In Austria, LGBT Jews celebrate gains despite setbacks

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salzburg, austria  |  At one of this Alpine city’s finest hotels, an Argentine Jew in a priest’s vestments is waltzing with a Jewish transgender woman from New York. Nearby, an African American Jew is swaying to the music while embracing a bearded man from Hungary. Spectators from 22 countries gather around in colorful costumes to watch those bold enough to dance.

The scene at the Hotel Schloss Leopoldskron was a highlight of an Aug. 13-15 conference for some 70 young Jewish lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender activists from around the world. They gathered to launch an international Jewish gay organization called Eighteen:22 — a reference to the passage in Leviticus prohibiting gay sex — just two weeks after the deadly stabbing of a 16-year-old girl at the Jerusalem Gay Pride Parade.

The tragedy hung over the gathering. There was a commemoration ceremony for the victim, Shira Banki, and fulminations against Israel’s government for failing to stop the perpetrator, Yishai Schlissel. A haredi Orthodox fanatic, he recently had been released from prison for stabbing three people at the same parade in 2005.

Eighteen:22 founder Robert Saferstein (in bow tie) and Jewish gay activists in Salzburg photo/jta-picture on the fridge-eighteen:22

Yet the Eighteen:22 conference — part of the Connection Points program of the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation — was no solemn affair. Participants came to network, strategize and celebrate recent advances in the fight for LGBT acceptance in Jewish circles.

Jewish communities around the world are seeing a shift toward greater acceptance of LGBT Jews in tandem with greater LGBT acceptance within wider society.

Gay-friendly legislation in Europe, Israel and the United States — where a Jewish woman of color became the first openly transgender White House official last week — is “setting the tone for the same movement within Jewish communities, which are not islands,” said Hannah Elyse Simpson, a Jewish transgender woman from New York. “The direction we are heading is clear and irreversible, but is raising fierce opposition.”

At the dance, Simpson wore a painted beard as a tribute to Conchita, the transgender Austrian whose victory at the 2014 Eurovision Song Contest highlighted Austria’s embrace of LGBT people. This year Vienna unveiled gay-themed stoplights at central pedestrian crossings.

Tamas Buchler, a gay rights and Jewish community activist from Budapest, said that despite rising xenophobia in his native Hungary, “these days gay men can walk around hand in hand around the capital with little fear.” That would have been unthinkable 20 years ago, he noted.

“We still have a long way to go before we catch up to Austria,” Buchler said, “but that’s where we are heading.”

In Mexico, Eli Nassau founded Guimel, the first openly LGBT Jewish initiative in the country, in 2012.

Meanwhile, in Israel, it has been a tough summer for the LGBT community despite the strides made generally in the Jewish state. Two days before the parade stabbing, two men severely beat three transgender women sitting at a café in Haifa. In June, a transgender woman was beaten and hit with food at Tel Aviv’s Azrieli mall.

These incidents are part of a rising tide of hate crimes in Israel, according to the Tel Aviv-based Nir Katz Center Against LGBT Violence. Its 2014 report documented dozens of physical assaults against LGBT individuals, and hundreds more incidents of discrimination.

Then again, some unexpected gains have been achieved. For example, following the parade stabbing, Jerusalem’s chief rabbi, Aryeh Stern, posed for pictures with one of the six victims — “an extremely powerful expression of solidarity that the murder prompted,” said Robert Saferstein, an Ohio-born Jew who organized the conference and founded Eighteen:22. “While the murder exposed the depth of hatred, it also made many Orthodox rabbis defend LGBT people’s right to safety and dignity.”

Cnaan Liphshiz, Netherlands-based Europe Correspondent for JTA
Cnaan Liphshiz

JTA Europe correspondent