A Gay Chabadnik, Lesbians Wearing Skullcaps and Hipsters Who Never Pray: Welcome to LGBTQ Birthright

An eclectic crowd took part in a recent trip to Israel. Discussions about the complexities of religious and sexual identity, and Tel Aviv's pride parade were all on the itinerary.

Daniel Tchetchik

Hanging out in the lobby of the Caesar Premier Jerusalem hotel on a recent Friday evening, Yochanan Hizkiyahu, 26, encountered an ultra-Orthodox man in typical black attire. The two looked at each other and struck up a conversation. Hizkiyahu, who identifies with the ultra-Orthodox Chabad sect and sports a beard, said he was in Israel on a Birthright junket – the 10-day all-expenses paid tour of Israel offered to young Diaspora Jews – and that afterward he intended to stay on in Jerusalem and attend a Chabad yeshiva.

“Would you like to pray with us in the morning? There are a few more Chabad people here,” the Haredi man said. Hizkiyahu said he would be glad for the opportunity, but that the following morning he was going to have a bar-mitzvah ceremony in the hotel. “Really?” the Haredi man asked, amazed. “Shall I come and honor you?”

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Hizkiyahu shifted his weight from one foot to the other, looking uncomfortable. “The thing is Well, it’s not exactly a synagogue And the truth is that it’s an egalitarian minyan [prayer quorum, traditionally of at least 10 males], of men and women together.”

The Haredi man nodded his head, wished Hizkiyahu luck and went on his way. It’s unlikely he would have kept his cool if he’d known that the Chabad man opposite him was part of an LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) group of Birthright participants.

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Some 12 hours earlier, Hizkiyahu had been a star attraction at the Tel Aviv Gay Pride Parade. Hundreds of people had asked to take selfies with the mysterious, bearded Haredi who wore a chest-hugging tank top and pants in the colors of the rainbow. Others reacted differently, shouting at him, and two cursed him, but he took it in stride after being told that people still remembered that a Haredi man had stabbed and wounded three participants in the Jerusalem Gay Pride Parade in 2005.

Hizkiyahu’s may be the most amazing story among the Birthright gays whose 10-day visit included the Tel Aviv event. He was born as Juan Carlos Estremera in Virginia, to a Jewish mother and a religiously unaffiliated father from Puerto Rico. He grew up in a totally atheistic home until, when he was 10, his parents decided to convert to Christianity together. Young Juan retained his affection for the Jewish traditions his mother had observed when he was younger, and at the age of 13 became religiously observant on his own. In practice, this meant that he went online to the Chabad.org and AskMoses.com (also run by Chabad) websites every day, read a lot and learned all the prayers and blessings by himself.

At 21, Hizkiyahu decided to enlist in the American armed forces. He served with the Marines in the Far East, though he saw no action, he relates. He spent five years in the Marines, until his release two months ago, but he had come out of the closet to his unit buddies three years ago.

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They took it well, he notes. “Obviously, there were jokes at my expense,” but even before that, they made jokes about his being a Jew, he says, so that not much changed from his point of view. He had romantic relationships with two other male soldiers during his service, he adds; one ended because the other soldier was posted elsewhere, and the second because the two just didn’t click.

Hizkiyahu experienced a tremendous surge of freedom after his discharge, and like many other demobbed soldiers, he expressed himself by growing his hair long. He wasn’t allowed to grow a beard in the Marines, he relates, “all they would allow is tzitzit, so as soon as I was discharged, I just stopped shaving.”

He moved to San Diego and hooked up with the local Chabad House, not hiding the fact that he was gay. Everyone knew, he says, not least because his Facebook page was filled with posts about gays and pictures of the rainbow flag. The Chabad rabbi knew, too, he adds.

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In reply to my question, Hizkiyahu says that the rabbi read with him the relevant verse in Leviticus (20:13), explaining that it is forbidden for a man to sleep with another man, but that this does not mean it is forbidden to love another man or do other things – with the exception of engaging in anal intercourse – with him. He adds that he spoke to other Orthodox rabbis as well, “and one of them said that what I do in private is my own affair – meaning that he was even more permissive, but I nevertheless decided to heed the Chabad rabbi.”

Asked if this meant avoiding intimacy with men, he replied that he refrains only from anal sex.

Supply and demand

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There were other unusual stories on this Birthright visit, too: lesbians with heads covered by skullcaps, former Catholics who were booted out of the Church and found solace in Judaism, and hipsters of 21 who had never held a prayer book in their hands and suddenly found themselves in Safed, praying for the first time in their lives. Given the openness of the communities, synagogues and rabbis of many of the participants, one might almost think there were two different religions: the flexible, pluralistic (even “cool,” some would say) forms of non-Orthodox Judaism dominant in North America, and the state-sanctioned Israeli form of Orthodoxy, which demonstrates its anachronism anew each week.

The latest instance was the refusal of Bar-Ilan University to allow an event marking Gay Pride Week on the campus, with the institution’s spokesman likening the planned event to a gathering of pedophiles. (In the end, the university bowed to public pressure and allowed the event to take place.)

During the two days I spent with the group, I couldn’t help wondering about the fact that the same Israel that refuses to recognize marriages among gays – since marriages are the purview of the chief rabbinate and there are no civil unions – and discriminates against same-sex couples in the allocation of social benefits, and where some MKs are openly homophobic, also invites more than 40 gay men and lesbians to partake of a free 10-day Birthright trip.

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Does the fact that the gays in this group are practicing Jews account for the first-class treatment they were getting as visitors, as compared with the mixed messages the state transmits to its citizens who are gay? Or were they being wined and dined because of their presumed economic clout, given that the global LGBT community is a powerful force of consumers, something that has contributed to their enhanced political status in much of the West?

“I always make it clear to the members of my groups on the first day that I don’t intend to say a word to them about immigrating to Israel, enlisting in the army or donating to the country,” says Shany Katzav the group’s energetic chief tour leader, who works with gay and straight groups alike. In that case, we can probably rule out the demographic threat – Israel’s fear of losing its Jewish majority – as the reason for having gay groups in Birthright.

As for the economic aspect, something that another tour leader, David, said while talking about the social-protest movement of 2011 as the group’s bus drove along Rothschild Boulevard, in Tel Aviv, where it all began, raises the suspicion that LGBT buying power is indeed a motivating factor in bringing Jewish gays to Israel.

There are many small businesses in Israel, which are not part of big chains, he told the group, and if tour participants shop in those small businesses and in general spend money here, they will be helping the Israeli economy.

According to Birthright’s CEO, Gidi Mark, the tours of gays – to date there have been 18 such groups of 40 participants each, out of a total of 430,000 people who have taken part in the project since its inception – are the result of demand. And nothing else. Birthright brings hundreds of groups to Israel, Mark says: Ninety percent are made up of a general mix of people, while 10 percent are niche groups, involving people with specific needs or field of interest. There are groups of bloggers, physicians, journalists, fashion designers, people with Asperger syndrome, participants confined to wheelchairs and more.

He adds that Birthright is receptive to groundswell initiatives: At some point, someone asked Birthright to organize a group of gays, and that turned out to be a genuine need.

I ask Mark how he explains the disparity between Israeli government policy toward the LGBT community and the opinions expressed by members of the ruling coalition, and Birthright’s progressive posture. After all, 30 percent of the project’s budget comes from the Prime Minister’s Office and the Diaspora Affairs Ministry, now headed by Naftali Bennett of Habayit Hayehudi, a largely homophobic party. Mark says he sees no contradiction between the government’s stance and Birthright’s program for the LGBT community. As far as he knows, he adds, Israel is an open society that accepts gays.

Could it be, I put it to Mark, that the goal of bringing gays on Birthright is to further hasbara (public diplomacy), so that participants will return home and tell others that Israel is gay-friendly? According to Mark, Birthright is an educational project and does not engage in hasbara. The idea is not to bring young people to Israel in order to give them pep talks about the country, he explains, but the experience they undergo causes many of them to develop an attachment to Israel, and they take that feeling back to their campuses or communities.

He notes that many of the participants come from universities with a strong anti-Israeli slant, and the journey here gives them nuanced, complex answers enabling them to shatter the simplistic discourse about Israel often heard on campuses. The bottom line, says Mark: Most of the Jews who are on the front line against anti-Israeli elements on campuses are veterans of the Birthright project.

Jewish prototypes

The program of Birthright’s gay groups is very similar to that of the project’s other groups: some time in the Galilee (Safed, Golan Heights), a bit of Tel Aviv (Jaffa, Rothschild Boulevard, Rabin Square), Jerusalem (Western Wall, Yad Vashem, Mount Herzl), desert (Dead Sea, Masada, Kibbutz Sde Boker). In the case of the LGBT groups, what’s added is participation in the Gay Pride Parade (when their trips overlap with that), along with workshops and group discussions on Judaism and questions of identity – sexual, Jewish and the like – in general.

The identity issue turns out to be one of the most meaningful aspects of the program, owing to the different backgrounds of the participants and their highly individualistic connections to Judaism. In one such conversation, Shany, the tour leader, explains that the fact that Hebrew has different grammatical forms for male and female creates dilemmas for people who don’t necessarily want to classify themselves in gender terms.

One of the participants, a lesbian with a long braid and impressive expertise in Sabbath-eve songs, told me that in the United States the word “ze,” something between “he” and “she,” has lately become very popular. People who don’t see themselves exactly as a man or exactly as a woman, and don’t want to be called “it,” go for ze, she said. “For example, ‘Ze is going to sleep.’”

This group contains several prototypes of the Jewish community in America”. There are some who learned a little Hebrew as kids, attended a Jewish school and came out to their congregation (Reform or Conservative) fairly easily. Others have only one Jewish parent and looked quite bewildered during the prayers the group’s Shabbat committee organized. There are also some converts to Judaism.

One of the latter is Alex Thornhill, 26, from Boston, who works in the personnel department of a children’s hospital in that city. He says he grew up in a largely atheistic home, and at the age of 10 became intensely curious about religions. He started to read Christian sacred texts on his own, and at a later age joined a church in his neighborhood.

But all that ended when he decided to come out of the closet. The priest took him aside and tried to persuade him to “give it up,” but when he realized it wasn’t going to work, “he just informed me that I wasn’t allowed to enter the church anymore, and in effect kicked me out.”

That was when he started thinking seriously about converting to Judaism. At 21, Thornhill joined a two-year conversion course (he did not want to disclose who oversaw his conversion) in which he learned Torah and, in the final stage, underwent immersion in a mikveh (ritual bath). (No brit milah was required, as he had undergone circumcision as an infant.)

For the past few years he’s lived in Brookline, a Boston suburb with a large Jewish population. He attends an Orthodox synagogue regularly. “It’s an open synagogue,” he relates, adding that there is a gay couple and a lesbian couple who attend regularly, and he’s invited almost every weekend for a Sabbath meal by one of the families.

Like all Birthright groups, this one also included Israeli soldiers who are about to complete their military service, in what is considered a tremendous perk. What soldier would object to putting the Israel Defense Forces on hold, and joining a group of his or her peers for a 10-day trip around the country? Seven soldiers – two women and five men, all of them gay – joined Shany’s group, but by orders of the IDF Spokesperson’s Office, could not speak on the record with a journalist.

The vision of Birthright’s CEO in regard to the soldiers is that they will deepen the participants’ experience of Israel, “because they [the Israelis] raise tough, challenging issues.”

I can’t say whether the seven soldiers who joined the trip fulfilled that task, but they certainly added color and diversity to the group. One of the male soldiers, of Russian origin, formed a strong bond with a New York man whose parents are also of Russian descent.

During lunch at a falafel stand in the Jaffa flea market, the American asked what it’s like to be a gay soldier in the IDF. “It’s great,” the soldier replied. He said that in his unit there are so many gays, and also the commander is so gay-friendly, that the latter once court-martialed a soldier – who had just arrived on the base and didn’t grasp the situation – for making homophobic remarks. The New Yorker was impressed for about 10 seconds, before changing the subject and grumbling that his favorite iced-tea brand isn’t available in Israel.

Venting frustrations

Despite the overall good time that should come with a trip abroad and the thrill of being with other young Jews who are similar to you, and with whom you can share your thoughts about identity and gender – this Birthright LGBT experience was accompanied by minor frustration with regard to the possibility of letting go and having a blast. There are strict rules: No consumption of alcohol during scheduled, official activities – only in your free time.

One might have thought that the Gay Pride Parade constituted “free time,” during which the group’s participants would be allowed to drink themselves into a stupor on the Tel Aviv promenade together with bearded, muscular German gays. The parade, however, was considered a “group activity,” hence no drinking.

In practice, the group had only one opportunity to go out on the town in Tel Aviv, on the Thursday evening before the parade. But even that consisted of a mere three hours in the Jaffa flea market, a nice place but void of gay clubs and far from the “real” scene in the Rothschild-Allenby-Herzl streets area or the Florentin neighborhood.

The group vented its frustration about alcohol at the small, sleepy bar of the Caesar Premier hotel, near the Central Bus Station in Jerusalem. They were not deterred by the hotel’s Haredi vibe or by other Birthright groups that packed the lobby (at one point, a group from Birthright India sauntered in, which included young men with skullcaps who looked like they belonged to India’s cricket team for the Maccabiah Games, the “Jewish Olympics”). A member of the hotel staff, who was randomly designated the barman, was totally unable to cope with the flood of orders.

Another location where the group was forbidden to drink was at the southern part of the Tel Aviv promenade designated as the official seaside site for the pride parade participants. A deejay stand was set up on the sand, shady lean-tos were erected and cocktails were sold in vast quantities, as hundreds of Israelis and tourists – almost all of them carefully groomed men in tiny bathing suits – sprawled on the burning sand and worked on their tan. The Birthright gay guys got into the swing of things quickly, the girls less so.

At the conclusion of the two hours that the group was given to spend on the beach, they gathered in front of a nearby café and were asked by Shany to count off, shouting out their names instead of numbers. After she informed me that some of the group defined themselves differently every day in terms of gender – they might wake up one morning and be asked to be addressed in the feminine form, and the next morning in the masculine – I wasn’t surprised when Yohanan, the ex-Marine, bellowed “Catherine,” and the woman standing next to him shouted “Bruce.” Two days later I found out that the method is for each person to call out the name of the person after him on the list – not his own name.

The participants were absolutely wild about Tel Aviv, which some said reminded them of Miami, and they cheered whenever they saw a rainbow flag flying. (The Tel Aviv-Jaffa Municipality hung hundreds of the flags around the city, and cafes and restaurants displayed them voluntarily.) There was a good atmosphere, and the Israel that emerged from the visit and from the articulate explanations of the two group leaders was a dynamic, exciting place, enhanced by descriptions of earlier events such as the social-protest movement and the occasional political demonstrations in Rabin Square.

Birthright doesn’t try to gather participants in a tent called “Israel” and hide parts of it from them, CEO Mark says, rather, “Our goal is to show Israel’s complexity.”

To his credit, it should be said that the program does indeed demonstrate that complexity of certain areas of life in the country (religious freedom, for example), although it pretty much shies away from the elephant in the room: the Palestinian issue. It’s not that the subject isn’t mentioned, but there’s a feeling of an attempt to evade it elegantly.

A case in point came at the end of the tour, in Old Jaffa, when the group stood on a hill that faces northward, to Tel Aviv. The two leaders told about the stench that emanated from the alleys of Old Jaffa because of the sewage that flowed in the streets, and about the rich Jews who decided, at the end of the 19th century, to leave the city and establish a neighborhood outside its walls.

“They looked north and what did they see?” Shany asked, and answered by herself “Nothing! Only dunes.”

With all the desire to equip the Birthright veterans with information that will aid them in campus arguments about Israel, the fact that the Palestinian villages that existed on those dunes are ignored – including the neighborhood of Manshiya, whose mosque remains very visible from Jaffa today – will leave them speechless during the next debate when they’re back at school, and the accusation is hurled at them that Zionism is a colonialist movement.