State Okays Student Volunteer Work With Gay Group

The Education Ministry announced yesterday that it would recognize student volunteer work at a gay youth organization, which is conducted as part of a 10th-grade community outreach program.

The unprecedented move, which was given final approval by Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar, thus accords the Israel Gay Youth Organization (IGY) with the same status as other groups already approved for this program.

"There's a positive wind of change coming from the Education Ministry, and we are planning ways to integrate students into our activities," said IGY chief executive officer Avner Dafni.

The community outreach program, known as mehuyavut ishit ("personal commitment"), offers 10th-grade students the opportunity to volunteer 60 hours of their free time every school year. According to Education Ministry figures, 90 percent of high schools have adopted the program.

Students customarily choose to volunteer their time with youth movements, Magen David Adom rescue service, special needs groups and others. IGY focuses particularly on informal educational initiatives in the afternoon hours.

The organization, which operates 15 branches around the country, provides support to youths who define themselves as homosexual, bisexual or transgender, as well as youngsters grappling with issues related to their sexual preference.

"We are now formulating plans to advance the activities of the organization [IGY] so that it will stretch across all of the population sectors," said Hanna Schwartz, an official at the Education Ministry.

Dafni said the ministry's recognition of IGY will pave the way for the group's increased involvement in more school-level initiatives, such as dispatching "ambassadors" who will share their personal stories.

In 2007, then-education minister Yuli Tamir recognized IGY for the purposes of extending ministry funds to subsidize the group's activities. Sa'ar's recent decision represents a significant step forward, by granting the group the same status enjoyed by other youth organizations.

Last year, IGY received some NIS 70,000 from the Education Ministry. Dafni said that number could increase as ministry officials work to widen the level of support.

Earlier this year, state schools received a special memorandum prepared by the Education Ministry's "psychological-advisory service" entitled "Tolerance Toward the Other."

"We live in a diverse society made up of various morals, religious beliefs, perspectives, cultures and sexual preferences," the document read. "The education system's task is to encourage all citizens to develop a willingness, openness and tolerance in accepting those who are different than they."

"Homosexuality is thought of today, in the 21st century, as an alternative and accepted lifestyle that does not require change or treatment," it continued. "Mental health professionals, after years of research in the field, established that this behavior cannot be characterized as deviant or pathological."

The Education Ministry views changing the status of LGBT groups "as an important and vital process," the memo stated.