TEL AVIV, Aug. 23 (JTA) — It was a solidarity mission with a difference. As part of a pioneering American initiative aimed at forging links between gay and lesbian Jews in America and their Israeli contemporaries, a group recently made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land both to visit the traditional litany of tourist attractions and to take in sites specifically significant to gays and lesbians. Dubbed “Pride in Israel,” the Aug. 15-21 mission brought together some 50 participants aged 23 to 65 from across the United States under the auspices of the United Jewish Communities, which represents 155 North American Jewish federations and 400 independent communities. “There was a sense of untapped opportunity to engage more at a local level with the gay and lesbian community,” said mission chair Stuart Kurlander, 42, a Washington lawyer. “This was an opportunity to visit Israel and learn about its history, as well as to understand the status of gays and lesbians and the challenges they face here.” Based in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv with excursions around the country, the mission offered sessions with Israeli politicians as well as civil rights activists, educators and others in the lesbian and gay community. In addition to bolstering participants’ Jewish identities, the mission aimed to give participants a greater understanding of the full spectrum of gay and lesbian life in the Jewish homeland, as well as insight into the political situation in the Middle East. Participants experienced first-hand one of the most momentous political events in Israel’s history as it evacuated Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip during the group’s trip. Their Jerusalem hotel, the Hyatt Regency, also was serving as a temporary home for some 100 settler families who had been bused there from the freshly evacuated settlement of Neveh Dekalim. “Disengagement was the only topic on anyone’s minds,” Kurlander said. “I can’t help sympathizing with the trauma of having to leave your homes.” Despite the difficult situation, “there was never any suggestion we wouldn’t come,” he added. “We’re here at a historic time.” Kurlander has worked extensively to build ties with Israeli gays and lesbians, including founding American Friends of the Agudah, a group that educates Americans on the role of Israel’s largest and most prominent gay and lesbian organization. Activists have worked to ensure that same-sex couples in Israel have many of the same rights awarded to married couples. Gays are fully included in Israel’s military. “Compared to the U.S.,” gays and lesbians “have greater rights in Israel,” Kurlander noted. “But there is still a need to educate the wider community that gays and lesbians exist and should be shown tolerance.” In addition to standard tourist sites such as the Israel Museum and the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial, the group visited sites of particular gay and lesbian interest, including celebrating Shabbat at the Jerusalem Open House community center. “It was great,” said Noa Sattath, the Open House chair. “We were so happy to have the mission and had such an interesting exchange of views about what it means to be GLBT,” or gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender, “and Jewish. “A lot of GLBT Jews feel alienated from their own community, and missions like this give them a chance to reconnect to their Jewish identity.” Participants included members of the Reform and Conservative movements as well as modern Orthodox Jews. Rabbi Steven Greenberg, the first openly gay Orthodox rabbi and one of the founders of the Jerusalem Open House, served as rabbi-in-residence for the mission, There were meetings with political figures including Uzi Even — who as a Meretz representative in the previous Knesset was Israel’s first openly gay Knesset member — and briefings about Israeli programs such as Hoshen, a national educational and volunteer body, the Israeli Gay Youth Organization and other programs for gay youngsters. The group also addressed general social-welfare issues, visiting PACT in Hadera, a program designed to support Ethiopian immigrant children and their parents, and Givat Haviva, a retreat and conference center dedicated to Jewish-Arab coexistence. Organizers hope to build on the success of the trip, which was advertised in mailings to the federation community, as well as ads in the gay press. “We’re looking for those already involved to increase their commitment and to help reach out to other gays and lesbians to become members of the federation family,” Kurlander said.