Jerusalem Open House a haven for Israels LGBT teenagers

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

For many gay and lesbian teens in Israel, that first climb up the stairs to Jerusalem’s Open House can be the longest trek of their lives.

But once they get there, most say they feel they’ve come home.

The third-story LGBT center overlooks Jerusalem’s famous Ben Yehuda Street. It’s light and cheery, with plush sofas and comfy chairs, kitchenette, even a room to study Torah. Or the Koran. One walk-in cloakroom has a handwritten sign posted on the door, which reads in Hebrew, “Please don’t step into the closet.”

But cozy decor aside, Jerusalem Open House provides something much more important: refuge for gay Jews and Arabs living in a culture that often rejects them. It’s the only center of its kind in the area.

The center’s official slogan is ahavei lo vulot (Hebrew for “love without borders”). With so much hate in the region, Open House supporters think it’s nice that somebody in the neighborhood still believes all you need is love.

Those supporters reach far and wide, including the Israel and overseas committee of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation, which has contributed substantial funds to the center for the last two years.

“We’re in the midst of a terrible crisis in Israel,” says Hagai El-Ad, 34, executive director of Jerusalem Open House. “So it’s easy to forget that there are gay teens growing up who need someone to talk to. We make it possible to be out in the Holy City.”

Clients who drop in to socialize or come for counseling span Israeli society, from the adamantly secular all the way to fervently religious movements, which expressly condemn homosexuality.

Gays and lesbians from all quarters, even the Arab West Bank, find their way to Jerusalem Open House, which prints its brochures and fliers in Hebrew, Arabic and English to cast as wide a net as possible.

Mali Tzaliach, 31, an administrator at the center, is one of its biggest fans. “The first thing is to let people know they are not alone,” she says. “Kids come here thinking, ‘There’s nobody else like me.’ I wish there was a place like this when I was young.”

Raised in an Orthodox home, Tzaliach suffered greatly as a young closeted lesbian. She went so far as to marry (a gay man, as it turned out) to hide her sexual orientation. When she finally came out some years later, she was surprised by the love and acceptance expressed by her family.

El-Ad has his own version of that rough journey. He too hid his homosexuality for years, even from himself. “I called it ‘the problem,'” he recalls. “I spent my teen years in the closet, terrified.”

While serving in the Israel Defense Forces, El-Ad felt something crack inside, as he began the slow process of self-acceptance. He went on to earn a master’s in astrophysics and lived in the United States for a year as a Harvard-Smithsonian fellow.

He could have forged a great career in science, but, as he says, “At the end of the day, my heart was into other things.” El-Ad has served as executive director for the past three years.

During his tenure, he’s seen many changes. For one, the 2002 Jerusalem Pride event, which he helped organize, brought thousands into the streets. It was the first such gay pride march in the city.

Such events have helped the not-for-profit center edge ever closer to the mainstream. Even Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert, a Likud Party stalwart and right-wing icon, paid a courtesy call in 2001.

According to El-Ad, much of the gay “perestroika” in Israel can be traced back to the tenure of the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who eliminated anti-gay strictures in the IDF in 1993. “Since the army is a powerful legitimizer,” says El-Ad, “it made a big difference.”

It hasn’t always been smooth sailing. Some time ago, vandals broke into Open House, trashing the place and torching the rainbow flag that still hangs off the balcony high above Ben Yehuda Street. And, reports El-Had, homophobia remains rampant in the region, within both Jewish and Arab circles.

But El-Had and his colleagues press on. In fact, next year Jerusalem will be the site of World Pride 2005, a much larger event than Jerusalem Pride. It will turn the city into center stage for global LGBT rights, which is itself a source of pride for El-Ad.

“We are,” he says, “on the front lines for tolerance.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.