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Birthright Connects American and Israeli LGBT Community rss

Posted on: February 1st, 2012

Many of Joey Kuhn’s friends had been on Birthright and had come back with rave reviews. They’d fallen for the country’s natural beauty, the chance to meet and bond with Israeli soldiers, and a thousand other details of the trip.

So why had Kuhn never been on Birthright? Kuhn, who is gay, was concerned about how his sexual orientation would be received. But despite his initial hesitation, he finally booked his El Al ticket and started packing his bags.

Marc Krohn and Sammy Dweck enjoy the view from atop a camel. Courtesy of Joey Kuhn

Marc Krohn and Sammy Dweck enjoy the view from atop a camel. Courtesy of Joey Kuhn

“I’m a little nervous about what the reaction will be,” Kuhn, who lives in Manhattan, said before the trip. “I’m not sure how accepting people are of the LGBT community. In any unfamiliar place, you never know how open you can be about your sexual identity.” From January 4th through the 15th, 40 Americans, including Kuhn who chaired the trip, participated in the first federation-supported LGBT Birthright bus, funded by UJA-Federation and the Jewish Community Center (JCC) in Manhattan, and organized in part by UJA-Federation’s Emerging Leaders & Philanthropists.

When he returned, it was clear that Kuhn’s initial anxieties had melted away. “The trip was so spectacular, it exceeded every expectation I had,” he says. “I never thought that I would want to live in the Middle East, but I could tell you that after going to Tel Aviv I would love to live in Tel Aviv.”

What transpired on his 10-day whirlwind trip that changed Kuhn’s mind? Part of it was the experiences that most Birthright participants have: sojourning in a Bedouin tent, floating in the Dead Sea, exploring Tel Aviv nightlife, and of course the emotional journey to Yad Vashem.

But one aspect of the trip that caught Kuhn off guard was the group dynamic that developed very early on. “I did not realize how close all of us would get on the trip,” he says. “I did not in a million years think I would meet so many people on the trip that I would want to be friends with for years and years and years after.”

Kuhn feels that a big part of the bonding came from the element of shared experience and identity between the participants. Many activities such as meeting the Israeli soldiers, who were also members of the LGBT community; visiting the Western Wall; and learning about Israel’s history, both ancient and modern, brought up complex questions about the participants’ identities.

A Question of Identity

Danna Rosenthal and Joey Kuhn. Courtesy of Joey Kuhn

Danna Rosenthal and Joey Kuhn. Courtesy of Joey Kuhn

Jodie Katz, the education coordinator at IsraelExperts, one of Taglit Birthright’s trip providers who helped plan the itinerary, echoed Kuhn’s sentiment about the importance of common ground to the participants’ experience. “A lot of questions come up that have to do with your Jewish identity and your connection to Israel and all that, and I think when you can do it in a group of your peers, it makes the atmosphere more comfortable and more accepting for everyone,” she explains.

The trip provided many opportunities to learn and ask questions of members of Israel’s LGBT community. In addition to asking the soldiers about their experiences serving as openly gay men and women in the Israeli army, the group also met with Gal Uchovsky, the writer of the popular Israeli movie Yossi & Jagger, about two male Israeli soldiers who fall in love; and spoke to representatives from nonprofits such as Israel Gay Youth, and Tehila, a group for parents of members of the LGBT community.

They also heard from Rabbi Gail Diamond, who teaches at the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem, about her personal experience making aliyah with her partner and raising their two children. She talked about the benefits of gay life in Israel: same-sex partner immigration rights, access to fertility treatments, the ability to serve openly in the military, as well as some of the challenges, such as the controversies over women in the public sphere, and the difficulty of finding a school that will both provide her children with a religious education and an atmosphere that is accepting of the LGBT community.

When the group first entered the conference room at the Rimonim hotel where she was speaking, Diamond was concerned that the participants  would be jetlagged from their flight and exhausted from walking the Old City, but she found them energized and full of questions. “These groups that come are so important,” she says. “Israel really needs connections with the diversity of the American Jewish community.”

And conversely, the LGBT community in America can gain interesting insights from observing the differences and similarities on the ground in Israel. “The chance to see Israel, and see it through a queer lens with other people my age from the LGBT community, was beyond exciting,” Kuhn says. “After the repeal of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ and the passage of gay marriage this summer in New York City, it’s obvious that we are experiencing a sea change in acceptance of the LGBT community; I’m happy that the Jewish community is a part of that.”