One month ago, I spoke with my madricha (leader) on the phone, before I embarked on Canada Israel Experience’s first LGBTQ Birthright Israel trip in June.
I told her that I did not want to go to Israel. I felt confused about how I, a non-binary queer Jewish person, could connect to a contested land that elicits polarizing responses from the diverse individuals in my life.
I viewed my LGBTQ and Jewish identities as mutually exclusive and had convinced myself that going on Birthright was against my values. My madricha listened to my concerns and assured me that I would be able to make the trip whatever I wanted it to be.
I dwelled on her words over the weeks leading up to my departure and ultimately decided to leave my worries in Toronto and jump right into a new experience.
The Canada Israel Experience team, along with our trip leaders, Jaclyn Finestone and Gaston Lopez Ficher, and the group educator, Anat Groisman, worked incredibly hard to plan and implement programs that fostered deep connections between the participants. They encouraged us to be open to learning. Everyone tried to overcome their individual biases and put aside any assumptions they had about others. Under this framework of respect and inclusion, I felt more supported and cared for than ever before.
This trip went above and beyond my expectations by providing opportunities for us to critically engage with our surroundings and reflect on what we saw, touched, felt, tasted and smelled. I was able to gain a deeper understanding of the intersections between my queer, trans and Jewish identities. Our group was privileged to hear the stories of brilliant and strong LGBTQ people throughout Israel. I was particularly moved by the experiences of a queer woman in Hanaton, a kibbutz in northern Israel, who overcame numerous barriers to stand before our group as a proud Jewish lesbian mother of two. I was moved by the power of young LGBTQ people in Be’er Sheva, who taught us about community building, art and activism. Their words and actions helped re-ignite my passion for engaging in community-level change.
These experiences were intensified by our participation in the Pride Parade in Tel Aviv. In preparation for Pride, our group sat in the only LGBTQ bar in Be’er Sheva and crafted our own signs to carry at the parade. In that moment, I felt the powerful and progressive energies of my new friends, which set the tone for what became the most magical Pride celebration I have ever experienced. I marched, I danced, I laughed, I sang and I cried. I met two 16-year-old Israeli transgender teens who talked to me about what it is like for them to identify as transgender in Israel. I am privileged to have met such fearless young people.
Aside from the organized activities, most of my pivotal learning moments occurred through my interactions with others. I walked hand-in-hand through Tel Aviv with a friend, while talking about our experience navigating gender identity and trans identities. I also shared the most delicious lunch at a local Iraqi restaurant in Jerusalem with some friends, and will never forget the combination of delectable flavours and pure bliss that I experienced in that moment. I am grateful for the feelings of pain and anguish that our tour of Mount Herzl cemetery elicited in me, and the deep appreciation I gained for the sacrifices made by the LGBTQ soldiers who accompanied us on our trip.
Before arriving in Israel, I was warned that I might not be able to touch the Western Wall because of my lack of conformity to binary gender norms. But Groisman proudly led our LGBTQ group to an egalitarian section of the wall and I cried as I proudly watched my transgender and gender non-conforming friends connecting with something that they would not have been able to access a few years ago.
It is difficult to explain the ways in which I have been impacted by this trip. This was the first step of my journey to explore how my Jewishness, queerness and passion for activism can intertwine. I left Birthright Israel feeling cared for and respected. I feel inspired to pass these feelings on to others through practicing compassion, love and unconditional positive regard.
Ellis Furman was as participant on Canada Israel Experience’s first LGBTQ Birthright Israel trip in June.