Jewish Federation of Greater Dallas planning a mission to Israel specifically for LGBT Jews

Tthe Western Wall in Jerusalem, Judaism’s holiest sites, is one of the stops on the itinerary for the Jewish Federal of Greater Dallas’ LGBT mission to Israel next spring.

The Jewish Federation of Greater Dallas has announced a mission to Israel for the gay and lesbian community. The group will travel next May 3-13.

Gary Weinstein, the federation’s executive director, said that the trip is “an opportunity to recognize the role that gay and lesbian Dallas plays in the Jewish community.”

Weinstein describes a mission as a trip for Jews “to introduce and connect to Jewish heritage and culture.” Federation missions often are organized for affinity groups to increase attendance, he said.

Those trips have included trips for women, for a variety of professions and for other interests.

The LGBT community is “a group not brought together yet,” Weinstein said. “The federation wants, as policy, to recognize our meaningful, common goals in the Dallas and Jewish community. The Jewish community needs and wants the gay community.”

He further explains that a mission is not a campaign seeking converts. “We respect other cultures,” he says, emphasizing deference to Muslim culture. He indicates that conversion under any sort of coercion would not be recognized in Judaism anyway.

Instead, the mission is designed to bring Jews in the LGBT community closer to their religion, heritage and culture. But Weinstein acknowledges that many of those participating will bring their non-Jewish partners, whom, he says, are quite welcome.

The idea for the mission began with two of its organizers, Jay Oppenheimer and Bruce Chemel. On an earlier federation tour of Israel arranged for Dallas business leaders, Oppenheimer and Chemel suggested to Weinstein a trip for the LGBT Jewish community.

Weinstein says the federation immediately embraced the idea.

Pam Gerber has been recruited as a third LGBT community organizer. She said she hopes to inspire others to join the mission, whether or not they are religious.

“I’m not at all religious,” Gerber insists. “I have a Jewish sense of humor, and I connect with Jewish culture. This time I’ll be traveling with a group of people I have more in common with.”

“There’s an incredible, genuine sense of connection and belonging,” Gerber says, describing her feeling after a previous trip to Israel. “Similar to being gay and going to the Castro. And I love that the federation is reaching out and saying, “‘You have a place. We want you to connect.'”

Barbara Rosenberg, vice president of Dallas’ LGBT group, Beth El Binah, says she is excited about the mission, which will be her first trip to Israel. She says that the federation is partnering well with the predominantly LGBT congregation, noting that Weinstein addressed the group at Friday night services last week.

Weinstein says that gay and lesbian members of other congregations will join the mission as well, including Don Croll, the openly gay cantor of Temple Shalom in north Dallas, along with his partner Jan Gartenberg.

Regarding the recent war between Israel and Hezbollah and the current tenuous peace, Gerber says she is unconcerned about personal safety.

“There’s no good time to go and it’s always a good time to go,” she says. “When is it not dangerous? But there’s lots of security.”

That includes security for an openly gay group traveling in the country. Protesters at gay events are usually not allowed to remain to harass the group.

Pam Gerber says that going to Israel with a group of other LGBT Jews gives her “an incredible, genuine sense of connection and belonging.” She is one of three community leaders helping organize the LGBT mission to Israel next spring.

While much of the Orthodox community does not welcome the LGBT community, Israel has some of the most progressive laws and protections for its gay citizens.

In 1992, the Knesset amended the Equal Workplace Opportunities Law to include discrimination based on sexual orientation. The following year, within months of the United States adopting “Don’t ask, don’t tell,” the Israeli military eliminated a deferment available to gays and lesbians.

Several years later, the partner of a gay general sued for survivor’s pension benefits. His court victory opened those rights to all surviving partners.

When an El Al flight attendant sued for airline tickets for his partner that were granted to heterosexual spouses, the Supreme Court issued a sweeping ruling that ended most discrimination against gays and lesbians in Israeli law.

Currently, the Israeli government is considering recognizing civil unions.

The LGBT mission next May will include both religious and secular activities. The group will visit the Western Wall, the most sacred site in Judaism and the only exposed portion of the first and second temples in Jerusalem, dating back to King Solomon in 953 B.C. The rest of the complex remains buried under the Temple Mount housing the Dome of the Rock and the Al Aqsa Mosque.

Also in Jerusalem, the group will visit the Israel Museum, which contains the Dead Sea scrolls as well as a massive art collection and a museum of archaeology and Jewish history. They hope to meet with Uzi Even, the first openly gay member of the Knesset.

And no trip to the city is ever complete without a visit to Yad Vashem, the vast Holocaust memorial.

For non-Jewish partners, a walking tour of the Christian Quarter in the walled Old City is planned. The Via Dolorosa, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and the site where Jesus and the apostles shared the last supper are highlights.

In Tel Aviv, the center of Israel’s LGBT community and nightlife, the group will meet with gay groups and officials. Agudah, a Hebrew acronym for the Society for the Protection of Personal Rights, is the only national gay rights organization in the Middle East.

Michal Eden, who was elected to Tel Aviv’s city council in 1998, became the country’s first openly gay official. Soon after coming to office, Eden visited Dallas to address Oak Lawn-based Congregation Beth El Binah.

A new LGBT community center under construction in Tel Aviv received almost a million dollars in funding from the city government. Israel’s LGBT community prides itself in being at the forefront of the peace movement, and the current meeting place has consistently been one where LGBT Jews, Palestinians, Bedouins, Christians and Israeli Arabs are all welcome and meet together peacefully.

Kikar Rabin, the large public square outside Tel Aviv’s city hall, is Israel’s own grassy knoll. The spot where Prime Minister Rabin was assassinated has become one of the country’s most visited sites.

While the itinerary for the mission has not been completed, plans include day trips to Haifa, Akko, the Golan Heights, Masada and possibly Tzfat, home of a thriving artist’s colony and the birthplace of Kabala, Jewish mysticism popularized by Madonna.

The group will travel to Mate Asher, a region along the Mediterranean coast that borders Lebanon and has a sister city relationship with the Dallas federation. The area includes Kibbutz Lochamei HaGetaot, formed by Holocaust survivors, and home to the Ghetto Fighters Museum, dedicated to the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising during World War II.

A swim in the Dead Sea and sun bathing on the Mediterranean beach in Tel Aviv will round out the mission.

While the recent war remains as controversial among Israelis as it was around the world, Weinstein encourages the LGBT people to visit Israel and decide for themselves.

“This will be an opportunity to see firsthand the damage from 4,000 Katyusha rockets and then make your own conclusions,” Weinstein says. “Israeli Arabs and Jews were taken to bunkers and 1,400 had to be treated” for injuries.

For more information on the mission, contact Gary Weinstein. 214-615-5223.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition, September 15, 2006.