Mom of slain gay Israeli tells her agony-to-activism tale

After Nir Katz came out at age 20, his parents began inviting his boyfriend to Friday night dinners. His army commander was so underwhelmed with the revelation that he told Katz to “go back to work and don’t waste my time.”

The reaction of Katz’s friends, family and colleagues was emblematic of an Israeli society that has become increasingly gay-friendly year by year. Gay soldiers have served openly in the military since 1993, same-sex couples are eligible for many of the same benefits as opposite-sex married couples, and Tel Aviv is known as one of the world’s most gay-friendly cities.

Then Katz was slain at the age of 26 in a stunning 2009 shooting at a Tel Aviv LGBT youth center where he volunteered as a counselor. The shooting, which also claimed the life of a teenage girl and wounded at least 15 others, reverberated throughout Israel and around the world.

Ayala Katz in San Francisco on Sept. 17 photo/drew himmelstein

Since her son’s death, Ayala Katz, 53, has made it her mission to support the families of LGBT youth in Israel and try to ensure that young gays, lesbians and transgender people are met with acceptance and support.

“Happiness can be achieved only when you are yourself,” Katz said Sept. 17 at Congregation Sherith Israel in San Francisco. The talk was hosted by A Wider Bridge, an S.F.-based nonprofit that works to build bridges between the LGBT communities of the U.S. and Israel.

Katz also spoke in Tiburon, before morning Shabbat services on Sept. 13, as part of Congregation Kol Shofar’s “Bridges to Israel” talk series, and in Boston.

Part of her story is how she lost her first husband, Nir’s father, an army reservist, in a fatal military training accident in 1990. Left alone with two young children, Katz got remarried several years later to Gill Shenhar, who had three children of his own. Katz credits the lessons they learned while blending their families — which grew when she and Shenhar had an additional daughter — with helping them to be accepting when Nir came out.

Katz said her first response to her son’s revelation was measured and a bit detached: “I hope you’re careful,” she told him.

But in order to fully embrace her son’s identity, she told the audience she had to let go of dreams that dated back to when he was a toddler on the playground — and she was playing matchmaker.

“I was closing deals at age 2,” Katz said.

Nir Katz photo/youtube

Eventually, she said, she realized that her children must be able to fulfill their own path in life, just as she had.

“My dreams for them are not relevant,” she said — though it helped when Nir pledged to her that he would have children one day.

Even still, Katz brushed off Nir’s invitations over the years to go to support groups or attend pride celebrations. 

“Our family is a support group,” she told him.

The Bar Noar youth center shooting sparked protests and vigils in Israel and around the world. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited the center after the 2009 attack, and President Shimon Peres said that “the shocking murder carried out in Tel Aviv against youths and young people is a murder that a civilized and enlightened people cannot accept.”

Though charges were brought against three suspects in 2013, all charges were eventually dropped after it became clear that a key witness had lied to investigators. To date, no one has ever been convicted of the crime.

Ayala Katz said that after the shooting there was a pressing need for young people to be able to talk about their experiences with each other, and with supportive adults. She was invited to become the chairperson of Tehila, an Israeli agency that provides support for parents and families of LGBT people. She served until 2011.

In 2012, the Nir Katz Center for Violence, Discrimination, and Homo-­phobia Reporting in Tel Aviv opened. Its function is to record incidents of abuse and offer legal and personal support to victims.

Named one of the 50 most influential people in Israel by the newspaper Haaretz in 2010, Ayala Katz continues to be a notable presence in the LGBT community. And though she always declined her son’s invitations to accompany him to pride events, she’s now a regular attendee.

Katz says her work has revealed no pattern that shows which families accept their gay children, and which do not — neither religious observance, political affiliation nor geography are predictors.

On the first anniversary of Nir’s death, she attended an observance in Beersheva, where young people held up gay pride flags “with tears in their eyes.” Rabbis and local politicians had objected to the event, but no local residents protested. A Yemeni business owner told her, “I enjoy with my wife; why shouldn’t they enjoy with each other?”

Drew Himmelstein
Drew Himmelstein

Drew Himmelstein is a former J. reporter who writes about education, families and Jewish life. She lives with her husband and two sons.