The true value of Birthright Israel


Sitting in a circle in coastal northern Israel, listening to a group of 46 American and Israeli Jews share their coming-out stories — stories of anxiety and relief, shame and pride, heartbreak and celebration — I realized that this trip was going to be different. 

It was my seventh time staffing a Birthright Israel trip, and this was a group of lesbian, gay, transgender, bisexual, queer and ally (LGBTQA) young adults, supported and organized by The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles’ L.A. Way Birthright Israel Experience initiative and in partnership with JQ International, an organization dedicated to creating opportunities and visibility for LGBTQA Jews in Los Angeles.

I had agreed to staff this particular trip because I view myself as an ally to the LGBTQ community. I believed I would learn something new by seeing Israel through an LGBTQ lens, and I wanted to support a group of people who, I imagined, hadn’t always felt they’d had a seat at the proverbial Jewish table.

We started the trip like any other, with the craziness of reviewing Birthright Israel rules and jamming in dozens of site visits per day. Save for the fact that we didn’t divide rooms by gender, and we allowed more flexible and sensitive rooming guidelines, I didn’t initially think there was anything different about this trip. I assumed that just like other trips, at the end of 10 days, the participants would say their tearful goodbyes; some of their lives would be changed and many would resume as normal; and most of them would save a warm place for Israel in their hearts.

But when we visited Yad Vashem, I began to understand how special this group was. As we toured the facility, we became acutely aware that the majority of our group members would have been doubly persecuted during the Holocaust. In fact, as members of the LGBTQ community they would have been marginalized, vilified, brutalized and murdered even before the Jews. In Hitler’s world, and that of the Nazi fascists, they would have been the first to go. Also, this group was all too aware of what murder, suicide and violence look like today. More than any other group I’ve staffed, this group could relate to being hated simply because of who they are.

That evening, we decided to welcome Shabbat at the Western Wall. As we headed to the main pavilion, I began to worry that maybe they wouldn’t like this place. That regardless of the energy around the Western Wall, perhaps the politics surrounding it, the severe gender divides — women right, men left — would be too much of a shock and would jar them out of the utopia of egalitarianism we had created on our trip. I wanted to protect my participants, possibly to help them maintain the generous and inclusive image of the Israel they had experienced thus far. I didn’t want them to think that they might not have a place at every table in the global Jewish community; I wanted this trip to show them something beautiful that they never could have imagined. We had strived to create a haven of inclusion — would it all go to waste once we stood before one of the most significant sites for the Jewish people?

As we approached, I saw a huge group of soldiers singing Shabbat songs together on the plaza — men and women, all in uniform. I wish we could do that, too, I thought to myself. 

At that moment, the ring of soldiers opened up to welcome us. We flooded into the circle, joining hands with dozens of young Israelis, weaving into their group. In an instant, we formed a circle of more than a hundred young people, holding hands, singing songs, dancing and jumping, and shouting for joy in front of the Western Wall. From all corners of the world, all religious backgrounds, all sexual orientations and gender identities, we were living the dream of the Jewish people. It was truly a holy Shabbat experience.

More than any other trip I have staffed, this group understood the dichotomies of victimhood and victory, persecution and celebration, sorrow and joy, shame and pride that have so long shaped and defined the Jewish people. The collective Jewish narrative mirrored so many of their personal narratives, and to experience that realization with them has become one of the great privileges of my life.

Returning from our miraculous 10 days together, I have realized that the true value of Birthright Israel is to help young Jews from around the world and from all different backgrounds connect their stories to the Jewish story. It is an opportunity for them to sit at a Shabbat dinner table and be welcomed for exactly who they are — often for the first time in their lives. It is a moment of discovery — of the self and of community — of joining hands with their brothers and sisters from around the world, and of connecting to the shared pain and joy of our people.


Annie Lascoe is West Coast regional director for Masa Israel Journey, an organization that connects young adults with study, internship and volunteer opportunities in Israel.

Calendar Girls Picks and Clicks Aug. 30-Sept. 5: Painting, a benefit, jazz, flies


SAT | AUGUST 30

(ART)

East-West issues are the focus of Sundaram Tagore Gallery’s newest exhibition, “Dimensions of Color,” which showcases the talents of artists representing Korea, Japan, India and Uzbekistan, as well as Israeli-born artist Nathan Slate Joseph. Joseph treats squares of galvanized steel found in Asian urban centers with pigments and solders them together, creating a patchwork design that speaks to the interplay between man and the forces of nature. Tue.-Sat. 10 a.m.-7 p.m., Sun. 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Through Oct. 5. Free. Sundaram Tagore Gallery, 9606 S. Santa Monica Blvd., Beverly Hills. (310) 278-4520. ” border = 0 vspace = ‘8’ hspace = ‘8’ align = ‘left’>sponsoring the fifth annual benefit dinner for Nefesh B’Nefesh, which eases the aliyah process by providing financial support, employment resources and social guidance for Jews from around the world who decide to make Israel their home. The fundraiser will include a presentation by L.A. Consul General of Israel Jacob Dayan and entertainment by Cantor Mike Stein of Temple Aliyah. Sun. 6:30 p.m. $100 donation (includes dinner and program). Chabad of the Valley, 18181 Burbank Blvd., Tarzana. (818) 349-2581. ” target=”_blank”>http://www.fordtheatres.org. ” title=”hits the L.A. stage on Sept. 7″>hits the L.A. stage on Sept. 7, the American Film Institute, in partnership with the Los Angeles Opera, will screen David Cronenberg’s 1986 big-budget reboot of the 1958 sci-fi/horror classic. Just to recap: Seth Brundle, played by Jeff Goldblum, is a brilliant research scientist who unknowingly shares a ride in his teleportation pod with a common housefly. Their merged DNA initiates a graphic — and gross — metamorphosis that ultimately dooms Brundle’s love affair with journalist Veronica Quaife (Geena Davis). A question-and-answer session with Cronenberg and Howard Shore, who scored the film and composed the music for the opera, will precede the screening. Wed. 8 p.m. $12. 6360 W. Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles. (323) 856-7600. ” border = 0 vspace = ‘8’ hspace = ‘8’ align = ‘left’>leaving behind a 6-year-old boy. On a quest to find the adorable boy’s mother — nicknamed Noodle for his adept noodle-sucking ability — the twice-widowed Miri discovers more than she anticipated. Full of biting Israeli humor, endearingly flawed characters and superb acting, the film garnered nine Israeli Film Academy nominations, including best film and best actress. Sinai Temple will be screening it at their program, “Lights, Camera, Israel!” followed by a discussion. Thu. 7 p.m. Free. Sinai Temple, 10400 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. R.S.V.P (310) 481-3243 or rsvp@sinaitemple.org.

(SISTERHOOD LUNCHEON)

Gather all ye women for an enlightening afternoon with a fascinating female. Susanne Reyto, who survived two of history’s most harrowing periods — Nazi occupation and communism — and lived to write about it, will share what she’s learned about survival, gratitude and liberty. Her book, “Pursuit of Freedom: A True Story of the Enduring Power of Hope and Dreams,” will spark the conversational content of today’s luncheon, a program that will hopefully leave you inspired and encouraged. Thu. Noon-2 p.m. $20-$25. Valley Beth Shalom, 15739 Ventura Blvd., Encino. (818) 788-6000. ” border = 0 vspace = ‘8’ hspace = ‘8’ align = ‘left’>fascinating aerial movements for their fourth wedding anniversary. While dancing is the couple’s passion, their love for each other will also be on display with a real recommitment ceremony performed on stage as part of the show. Pairing with this dynamic duo, the Baker and Tarpaga Dance Project, a Los Angeles-based contemporary dance company that draws influence from West African and post-modern dance, will illustrate the tragic story of the assassination of Burkinabe journalist Norbert Zongo. The two groups join in the Ford Amphitheater’s “Sans Detour,” a show for anyone who appreciates dance, passion, love and creativity all rolled into one. Fri. 8:30 p.m. $5 (students), $25 (general). Ford Amphitheatre, 2580 Cahuenga Blvd. East, Hollywood. (323) 461-3673. ” target=”_blank”>http://www.hollywoodbowl.com.

(OPERETTA)

Kanye West sings: “That, that don’t kill me can only make me stronger.” He clearly shares a similar life view with Jewish singer-songwriter Charlie Lustman, who returns to the stage with an autobiographical pop music operetta, “Made Me Nuclear.” Lustman, a native Angeleno, uses music and humor to explain the turmoil he suffered while he fought cancer. Fri. 8 p.m. Also, Sat. at 8 p.m. Through Oct. 11. $25. Santa Monica Playhouse, The Main Stage, 1211 Fourth St., Santa Monica. (866) 468-3399. ” target=”_blank”>http://www.tebh.org.

(THEATER)

If we didn’t think Seth Menachem — the former Jewish Journal singles columnist who proposed marriage to his girlfriend in the paper — was a little crazy then, we definitely do now. Or at least he plays a mighty convincing schizophrenic in the world premiere of “Isaac and Ishmael,” a new play whose biblical allusion is not unintentional. It tells the story of two opposite-minded brothers — one a wealthy playboy, the other a schizophrenic patient in a psych ward — who are forced to reunite after the death of their father. From there, they struggle to reconnect after they spent years living worlds apart. Fri. 8 p.m. $15-$18. Through Sept. 21. The Other Space at Santa Monica Playhouse, 1211 Fourth St., Santa Monica. (323) 960-7788. ” target=”_blank”>http://www.skirball.org.

— Jina Davidovich helped with this article