On a hot and humid Shabbat afternoon at the Ramada hotel in Jerusalem, our LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer) Birthright group did what many do as the ten day-day journey comes to a halt to celebrate Shabbat: sit in a hotel lobby and talk about Jewish identity.
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As my co-staffer and I read off various statements, we asked participants to stand on either ends of the room based on how much they agreed with each statement. The most diverse group of agreement was within the statement, “I believe in God”. All but one participant strongly agreed to the statement, “I believe there is a need for an LGBTQ Birthright trip.” The lone disagreeing girl was straight, and when asked why, she appropriately said, “I just wish everyone would feel comfortable on every Birthright trip.”
Many people are surprised to find out there is indeed an LGBTQ Birthright trip. Most are curious how the trip differs from a “regular” Birthright trip, with one friend asking, “do you guys ride gay camels in the desert?” We do however come up with clever names to identify our groups: faglit, hummusexuals, sholomosexuals, or most recently, queerbutz. In fact this was the 5th LGBTQ Birthright trip; the first was back in 2008.
The truth is, the LGBTQ Birthright trip doesn’t differ from the mainstream Birthright experience: Numbered head counts (why is #20 always missing?), Israeli tour guides with adorably broken English, visiting Israeli soldiers (yes, gay ones), Bedouin tents, and camel rides (why camel-rides are part of the Israel experience is still beyond me.) We even follow all the Birthright policies, especially the one about three same-sex people sharing a room (never a problem on the LGBTQ trip).
After staffing straight and gay Birthright trips, I find the main difference being the discussions in regard to Jewish identity. While many of our heterosexual counterparts may struggle with their desire to remain liberal Jews and support Israel and try to define if they are “Jewish Americans” or “American Jews”, the LGBTQ Birthright experience challenges our primaryidentity during a trip that is meant to connect us to our secondary Jewish identity. Are we gay-Jewish-Americans, American-Jewish-gays, or Jewish-gay-Americans?
Many of us aren’t particularly aware of being Jewish every day, yet we are over-aware of our LGBT identities on a daily basis. There might be other Jews in the office environments we work at, or the cities we live in, and our society has afforded Jews in the United States with equal rights. This isn’t the case for the LGBTQ community, and thus, we are more aware of that part of ourselves.
Perhaps many Jews experienced forms of anti-Semitism while growing up in small towns, but growing up gay in a small town probably resulted in some occurrences of bullying and homophobia – even from our Jewish peers.
For many gay Jews, coming out is often a long and somewhat difficult process. After spending years becoming comfortable with our sexual identity, we tend to assimilate into the mainstream LGBTQ community. For many of us, we tend to move to cities that embrace our primary gay identities, and leave our Jewish ones behind. On the opposite end, we find many converts in our community who found solace and acceptance within Judaism in regards to their gay identity, while feeling persecuted in their religion of birth.
Many within the gay community are far-left when it comes to politics, due to the oppression our community has faced, and thus they struggle with wanting to support Israel as “a good Jew”, but wanting to be against Israel as a “good queer.” Some struggled with telling their friends they were going on Birthright all together, while others refrained from telling their families it was indeed an LGBTQ-themed trip.
We partake in conversations about pinkwashing and gender identity in Israel. When I asked one male transgender participant why he felt Israel was any different than the United States in terms of gender identity, he responded by saying, “In the USA, I have to make gender decisions for bathrooms, and in Israel I have to do it for the holiest site in Judaism.”
Having an LGBTQ Birthright trip allows participants to have a space where they can explore their Jewish identity and connection to Israel through an LGBTQ lens. It is in Israel that allows for these types of conversations to be held within our community, conversations that might not be had if an LGBT themed Birthright trip wasn’t available. Perhaps we will once live in a day where no niche Birthright trips were needed, and our community and world can live and appreciate diversity within our groups.
It’s often common to meet other Birthright groups at the hotels we stay at, and this trip was no different. With little to do at nights, Birthright groups tend to stay up and form friendships and bond with participants from around the world. We followed one particular Birthright group who was on a similar schedule to us and by day seven, many of its participants, particularly the men, became quite friendly with our LGBTQ group. When I asked a girl why she thought this was, she responded by saying, “Well, the girls on our trip are not giving the men what they want, so the men are seeking the attention from the guys on your trip.” Enough said.
Jayson Littman is the founder of He’bro www.myhebro.com, which produces and promotes events for gay secular and cultural Jews in New York. Information about LGBTQ Taglit-Birthright trips can be found here http://www.freejourneytoisrael.org/trips/specialty-trips/lgbtq-the-rainbow-trip/and herehttp://stat.israelexperts.com/taglit/pdf/2012/LGBTQ.pdf