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.