Tel Aviv, according to a 2012 survey by American Airlines and the website GayCities.com, is the most gay-friendly travel destination in the world. And in a Hague Center for Strategic Studies poll from last January, the Israel Defense Forces was tapped as the world’s most inclusive army when it comes to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender members serving in the armed forces.
That message — about the gains made by Israel’s LGBTQ community — came to Westchester last month as some two dozen people braved a chilly night to learn more about that community at a special briefing featuring leaders of The Aguda, the Israel National LGBTQ Task Force.
The fact that the program was hosted at the Westchester Jewish Center, a Conservative congregation in Mamaroneck, was unremarkable, said organizers, given the openness of the synagogue community.
“If something is Jewish or Israel oriented and educational for adults, and eye opening or new for people, that works,” said Heather Taffet Gold, co-chair of the synagogue’s adult education committee. “We have to make people’s boundaries wider. Fairness and justice are important for Jews worldwide and for us.”
Linda Karell, chair of the WJC Israel committee, agreed. “People here are very willing to be educated,” she said, noting that WJC’s mission statement explicitly states that the congregation aims to “foster a sense of belonging and warmly welcome all Jews” including “singles, families, members from an interfaith background and Jews of any sexual orientation.”
The evening was co-sponsored by the synagogue’s Israel and adult education committees, as well as A Wider Bridge, a nonprofit pro-Israel organization that connects Israelis to LGBTQ North Americans and allies.
The event was initially brought to WJC’s attention by member Bina Raskin, director of Mosaic of Westchester, a nonprofit, countywide initiative that works to promote greater knowledge of LGBTQ Jewish resources. Raskin had traveled to Israel on a mission sponsored by A Wider Bridge earlier this year to meet artists, activists and media professionals in the Israeli LGBTQ community.
During the hour-plus session, the speakers, Shai Doitsh, chair of The Aguda, and Anat Nir, a board member, tackled such topics as the history of the LGBT community in Israel; the LGBTQ community’s legal rights; social services for at-risk youth including a shelter for LGQBT for youth who have run away from home; and how the community has successfully achieved its goals in the courts, including the right to serve in the Israel Defense Forces.
“The story of The Aguda is the story of the nation,” said Doitsh. “We’re the only minority that has had success in Israel. We did it in the Israeli way, and now the world is copying our systems.”
He acknowledged the challenges: “Israel is a very tribal, masculine society and our community challenges the Israel values, the Jewish values,” but said the community has figured out how to use the courts to establish equal practices, if not equal laws.
“The law is discriminatory, but the practice is equal,” Doitsh said.
Despite the undeniable successes and progress, added Anat Nir, “We want to close the gap between our legal status and civic society.”
The event attracted those beyond the LGBTQ community, and the synagogue’s own members.
“The Jewish homeland can be supportive of the [LGBTQ] community and we can learn,” said Emily Herzfeld, a member of the Orthodox Fleetwood synagogue in Mt. Vernon, who came with her teenage son.
Expanding the audience for this information was important, said Diane Werner, co-founder of Mosaic of Westchester.
“At least half the audience was not gay,” she said. “We’re about bringing LGBT issues to the entire community. … This is a part of Israel that people don’t understand.”
As Joseph Cunin, New York area program manager for A Wider Bridge said, “We’re really going to be talking to people who don’t know about LGBTQ life. It’s a great way to reach beyond our core audience. This is also a way to show life in Israel in all its complexity.”