JCF sponsors only Holy Land trip of its (queer) kind

The humbleness is noteworthy, in-and-of itself.

Maxine Epstein credits the idea to Al Baum. But Baum defers recognition to Shlomo Ravid. Meirav Yaron agrees with him, but says Peter "Pini" Altman was the first to pitch the brainstorm to Ravid, their former boss. Ravid resides in Israel now and was unable to be reached for his take, but Altman does jump a lot of the credit back to Baum for pushing the concept, and to his former boss for getting the green light.

Oy. So just who is responsible for the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation, its Gay and Lesbian Task Force, and the Israel Center sponsoring the "Journey of Pride" trips to the Holy Land for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Jews — the first community-subsidized, queer-themed trip in the nation?

"It's hazy," offers Altman, the former Israel Center project director and consultant who organized the first exchange in 1999, the subsequent hosting of Israeli gays and lesbians in San Francisco in October, and the most recent Journey of Pride in April.

And don't forget, notes Altman, this time the progressive Reform Congregation Sha'ar Zahav was "really excellent in terms of recruiting travelers."

So maybe the "who," specifically, doesn't matter so much.

Rephrased, the combined efforts of several organizers contributed to the trips' genesis: Baum, a JCF board member and gay philanthropist; Epstein, the JCF director for the Marin region as well as the gay and lesbian task force; Yaron, who implemented the queer tour when she was the Israel Center's Living Bridge program coordinator; and Ravid, who once headed the center (along with Altman, of course).

What's important, says Altman, who is gay as well as modest, is that the Living Bridge ideology — which aims to create lasting personal and professional relationships between affinity groups here and their counterparts in the Jewish state — was opened to include the LGBT community. Even more remarkable, he adds, is that this first-of-its-kind, twice over, reciprocal exchange between queer Bay Area and Israeli Jews exists at all and has been so successful.

According to Altman, after the first trip, the federation donated $10,000 to Israel's primary LGBT rights organization, the Agudah, to support programming for queer youth and those who are questioning their sexual identity. Statistics show they are at a much higher risk for getting kicked out of their homes or committing suicide than adolescents who are not struggling with those issues.

Baum established an endowment at the JCF, the Fund for Gay and Lesbian Causes in Israel, to continue support of the Agudah and became a significant donor himself. And federations in Boston and New York — both with newly established queer programming — have inquired about how to set up similar trips in the future. Next month the Jewish National Fund has plans to send its first LGBT mission in conjunction with Gay Pride in Tel Aviv, but as of press time, there was talk of a cancellation due to the intifada.

That the Journey of Pride is a hit is not fortuitous, Altman believes. For instance, the geographic mapping itself was adapted to better fit the specific needs of LGBT Jews.

Other groups, such as the early-childhood educators who recently returned from Israel, spend more time in the Galilee panhandle, doing exchanges with those from the JCF's sister region. "But," argues Altman, who designed both trips' itineraries, "queer people can't really go there because it's so conservative…You can't 'build bridges' when you can't be comfortable."

But one can feel at home in Tel Aviv, which has a thriving, visible community, complete with same-sex discotheques and bohemian cafes.

Enter the Agudah, based in the liberal city. The organization's cosmopolites accompanied the 13 Bay Area travelers for traditional Holy Land sightseeing in Jerusalem, the Galilee region and the Dead Sea, breaking bread and holding meetings on LGBT topics of interest throughout. The Bay Area visitors spent the final weekend of their 10-day trip with their individual Israeli hosts, matched by such factors as age, gender and hobbies.

Naturally, this past "Journey of Pride," members of the respective coastal cities bonded.

Since the farewell dinner, both Israelis and Bay Area folks updated their e-mail address books, and online exchanges began before the jet lag wore off. Baum has been bombarded with requests about how to earmark funds for LGBT Jews in Israel. And everyone wants to know, will there be another couple of years' gap before the next trip? Will the Israelis be hosted here in the interim?

Says Altman: "I believe it should be self-perpetuating," referring to the same level of enthusiasm and contributing forces that catalyzed the project from the beginning. "But I don't think it can be if it's only once every two years.

"The bridge's foundation has been constructed, but the building needs to be ongoing if it is to continue."