An organized group tour to Israel usually includes visits to the Western Wall, Independence Hall, Masada and the Dead Sea, so as to check the boxes of Israel’s identity: religious, political, historical and geographical.
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But for two groups zipping around the country this week, Israel’s emerging identity as a global gay capital is of equal importance – and the beaches of Tel Aviv, now blanketed in rainbow flags and Pride revelers, is an essential destination.
On Monday, the Jewish Community Center Association’s first LGBT delegation arrives for a 12-day trek through the Holy Land, promising its 20 participants to “see Israel in a whole new way.” A trip organized by the New York-based gay Jewish nightlife group Hebro arrived on Friday with 25 participants.
“I’ve been wanting to do this for a long time,” said Aliza Orent, organizer of the JCCA trip and director of Jewish Life and Learning at the JCC in Austin, Texas. “It’s been a passion of mine and the stars aligned.”
Those stars likely included the swell of international press Tel Aviv has received as a gay tourist destination in recent years, the accumulation of rights for same-sex couples in Israel, and recognition by United States Jewish organizations that this is a grand opportunity to engage a population only relatively recently embraced by the mainstream American-Jewish community.
Israel trips targeted to the LGBT community have been around for several years already, including LGBT-themed Birthright trips. And just last fall, a group of U.S. LGBT leaders traveled to Israel at the invitation of the American Jewish Committee.
But JCCA and Hebro trips point to a new trend in which Tel Aviv Pride is the main attraction. This reflects the growing popularity of that event, which has grown into a week-long, citywide party claiming over 100,000 participants, including a flood of sun-hungry foreigners. Nowadays, no LGBT trip to Israel is complete without it.
The demographics of the two trips reveal, somewhat surprisingly, that it’s not just Jews who are drawn to Pride in Israel. A third of the participants on the JCCA trip are not Jewish while non-Jews make up half of Hebro’s group.
“We just have a random group of non-Jews … who are like, ‘Hey, we want to go to Israel, we want to go for Pride and this is the way to do it,’” said Jayson Littman, the founder of Hebro and organizer of that trip.
The rest of the Hebro crew (all male, with an average age of 36) consists of interfaith couples and even some Birthright alumni who are coming back for more on their own dime (Hebro kept the price low thanks to a grant from the LGBT Israel advocacy group A Wider Bridge).
Interfaith couples account for a large number of the non-Jews on the JCCA trip as well. “Although it’s a Jewish orientated trip, there’s no hesitation in including people who are not Jewish,” Orent said.
The day after arrival, the Hebro group paid a visit to Bethlehem and will soon head to the Galilee where it will hit a few more important Christian sites. In Jerusalem, they’ll visit the Dome of the Rock, sacred to Muslims. “It’s a matter of knowing my crowd,” Littman said of the religiously eclectic itinerary.
In addition to spiritual diversity, both groups insist that their trips will explore the nuances, complexities and even contradictions of Israel. The miracle of Tel Aviv Pride, they point out, is meaningless without understanding the reality it lives in.
“We’ll have a tour educator with us the whole time,” said Orent. “It’s not just superficial.”
Hebro, too, has employed a guide to provide context. “Before we enter Pride, people will get a good understanding of the country as a whole,” Littman promised.
A party with a side of education
Aside from a shared commitment to deepening understanding, the two trips differ significantly in their engagement with the Israeli LGBT community. Hebro has a more social bent – its schedule loosens up once the group arrives in Tel Aviv and participants will meet gay Israelis not in formal conversations but rather when smashed up against them on the dance floor or the beach.
The JCCA group, meanwhile, has lined up a series of meetings with LGBT leaders in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, including representatives from the Open House, one of Israel’s largest LGBT organizations, and Havruta, which organizes events for gay orthodox Jews. Additionally, they’re scheduled to visit an army base and discuss gay rights in the Israeli military, attend screenings at the Tel Aviv LGBT Film Festival and discuss the Holocaust in Israeli consciousness after a visit to Yad Vashem.
“The JCC is definitely more educational,” admitted Littman.
The JCC also envisions a more active role for its participants post-trip, as befits a community center. “I want people to come back to their home communities and educate other people and help them view Israel in a more positive light,” said Orent.
As popular as the Hebro and JCCA trips proved to be, planning an LGBT trip to Israel is not a sure thing. The Jewish National Fund and a Jewish group in Toronto announced LGBT-focused trips months ago but failed to generate the commitments necessary to see them through. Hebro, meanwhile, reached capacity in April and had to turn away six participants (directing them to the JCCA).
The response has been so positive that Littman is considering more gay-Jewish travel to other destinations, even getting requests for a Poland trip to visit the concentration camps. It turns out that for all the hype about parties, beaches and boys, at the heart of LGBT Jewish travel is also a search for history and heritage.