history, but I was interested to learn about it. What’s important for the fraternity is important for me, too: intellectual awareness, social responsibility, integrity and brotherly love.

I thought people joined frats for the parties.

There are parties, but that’s not the thing.

What is?

For me, it’s being involved. Being part of a system. I was the president of the fraternity and I am on the university’s student council. Here, too, I wanted to do something that involved the community. I started off in the tourism department of the Tel Aviv Municipality. But I felt that I wasn’t using all my potential, so I asked to be transferred and was sent to the LGBT group in Meir Gardens [in Tel Aviv]. I was interested to see how certain issues are dealt with, as compared to the United States. I’m really happy I was able to work with transgender people.

What did you do?

I helped them with their community newsletter. We tried to get donations, because they need money. I also helped them organize the “Shabbat Queen” event they hold every three weeks. It’s an amazing event. The whole community is invited, friends and families. Everyone brings food, they welcome Shabbat. You can speak or sing or perform a little. It was wonderful to be there, there was a really welcoming atmosphere.

Are you part of the community?

I’m gay. I’m not a member of the transgender community, but I learned a lot about them through working with the Beyahad organization here. If I’d been able to choose, I would have chosen the gay community, but this way I got to see the struggle of transgender people. They have a slogan: “Talk to us, not about us,” because in the past the gays and lesbians decided things for them and no one asked them what their needs were.

Did you find differences of approach between Israel and the U.S.?

I felt comfortable here. Back home there are people who don’t feel safe everywhere since the Orlando shooting, but it depends very much on where you are. At the university, I have no problem being who I am, but I am very conservative.

Conservative?

I don’t walk around the mall holding hands with a man. Maybe it’s also an age thing. I’ve had only one boyfriend – before that I had a girlfriend for three years, but at some point I got it. I’m glad it happened, I am much happier not having to hide. I would like to be part of a welcoming, understanding community.

Do you think Israel is like that?

I think that 15 percent of the population of Tel Aviv is gay, and there are plenty of places to go to. But I heard that the first gay couple from here, who were married in Canada and are now getting divorced, have to do it via the rabbinate. Is that true?

Yfat Levy, 36, lives in Kiryat Tivon, arriving from Geneva
Tomer Appelbaum

Yfat Levy, 36, lives in Kiryat Tivon, arriving from Geneva

Hello, can I ask how the flight was?

I flew EasyJet – not an easy company. The ticket is cheap but the treatment isn’t great; everything costs money, even a cup of coffee. But I’m not complaining: I got a good deal and had to work.

What kind of work?

I do nude modeling in Israel and abroad for photographers and artists.

What about sculptors?

Sculptors, no. Modeling is a nightmare, because you have to pose for a very long time. You sit three hours without moving. I was supposed to model in Zurich, too, so I went there with five people via BlaBlaCar, a really cool ride-sharing service. From Zurich I traveled by trains and buses. It’s easy to hitch in Germany, but the Austrians are tough. It took me half a day to get to the Austrian Alps.

Why did you have to get to the Alps?

I was supposed to go to a European Rainbow Gathering, where people from 40 countries take part. There was a big scandal there and it’s really important to tell about it.

We’re listening.

I’ve been going to these gatherings for 10 years. I even held a Pesach seder with them – the Rainbow is my family. We commune with nature and celebrate love, our united hearts, who we are. This is the first gathering I’ve been to in Europe. It was decided unanimously that it would be in Admont Abbey, a monastery in Austria. The monastery confirmed by phone that we could stay on their land for a month without charge. The day after people started to arrive, a local farmer passed by, and after a fairly short discussion, he agreed to move his herd of cows so we could live in peace and harmony with everything.  

Sounds like a big “but” is on the way.

Indeed. But later that day a hunter showed up and decided that it didn’t suit him for us to be there. Apparently for financial reasons. The hunter took advantage of connections he had with the monastery’s administrative department and filed a complaint with the Austrian police alleging that we were trespassing. Within a few hours around 200 armed policemen arrived, with dogs and helicopters. They even invited the fire department, which used water mixed with harmful chemicals to extinguish the holy fire we’d lit.

How did the monastery respond?

The monastery did not intervene on our behalf. Monasteries have always been known for their hospitality, and that’s the welcome we got. In this case their image was shattered. They cooperated with the hunter, whose job is to kill animals, and not with innocent people who do not cooperate with the meat industry, don’t drink alcohol or use violence. A monastery is supposed to accommodate everyone who kindly asks permission to stay there. That is its essence: giving and openness to the public. I think their behavior was abominable; it’s a shame and disgrace for Austria that a Catholic monastery in the progressive third millennium chooses to cooperate with dark elements. I am disappointed, I feel sad. They emerged as hypocrites and evicted hundreds of people. They even brought a mobile hospital for us, in the event that we did not want to leave and would thus “force” them to use violence.

Did it come to violence?

The police threatened us for two days, and during that time we expressed a message of love and openness to them. People in Rainbow come from true love for every human being as such. We sang to them, we invited them to join our circle. We hoped to make them understand our essence, and that all we want is to be in the nature that Mother Earth granted us, all of us. But slowly they closed in on us. They simply stood with arms linked and closed us off, all the time declaring via megaphone, “You have to leave now!”

People got cold feet, and in the end everyone gradually left. There was no choice. From our point of view, it was violence.

Where did you go?

We are a united family, so we came down from the mountain of 1,200 meters and started to discuss what the next place would be. And then we stood there and cried, a group of people who only wanted to give love.