More than 200,000 people crowded the streets of Tel Aviv last Friday for one of the world’s most popular, successful, and colorful annual gay pride parades.
The people ranged from young to old, secular to religious, dovish to hawkish, every possible ethnicity, and the full range of sexual and gender fluidity.
Thousands of tourists came to Israel for the parade and the week of concerts, drag shows, and other public events leading up to it. While the tourists have already come and gone, there were also people from around the world at the parade who have decided to make Israel their home.
Among the information booths set up at Tel Aviv’s Meir Park, where the parade began, was one for the LGBT olim, a group of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered immigrants to Israel, and one for English speakers who live in Tel Aviv.
The booths were run by a cheerful bisexual woman from Edison, who is very proudly out of the closet and open about who she is to anyone she meets in the Jewish state. And yet, when speaking to NJJN, she asked that she remain anonymous, because she did not want her identity revealed to her former community in the Garden State.
Nearly five years since she left Edison for Israel, she remains concerned that if her sexual orientation were made public back home her parents might be shunned by their community. By contrast, in Israel she does not feel she has to hide anything at all.
“When I came to Israel, I became loud, active, and proud of who I am,” said the woman, whom we’ll refer to as Mindy. “I felt less of a stigma here than in my hometown in New Jersey, where I had to hide who I was. I found accepting people to be around. I am very active, open, and proud of who I am over here.”
That contrast may surprise anyone who perceives Israel as conservative, religious, and closed-minded. Indeed, there are communities dominated by ultra-Orthodox Jews where gay people are made to feel unwelcomed and uncomfortable, but New Jersey has those neighborhoods as well.
For Mindy, and many other new immigrants making aliyah, which literally means “going up,” moving from the United States to Israel has led to an increase in their openness about their orientation. Although living in Israel also presents plenty of challenges, their immigration has resulted in them also ascending in their pride.
“I know people in New Jersey who left Orthodox communities there because they felt harassed,” Mindy said. “I consider Israel more open, more accepting, more willing to open its eyes for change, and even more enlightened than the U.S.”
Mindy attended an all-girls school in New Jersey, where she had a very close female friend. Over the years, they realized they had feelings for each other. After they broke up a few years later, Mindy explored her feelings for the opposite gender, and she realized she had feelings for men as well.
She got married in 2012 to a man she describes as “very accepting, very feminine, and an amazing man who is as straight as they come.” They had a baby girl nine months ago.
While Mindy is religiously observant, her husband is not. They chose to live in a community in central Israel near their jobs that has a large Orthodox population. She wants to open a center for LGBT youth, which the municipality hasn’t allowed yet due to the sensitivities of the local population, but she has not given up hope.
“Being bisexual and religious doesn’t always go together hand in hand, and for some people, it’s difficult, but I make it work,” she said. “I keep my sexual views and Torah views very separate. Keeping mitzvot and Shabbat doesn’t affect who I like. Being LGBT is who I am. In the Torah it says nothing against me having feelings for someone of the same gender. We follow the Torah as best as we can. At shul, I still point out the cute one on my side of the mechitza. For me the two worlds are separate, and they’re happy that way.”
Not that Mindy thinks all is rosy in the Jewish state: She wishes there were gay weddings in Israel, a country where all marriages are controlled by the ultra-Orthodox chief rabbinate.
Same-sex marriages from other countries are recognized by the state, however, and same-sex couples are listed as married on identity cards.
“Compared to a lot of other countries, we are doing pretty good,” she said. “America accepts same-sex marriages, but it doesn’t mean they are really accepted. They have plenty of hardship and discrimination.”
Nineteen-year-old Gilad Falkenstein, who moved with his family from West Orange when he was 14, said he believes the day will soon come when gay marriage will be legal in Israel. Falkenstein came out at age 16, and he has been in a committed relationship for two years. His family lives in Efrat, a religious Zionist settlement just south of Jerusalem, and he said he was not aware of any other gay individuals who live there. But he does not see that as a challenge since he’s an IDF combat medic and only comes home for weekends.
“I have been lucky,” he said. “Coming out was very easy for me, because my family and friends accepted me. My officers in the army know, and it has never caused a problem. I have no difficulties. Thank God, I’m good.”
Regarding being religious and gay, Falkenstein said there is a very clear contradiction.
“The Torah forbids sleeping with men, but this is who I am, and I think God loves all of us, no matter with whom I am in a relationship.”
Asked what advice he would give to someone gay in New Jersey considering moving to Israel, he said, “Don’t be scared. This is a country that loves its people. There isn’t gay marriage but we can adopt children and the country still embraces all of its people.”
On the other hand, Zachary Cohen, who works at The Center in Manhattan, the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community center, said he would give different advice. Cohen was raised in Marlboro and then moved to Israel, where he met his Israeli husband. They married last year in New York after a wedding party in Israel.
Cohen, 30, lived in Israel for seven years, working and volunteering at LGBT community centers and youth centers in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. But the couple chose to settle and live permanently in New York.
“In Jerusalem LGBT life is difficult, while in Tel Aviv, it’s a delight. Just like in the U.S., in Texas it’s difficult, but in New York’s West Village it’s a delight,” he said. “If someone wants to make aliyah because they think Israel is the gay capital of the Middle East, I’d give them a reality check. But if they have more reasons for coming, that’s different. Their voice can be heard more in such a small country, where they can be a big fish in a small pond.”
The organization A Wider Bridge works to build support for Israel and its LGBT community among the LGBT community in North America. Its founder and executive director Arthur Slepian, who was born and raised in Brooklyn and now lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, led a mission to Israel for the pride parade.
The group came to the Knesset and met with gay Likud MK Amir Ohana and MK Yael German of the opposition Yesh Atid party, who is straight but a strong supporter of the LGBT community.
“We use the trip to give the trip’s participants a window into Israel’s diversity and to show them how LGBT people experience the country and the conflict,” Slepian said. “They get to see the way people in Tel Aviv support the gay pride parade. But I also tell them about my experience at the parade in Jerusalem in 2011 or, 12, when people threw balloons full of urine at us. I wasn’t hit by one, but the smell hit the street.”
Slepian said he is proud that Israel promotes LGBT equality as one of its strengths, but he wished the government did more to further the cause. He denies accusations that he is “pinkwashing,” essentially promoting Israel’s acceptance of the LGBT community in order to play down its oft-negative reputation with regard to the Palestinian issue.
“The LGBT community in Israel should be allowed to talk about their accomplishments and what they’ve overcome without it degenerating into the Middle East conflict.”