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With Homosexual Israel Mission, Ujc Seeks Bridge to Lesbians, Gays

April 7, 2005
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In many ways, the UJC Pride in Israel Mission, scheduled for mid-August, will be a standard United Jewish Communities trip to Israel. The group will look at Israeli archeology, sample Israeli wine, tour Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, celebrate Shabbat and be briefed on the political situation.

It will learn about “the broad set of services being provided overseas using federation dollars,” said Stuart Kurlander of Washington, the mission’s national chairman, who holds a battery of positions in the UJC and the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington.

But like other interest groups, it also will learn about areas of particular importance to its members. In this case, that’s the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered, or LGBT, community in Israel.

After the mission travelers will be able to extend their stays in Israel. One recommended activity is the 10-day Jerusalem World Pride 2005 festival, which will culminate in a march through the capital.

“It’s groundbreaking,” Kurland said of the mission. “It has the potential to lead to an increased involvement by Jewish members of the LGBT community. It’s really about the engagement of this part of our community with all that we do within our federation, with establishing a bond and a shared sense of purpose.”

Organizers of the LGBT mission, the first UJC has sponsored, hope to nurture connections between North American and Israeli gays and lesbians, and to strengthen participants’ bonds to each other and to the federation system.

“It’s long been recognized that there are a number of LGBT Jews living in our communities,” Kurland said. “The interest is in engaging them as we would engage single or young couples. It’s just another constituency of our federation.”

Registration for the mission has just begun, so organizers don’t know how many people to expect. They do know that the rabbi-in-residence will be Steve Greenberg, the gay Orthodox rabbi who appeared in the documentary “Trembling Before G-d.”

Another participant will be U.S. Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.).

Frank, who is Jewish and openly gay, said he has been to Israel many times and has met often with gay and lesbian Israelis.

“I’ve also worked quietly with the Israeli government” on gay and lesbian issues, he said.

“This is something the left doesn’t appreciate: The Israeli government is giving asylum to gay Palestinians,” Frank said. “These are people who would be killed by the Palestinians just for being gay. They’re allowed to live in Israel.”

Frank doesn’t think American Jews will criticize the mission.

“There’s some concern over Pride Day in Jerusalem, but I think the concern is misguided,” he said. But he added, “I do think it’s important that people should be respectful. I’m not for public nudity in any gay pride parade.”

Frank thinks Israelis have done a better job in some ways than Americans in integrating gays and lesbians into the larger culture.

“The Israel Defense Force has openly gay and lesbian members, and it hasn’t lost any of its fighting ability. You can hardly argue that being gay or lesbian makes the IDF an unfit force,” he said.

Greenberg thinks the mission gives gays and lesbians an opportunity to reconnect to a tradition many feel has rejected them, but where they still yearn to feel connected.

“This is an opportunity for people who still find themselves spiritual or faithful in some way, or who remember when they were, or who feel a connection to Israel or to Jewishness in general, to do what pilgrims do — to go to Israel for personal renewal and for a sense of reconnection to the land of Israel, to the people of Israel, and, for many of us who will be on this mission, to the God of Israel,” he said.

“We’re simply not going to be excluded any more. We’re going to insist that we have a place at the table,” he continued. “This is one of the ways we’re going to do that.”

Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum of Congregation Beth Simchat Torah, New York City’s gay and lesbian shul, is a national co-chairwoman of Jerusalem World Pride 2005.

The festival includes interfaith seminars and workshops. It’s sponsored in Israel by the Jerusalem Open House, an organization that welcomes Jewish, Christian and Muslim gay men and lesbians.

Yale University and the Hebrew University in Jerusalem are sponsoring a two-day academic conference during the festival on issues of homosexuality and religion.

Jerusalem has hosted gay pride parades for three years, but this is the first to be sponsored by an international organization, Interpride.

“It’s focusing not on the politics of Israel, but on bringing to Israel the international voices of many types of LGBT people, including people of faith from all different religions,” Kleinbaum said.

Opposition to the festival has made odd bedfellows of groups that rarely make common cause. Many media outlets carried photographs from a news conference last week where high-ranking Jewish, Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Protestant and Muslim clerics met to denounce plans for World Pride.

“They are creating a deep and terrible sorrow that is unbearable,” The New York Times quoted Shlomo Amar, Israel’s Sephardic chief rabbi, as saying.

Kleinbaum noted the irony.

“I think we should be given the Nobel Peace Prize for getting those people in a room together, agreeing on something,” she said. “We want to show the world a very different kind of religion, not the kind that’s based on hatred. We want to show a religion’s face of love, of tolerance and of the value of diversity.”

Reaction to the mission and the festival have been muted in North America.

“We have serious concerns and we are deciding how we will be reacting,” said a spokesman for the Orthodox Union’s executive vice president, Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb.

Rabbi Daniel Lapin of Toward Tradition, a conservative political group headquartered in Washington state, reacted strongly.

“My first reaction was that it was deja vu,” Lapin said. “This was the Nazis marching in Skokie.”

He was talking about an incident in the late 1970s when the American Nazi Party marched through an Illinois city, upsetting the many Holocaust survivors who lived there and causing a firestorm of protest.

“I’m not saying that the homosexuals are Nazis,” Lapin continued. “I am saying that there is such a thing as deliberate provocation. To hold the march in Jerusalem, which is certainly the center of biblical civilization – and this is the same Bible that tells us that homosexuality is immoral — is a provocation.”

He was less angered by the UJC mission, but still did not approve of it.

“It might be appealing, in a childish sort of way,” he said, “but to undermine whatever precarious stability and unity remains in Israel’s population seems to be an act of childish self-indulgence rather than an act of concern for the Jewish people.”

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