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July 21, 2017 12:05 pm

LGBTQ Birthright Israel Trip Offers Raw Emotion and Self-Discovery

avatar by Eliana Rudee / JNS.org


A Tel Aviv gay pride parade. Photo: US Embassy in Tel Aviv.

JNS.org – “It’s a deconstructed Star of David,” said Amy Osaiason, showing off the tattoo that she and two other LGBTQ Birthright Israel participants had just gotten in Tel Aviv’s Shuk HaCarmel market.

“It’s symbolic of this trip to Israel, and it points to my other tattoo — the chai on my wrist that I got as a result of my first trip to Israel.”

Bex Zank, another participant on the LGBTQ Birthright trip, then showed off her tattoo — the number “95,” which represented both the year that Zank was born, and the group’s Birthright bus number.

Zank also recounted the events of the previous night, which some trip participants called the most meaningful night of their lives, or the first time that they could be exactly who they are. That night, the group sat around a campfire, sharing their coming-out stories. Bex came out as non-binary — i.e., not fully identifying as male or female.

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As Zank began to cry, a group of new friends linked arms and hugged each other in support.

“I’ve cried more this week than I’ve ever cried in my life,” Zank said.

Since 2000, Birthright Israel has provided free 10-day educational and cultural trips to the Jewish state for more than 500,000 Jews aged 18-26. Niche Birthright trips like the LGBTQ trip ensure that all eligible participants feel that they have a place in the often transformative experience of discovering Israel.

The trip taken by Zank and Osaiason is particularly symbolic, coming on the heels of June’s antisemitic incident at the Chicago Dyke March, where three people were kicked out of the event because their gay pride flag featured the Star of David.

LGBTQ Birthright trips cover the usual Birthright Israel itinerary, including classic sites like the Western Wall, Masada, the Dead Sea and Tel Aviv. But participants also have LGBTQ-relevant experiences, such as visiting the Jerusalem Open House for Pride and Tolerance, or participating in Tel Aviv’s gay pride parade.

While trip participants mentioned challenges such as trans and non-binary individuals trying to choose between the men’s and women’s prayer areas at the Western Wall, they also spoke of intensely positive emotions and finding a sense of meaning. Osaiason, who used to visit the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, left a note in the Western Wall for a friend who survived the shooting attack that killed 49 people at the gay nightclub in 2016.

Many of the participants also felt an intense sense of community among their peers. For most people on the trip, it was the first time that they had met fellow LGBTQ Jews.

“I feel more connected to Judaism and Israel now,” said Osaiason, who dismissed anti-Israel boycotts and claims of “pinkwashing” — the idea that Israel promotes gay rights as a means of covering up alleged human rights abuses against the Palestinians — as “propaganda and nonsensical.” At the same time, other participants maintained that Israel has a long way to go on improving LGBTQ rights, and addressing the issue of homophobia in parts of the country outside of Tel Aviv.

Osaiason expressed the desire to bring home some of the traditions that she learned in Israel, such as lighting Shabbat candles, having a family Shabbat dinner and speaking Hebrew. She also wants to return to Israel for another visit.

“It was so raw and emotional,” Osaiason said. “Something about being in the desert with each other allowed us to be our true selves.”

Eliana Rudee is a fellow with the news and public policy group Haym Salomon Center. Her bylines have been featured in USA Today, New York Daily News, Forbes, and The Hill.

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